Serenity, in New Age culture, usually depicts the complacent grin of someone who has risen “above it all”. Clad in white robes, with a wooden chain of prayer beads strung around the neck, this serene being does 10-day meditation retreats, feels at home in lotus pose and is most frequently removed from society.
According to this view, being a part of society and family life, of course, does not jive well with serenity. The truth is, however, that we need serenity in order to function optimally in our families and communities. If we are removed from society, reserved to hours of daily meditation in order to gain serenity, we start to lose the need for it to begin with. In order to foster harmonious social relationships, it’s important to learn to relinquish control and simply let things go.
We live in a culture of control. We are berated with constant messages: control your nerves, control your posture, control your diet, control your emotions! We are constantly battling nature in order to make ourselves socially presentable. It therefore makes sense that we think we can control, not only ourselves but others and the entire universe as well.
In order to control others we manipulate, we hurl hurtful words, we delve out “the silent treatment” and we play games with others, hiding how we truly feel, all in hopes that they will respond to our prodding the way that a dog responds to a Milkbone. As we take responsibility for others, we being to find ourselves in an uncomfortable territory in which guilt, stress and intense feelings of responsibility are common terrain.
By controlling things that fall outside our scope of responsibility, we begin to act in ways that can only be described as insane. In the summer of 2006, I was convinced that it was my duty as someone of Italian birthright to watch every World Cup soccer game that Italy partook in. If I didn’t watch the games, they would lose. Their glory rested on my shoulders. Of course, I didn’t really believe that… not quite. But the superstition was enough for me to book the day off from work every time Italy was scheduled to play and find a good spot to watch the match. Oh, and that year they won.
The fact that we are random variables in the great big game of life, left to the whim of some creator (who might even be that tyrant in the Old Testament!) with no real ability to control our fate is maddening. Therefore we fool ourselves into believing that we can control things. If only we think positive thoughts – The Secret franchise is based on this fatuous idea of controlling the fates – then we can alter the course of our destiny. While we may feel positive and in charge in the short term, we begin to feel sick in the long-term. Practicing healthy detachment from the people and things in our lives that we can’t control becomes impossible.
The truth is that we all have within our lives a scope of items that we have control over. In my life I can control whether or not I study for NPLEX, how often and how hard. I can control the rest I get the night before and the sustenance I bring with me on the day of. I can try my best to think positively. However, I can’t control the weather, what questions I’ll be asked, uncontrollable nerves (even after 6 years of learning about the body I am still getting to know my own) or how energized I’ll feel. I also can’t control how well others will do on the exam. Because I need to score within a certain percentile, how my peers perform also dictates whether or not I pass the exam. In the realm of NPLEX, there are many things that fall outside my world of control. I can pretend that these things are in my control, I can pray for them to work in my favour and I can blame myself if these things go wrong, but doing this will only set me up for added stress, delusional thinking and, perhaps, a feeling of failure and eventual self-criticism. My only real option, when it comes to NPLEX, or anything in life, is to control what I can and let go of the rest.
This is why 12-step programs geared towards people living with someone who has an addiction are encouraged to recite the Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
When we feel particularly overwhelmed by a situation it helps to take a breath, recite this poem and then mindfully decide if this situation falls within our realm of responsibility.
Sorry, Italian soccer team, you guys are on your own from now on.