Thursday, November 11, 2010

Serenity, Courage and Wisdom

The famous prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr (now firmly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous) goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

For an intrepid seeker of this wisdom, almost any field of activity will suffice, for it is more the seeking than the field that generates the teaching moments. For me personally, dealing with people, especially in the parenting relationship, has been the most fertile ground for insights.

I’m reminded of the young student of psychology and counseling who, upon graduating, wrote and published his first book “Ten Commandments for Parents”. After marriage and his first child, he published a revised edition: “Ten Guidelines for Parents”. After surviving the teenage years of his third child, he published a final revision, now titled “Ten Possible Hints for Parents”.

So, with seasoning at the ready (to eat with my words in the future), and in keeping with my newfound courage to share less-than-fully-baked thinking, I give you my view of what I can and cannot change, marked on a continuum of control.

A clarification first: control and influence are slippery terms, often used interchangeably. By control, I mean the ability to affect, manipulate, direct.

And another: for “others”, read “your kids”, and you’ll see the parenting fingerprints all over this list.

Let’s take a stroll down this list. It should be quite well known that you can’t control what other people think. After all, most colonizing powers around the world have been overthrown in their former colonies precisely because of this. However, when it comes to personal behavior, this seems to be a well-kept secret. We go to great lengths and verily torture ourselves in order to be thought of by certain people in certain ways. If you’ve seen a colleague switch demeanors the instant the boss walks in the room, a child begin to whine for the benefit of a susceptible parent, or young adults preen themselves in front of a peers they want to impress, you know how that works.

I formulated the High, Medium and Low Control categories over the last couple of months with my kids. If I want to stop them from incessantly playing tunes on my cellphone, I can either threaten them with dire consequences, or simply hide it and insulate the rest of my interactions with them from that minor annoyance (High). If they get bitten by the Silly bug when Sowmya and I are trying to have a serious discussion, I can negotiate a deal and buy some quiet now in return for a favor later (Medium). It takes some time and energy, and sometimes creativity, but the transaction has no broader ramifications. However, if young Master Roshan decides to do a lot of sliding on his knees, and starts ruining one pair of pants every day, I can police him for a while, but I can’t be around him all the time. Ditto if he tends to scratch an itchy spot of skin till it’s raw. I’ve seen parents and grandparents get into a complete stew over things like this, when the most helpful thing to do might be to spell out the possible consequences in a level-headed way, apply the best preventive solutions you have, and then let go.

As for the Full Control category, if you’re familiar with the stimulus-belief-response model, you’re likely nodding in agreement. However, if you’re given to saying “That made me so mad!”, or “This always irritates me” or “He is so annoying”, you might wince at the uncompromising nature of “FULL”.

Now, you could easily nitpick here, and point out that you don’t have full control of, say, how your heart beats, or that you can’t run a mile in 3 minutes just because you want to, etc. That’s a whole ‘nother topic, which we can take up another day. Because (HA!) I have full control over what I cover in this blog post.

What would you change, or add?


P.S. It’s quite humbling to realize that the “wisdom to know the difference” is merely the first step; the vast territories awaiting our exploration are the “serenity to accept” and the “courage to change”.

1 comment:

  1. Sree, I need to print this continuum and hang it on the wall as a minuitely reminder. The temptation to think we can control our kids, even after much evidence to the contrary is pervasive. Thank you.


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