Finding Serenity in 2023
The change of year is a good time for reflection.
Over Christmas and the New Year, the Serenity Prayer has appeared in my reading, watching, and listening on more than one occasion. Attributed to the American theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, the prayer was originally composed in 1933 and it spread rapidly through church groups in the 1930’s before being adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and the recovery community in the early 40’s. Different versions exist but it is commonly quoted as:
"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."
‘New year, new you’, a phrase you may well have heard quite a lot over the last two weeks. This time last year I spoke to you about the fact that, like millions of others almost every year of my adult life has begun with a plan for self-improvement and a set of resolutions that I am determined to keep. There is considerable social pressure surrounding new year’s resolutions and consequently goals are often unrealistic, set for the wrong reasons, and regularly unsuccessful. A frequently-sited study published in 1989 found that 77% of people kept their resolutions for one week, 43% for three months and only 19% for two years. Another more recent study published in March 2022 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that only 46% of resolvers reported successfully sticking to their resolutions six months into the new year. So, this year I am going to spare myself the pressure and anxiety of setting and publicly declaring my new year’s resolutions.
Having heard it referenced on several podcasts as well as seeing it sat on Dr Burley’s bookshelf, in October I started reading The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.
The Daily Stoic is a page-a-day guidebook. Each page presents a quotation from stoic philosophers like Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the playwright Seneca or Epictetus. The Daily Stoic’s entry for the first of January is a quote from Epictetus who, unlike Marcus Aurelius Epictetus, wasn’t an emperor. The name Epictetus means acquired and he was born into slavery and physically disabled. The psychologist Albert Ellis, one of the originators of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, cites a quote from Epictetus as influencing his entire therapeutic approach.
"Man is disturbed not by things, but by the view he takes of them."
The passage from Epictetus selected by Holiday for New Year’s Day has a similar theme:
"The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…"
One of Holiday’s commentaries later in the book identifies the three most essential principals of stoic philosophy:
- Control your perceptions
- Direct your actions properly
- Accept what is outside your control
The Serenity Prayer and Stoicism are aligned - they offer a philosophy that has been credited with helping addicts, those experiencing depression, and others facing the most trying of circumstances, but it is equally applicable to us every day and can help us to be more productive and happier. Effort focused on that which is beyond our control is wasted energy that would be far better spent elsewhere. When we tie our happiness to that which is beyond our control - results and outcomes like salary, victory, or relationships - we place our wellbeing in the hands of forces outside ourselves.
The stoics are not advocating fatalism. This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t work hard to make our preferred outcomes more probable, but that we should recognise that they are dependent on external factors and therefore whilst we can influence them, we cannot control them, and we should instead seek fulfilment in our efforts rather than their results. Stoicism also encourages us to focus on the one thing we can always control. Even in the most challenging times - redundancy, bereavement, rejected job or university applications, events that are all beyond our power to control - are still circumstances that our minds have the power to choose our response to. As Epictetus wrote:
"I cannot escape death…but I can escape the fear of death."
This ability, possessed by us all, can give us control over our wellbeing in what is essentially an uncontrollable world. So, this January I haven’t made any specific resolutions but, inspired by Epictetus, I have resolved to try and be more Stoic and to remember the words of the Serenity Prayer. To identify and accept that which I cannot change and have the courage to change that which I can, principally my sometimes-negative responses to that which is beyond my control.
This won’t be easy, but early indicators are encouraging! I’m an early starter. The ‘golden hours’ before pupils and colleagues arrive at school are the time when a significant amount of my work is completed, before the demands of others and the events of the day take over. In theory, my daily commute is forty minutes door-to-door. Sometimes this becomes an hour, and on some joyous occasions, dependent on a range of variables including, but not limited to, the weather, the day of the week and the decisions of other road users, is anything up to an hour and a half. On these occasions work is not being done, e-mails are going unanswered, the inbox is filling up and the to-do list expanding. No amount of bemoaning my rotten luck or yelling at the motorway gods can change the situation. The traffic jam in which I am sat is, to use the words of Epictetus, ‘an external not under my control’. Yet despite this, my reaction is often one of frustration which can cast a shadow over the entire day.
Yesterday morning was bleak, dark, and wet and the journey that had taken 45 minutes on Monday took well over an hour. Sat in traffic on the M42, staring at the bumper and brake lights of the car in front of me, and realising that I was going to arrive at school substantially later than I’d hoped, I remembered Epictetus and the words of the Serenity Prayer and focused on identifying the difference between what I could change, my reaction and that which I couldn’t: the weather and the volume of traffic. Consequently, rather than railing against the injustice of it all, I accepted the situation and made the most of it by settling in to listen to a podcast. I arrived half an hour later than planned but calm and relaxed and the day got better from that point forward.
I must admit that my newfound serenity was tested last night when I drove into the second traffic jam of the week, but like any change of habit, progress won’t be linear and I can already see the potential benefits of being more stoic and focusing on that which I can control rather than that which I can’t.