Dealing with Reality

One of the many causes of emotional breakdown is failing to deal with things as they really are. When we deny reality, we are asking for trouble. Hoping for things that cannot be, wishing for things we cannot have, denying the way things really are: this is often the recipe for bringing us to our knees.

Thirteen years ago, Claire gave birth to a stillborn child. She has two children, aged 15 and 12, but keeps wishing for the stillborn child to be alive. She has never been able to let go of the child she lost and so is “stuck” in the grieving process. She is unable to face the reality of the death. It still haunts her.

Garry’s marriage ended in divorce five years ago. Yet he is still holding on to the day he and his ex-wife are re-united, even though his ex-wife is married to another man and has recently given birth to a baby boy.

Extreme as these cases may seem, we all indulge in variations on the theme of “If only’s”. If only Dad hadn’t died. If only I hadn’t dived into that pool and become paralyzed. If only I had worked harder at my marriage. Hanging onto the past for unhealthy periods of time sets us up for depression and anxiety.

One of the best reminders of how to face reality square in the face is the famous Serenity Prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The shortened, more well-known version of his famous verse is as follows:


Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This powerful prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous as their signature piece. However, the wisdom contained in this short verse can be adapted by us all when we encounter difficulties in our lives.

Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us to accept the things we cannot change. We cannot bring a dead person back to life, no matter how often we fantasize about the idea. If a marriage has broken down and one or both partners have moved on, that too, we must accept. Our children grow up and leave home, and the next stage of their lives and ours begins. We must accept that also.

However some things we can change and we ask for courage to do those things. We are told our marriage is failing, so we willingly go to counseling. Through bad habits of eating and drinking, we have had a heart attack. We now must take on the difficult duty of recovery and change our lifestyle for our long-term good. These are things we can change.

And the final request: “The wisdom to know the difference.” This is important because we need to know the difference between helping ourselves and banging our heads against the wall. Claire needs to go to counseling to lay to rest her continuing hopes regarding her stillborn child. Here, she needs to look at the first part of the Serenity Prayer. Garry can seek counseling for himself, too. Even though his marriage has irretrievably broken down, he can still talk about what went wrong and try to pinpoint problem areas in his old relationship so that future relationships have a better chance of survival. Here Garry would be utilizing the second part of the Prayer.

“And the wisdom to know the difference?” This is the true brilliance of this simple yet profound prayer. Discerning what we can and can’t control is the first step to achieving good mental health. Given its powerful healing wisdom, the Serenity Prayer deserves a place in everyone’s lives.

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