Sean Morrow
March 04, 2013 5:00 am

Pick out a sadness; one of those things in your mind – usually a result of something outside your mind – causing you to be less happy. Look at that sadness, whatever it is, and think about what causes it, what external struggle is manifesting itself as sadness in your mind.

Think: Can you change it? I mean that question in two ways and I mean ‘it’ in two ways: Can you change the external thing making you sad? And can you change your sadness with regard to that thing?

Serenity Now! That’s what I thought the Serenity Prayer was when I first heard the phrase. I honestly thought it had something to do with this iconic episode of Seinfeld. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m not a religious person, I was raised secularly, with no religious nor atheistic doctrine hammered into me (my parents have their own views, but I was raised under free thought, given free reign over my own mind. Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is the best way to raise a kid: give them access to books and religious texts and let them make their own decisions).

I finally read The Serenity Prayer for real in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (which I wasn’t a huge fan of, but I won’t go into that..) The Prayer goes, in its best-known form:

It sounded familiar in the way that all things that spiritually important sound familiar; it immediately resonated with me as it had been resonating with many. It’s a great sentiment. The great-sentiment-ness of it is what this post is about. But… It needs to be edited a little bit. I totally support the beliefs of others as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else (don’t tell other people who they’re allowed to love or how to dress, or etc.) but let’s make the prayer a little more universal:

Or, for the more confident and optimistic among us:

They both mean the same thing if you consider ‘God’ to be something within you, the original intent of Jesus’ message if you believe Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, aka the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

I’m not the first one to edit the Serenity Prayer, according to Wikipedia (research!) Mother Goose and 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva (which was my nickname in high school, Sean ‘8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva’ they called me.) got there first (possibly prior to the serenity prayer,) with:

and

respectively.

This exact prayer came into my life somewhat recently (and I refuse to let a John Green book influence my life) but the basic concept has been on my mind for a while. I once read an excellent book on stoicism called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which detailed how to apply stoicism to your daily life. Stoicism gets maligned as a philosophy of just not caring about anything, but the book adds more to it than that, putting forth the philosophy of the Serenity Prayer well, and it was something that always stuck with me, that always guided my decisions and internal reactions to what was going on around me.

I made myself consciously be less concerned with that outside my power to change and more proactive about things I could change. I don’t know if my life got better – it’s hard to compare the quality of one’s life in different stages, and it’s hard to define a ‘better life’ – but I definitely got happier.

The difficulty is in that wisdom, the wisdom ‘to know the difference.’ Wisdom is tough. What is out of your control? Like, if you want to succeed at something, but you’re simply not very good at it, is that out of your control? Is laziness ‘your fault,’ as in, is being lazy built into one’s wiring, and unavoidable if you’re just a lazy person? What about mental illness?

Are you in control of how you react to things–if someone says something mean to you, is it in your control how upset to be? I think it should be, one takes offense, not gives it.

Lao Tzu, writer of the Tao Te Ching is quoted (mostly by bullcrap inspirational quote websites,) as saying “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

A good thing to remember is that the past is out of your control, even if you did something wrong, something dumb, or mean, or thoughtless, or all three, you can’t change it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So don’t worry about it.

The past counts as something you cannot change, and thus something you should accept. Learn from the past, but do not worry about it.

I had a minor misfortune once, a valued electronic dropped on the street and broken, my butterfingered fault entirely. I remember looking at the thing, screen worthless, insides exposed, and thinking “OK, that happened. That’s a couple of days wages. OK.” And I picked it up, and threw it away, and went about my day. It sucked, but it happened. I didn’t let it ruin my day, or week.

That’s not to say that you should be cold and uncaring about anything that happens to you; humans are evolved animals, so emotions exist for a reason. Have them.

Your brain is turned on for a limited time, your opportunity to be you and experience the majesty of sentience is brief, so be happy during that time. Be serene. The only thing we humans can be remotely ‘sure’ about is that our minds exist–Rene Descartes said so–so make that mind as happy as can be.

To quote one more great thinker, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’

Featured image via Shutterstock

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