the wisdom to know the difference

the good people at TLC book tours asked me to write a review of eileen flanagan’s book the wisdom to know the difference – when to make a change, and when to let go. let’s start with a tidbit that resonated with me

“often when we accept something we shouldn’t, we feel resignation, rather than serenity.”

the book, as you might have guessed, takes as its root the serenity prayer

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.

the quote above goes right to that difference. how do you know when to accept something and when to change it? the answer is often quite muddled, and so we need wisdom. one of the ways the wisdom can come to us is through feeling into a possible decision. acceptance, ideally, brings with it a feeling of relaxation, of a burden lifted. and no, resignation and serenity are absolutely not the same.

a propos differences, let’s talk about how eileen flanagan’s oeuvre is different from other self help books. flanagan, among other things, is active in the quaker community, and you can see the quiet friendliness that we tend to associate with quakers all over the book. she does not wield the heavy stick that i often find in self help books; rather, she tells stories and gives gentle suggestions. each chapter of the book ends with a few queries (another quaker tradition). i liked this one:

“if you were to translate the proverb, ‘trust in god, but tie up your camels’ for your own life, what would it say?”

good question. i like the idea of translating proverbs.

the book is also well-researched. for example, she cites another of my favourites, andrew greeley (a roman catholic super priest who churns out not only one bestselling novel after the other but is also a well-respected journalist and sociologist), who “has developed a tool he calls the ‘grace scale’ that measures a respondent’s image of god … how we conceive of and describe god has profound implications for how we live.” flanagan talks about this in a chapter entitled “the courage to question”.

the serenity prayer is most often associated with 12-step programs (alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous, narcotics anonymous, etc.) interestingly enough, 12-step programs encourage their members to work on their image of god, even to manufacture one according to one’s needs. however, this is by no means a 12-step book; while it occasionally mentions concepts associated with “the program” and also tells the tale of someone in AA, these instances are just one among many. this is another thing i liked about “the wisdom to know the difference” – flanagan takes great care to present a diversity of experiences. the stories that populate self-help books often have a canned feel to it. there is always the 36-year old single female executive who is disillusioned with her career, right? flanagan uses those cliché sparingly; her illustrations seem a little more alive, for example when she traces the life of a middle class african american woman who is both bewildered and inspired by the history of her ancestors. this historical and cultural context is also something that sets flanagan apart.

i noticed that most of the sections i underlined where ones where flanagan cites others. a few more examples:

“we live in a culture [that encourages] people to pursue perfection and control. the result is inevitably frustration and angst.” in quoting another book i find quite helpful, the spirituality of imperfection, flanagan points out the “anxious determination to take control, to be in charge” engrained in our culture. replace that wilfulness with willingness, is the suggestion.

quoting st. teresa of avila:

“one day of humble self knowledge is better than a thousand days of prayer.”

and a quote from thomas keating’s invitation to love:

“the regular practice of contemplative prayer initiates a healing process that might be called ‘the divine therapy’.”

9 thoughts on “the wisdom to know the difference

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  3. Charles Somer

    I think the serenity prayer is over-analyzed.

    There’s a lot of fluff said about the serenity prayer ‘in the rooms/halls’

    I know it helps and brings serenity to millions around the world, but it doesn’t bring me serenity having to listen to people in AA meetings give their interpretation of the prayer.

    Just let it do its magic and get on with life…at least that’s my opinion.

  4. Craig

    I know what you mean about over-analyzing a nugget of wisdom like the serenity prayer. If we analyze too much at the expense of “letting it do it’s magic” then we lose out on some of its power. It is all too easy to anazyze something to death and still never let it’s message penetrate our own situation.

    Yet at the same time I think it is very helpful to question and examine proverbs and teachings, in order to make them our own, to see how they apply to our own life, our own state of mind. If we don’t examine then we risk being guided by our preconceptions rather than the magic of the present moment.

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