Knowing What You Can Change and What You Can’t Change
How can we focus more on what we can control in our lives.
Here’s a fun fact that should take some of the stress out of your day. Everyone you’ve ever met is an amateur at life. You’re not the only person here who has no clue what they’re doing because not one person alive has been through this before.
It’s the first run for all of us. There are no pros. Some people may appear to better at this thing called life, whatever it is, but they, just like you, and just like me, are only winging it.
We are all students in the game of life
Some people may have stumbled on better strategies for success or happiness, but more often than not, that kind of wisdom comes from a lifetime of painful mistakes. Sometimes it can be gleaned from years of studying philosophy and psychology to understand the world we find ourselves in, as well as the world within ourselves.
I’m far from a professional at life, but years of studying ancient and contemporary wisdom as well as suffering through my share of mistakes with my eyes open, has given me some wisdom I feel compelled to share with my fellow amateurs.
The serenity affirmation
One of the most valuable pieces of wisdom that has been best expressed is a prayer. I’m far from religious, but the prayer is still familiar to me as it probably will be to you. It’s recited at every Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step program. It goes like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. An immense amount of wisdom condensed into a single sentence. The Serenity Prayer does not have to be a call to a deity but is perfectly effective as a call to oneself. Control and acceptance. What you can change and what you can’t. This is the key to creating a good life, being effective without undue stress in the areas you can do nothing about. The serenity in the prayer is the non-judgmental acceptance taught in eastern religions for centuries. The courage is the western self-determination that defines the American spirit. And the wisdom? Well that’s perhaps the hardest part. But let’s start by assuming everything is unchangeable and see what can be moved into the changeable category.
What can we control?
Most all adults have control over what they choose to do with their bodies, such as where to move them and when. And even people who that don’t (soldiers, prisoners, paraplegics), still have control over what they do with their minds. Every conscious person alive has voluntary control over where they choose to direct their attention. With practiced voluntary control over our attention we can gain voluntary control over our emotions and thus self-mastery.
Make no mistake, control over emotions doesn’t just improve your inner life, but profoundly improves the decisions you make in this world, big and small, that will compound to create a vastly different future than the one in which you let yourself be a slave to your impulses and had let your attention steer you instead of the other way around.So no matter where you are in life, there is at least this one thing you can do that will influence your future. Understanding this is essential to the wisdom to know the difference because it is the ground of our control and the insurance we have against feeling helpless and thus actually being helpless.
It’s all about what we focus on
So while we may have only limited control over things like how good looking we are, how rich we are, or how smart we are, every person can learn complete control over how much time they spend thinking about these shortcomings. And by doing so they create a synergy between courage and serenity. By summoning the courage to control where we direct our attention we can train ourselves in the art of acceptance.
So how do we use this power of attentional control to gain sway over our emotions and over our future? Well there’s three dimensions your awareness can be at any given time: the past, the present, and the future. Putting our attention on the past is necessary for remembering and learning, placing attention on the future is necessary for planning and imagining, and the present is where life actually takes place. The future and the past however can be breeding grounds for unhealthy emotions like fear and regret, but there are exercises we can do to instead turn all three attentional time zones into productive factories for positive emotions.
Generating positive emotions
To address unhealthy emotions about the past we can direct our attention towards gratitude and forgiveness. Being grateful about the good things in your past intensifies positive memories and forgiving past wrongs defuses the bitterness that makes life satisfaction impossible.
To improve your outlook towards the future, teach yourself to reframe your inner self-talk by stopping and paying attention to your thoughts when things go wrong. How we deal with adversity is something we’ve learned throughout our lives and it is the key to a can-do mindset and a successful life. It is the difference between those who believe they’re abilities are what they are for better or worse, and those who build on their abilities, day-after-day, month-after-month, and year-after-year. Disputing negative inner dialogue is in essence what is learned in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most popular forms of therapy today.
Make the most of your present moment
Finally, to maximize the present moment, take up mindfulness meditation to learn how to be in the present moment so you can savor it and so you can show up with your most full self in both your work life and family life. Spend less time alone and more time with people and in groups because we are social animals and our lives’ only make sense in relation to other people. Use your newfound mindfulness to practice vital engagement in all of your tasks and relationships.Savor the good things in life as they are happening, especially the small ones, because there are so many more of them. Most importantly find a calling. Find an activity that puts you in a state of flow, whether it’s writing symphonies or cleaning floors, and find a way to make that activity your vocation, this is the true path to self-actualization because once you have a calling, a lot of other things, like money and recognition, suddenly don’t seem quite as important. Work becomes something you do for its own sake, and the material rewards are just icing on the cake. To turn a vocation into a calling however, you must find not only flow in the activity, but purpose as well. It’s not necessarily easy but finding something that aligns flow experiences with purpose or meaning, and also provides the material compensation to qualify as work is how we can become something akin to professionals at living life, even though it’s just our first run.