My friend Diane and I were exchanging a flurry of texts. A dear mutual friend was in the hospital and had been for several days. “I am rather worried about him,” I wrote her. I was concerned that his care was going in a direction that would take away his independence–a precious commodity at ninety. As the morning wore on, I became more and more stressed over my inability to come up with a solution for my sick friend. “I don’t mean to stress out,” I told Diane. “I’m just struggling to get a grip on the situation.”
Diane texted back and reminded me that our friend was a grown man still capable of making his own decisions. That he had his own family. That our job was simply to love and support him as best we could. “Repeat after me,” she wrote. “We can’t fix everything. . .”
Oh. Right. I’d forgotten yet again. I can’t fix everything. I CAN’T FIX EVERYTHING.
This is such a hard lesson for me to learn. I am a very capable, efficient person, which, I have discovered, is both a blessing and a curse. Especially since I am also a giver and caretaker, which means that the lines get very blurred between what is my responsibility . . . and what is not. Unfortunately, I sometimes spend a lot of time and energy trying to fix that which isn’t mine to solve.
As demonstrated by the situation with my hospital-bound friend, trying to fix situations that are out of my control causes a great deal of stress. At times I feel like I’m running into a brick wall over and over again expecting to somehow get through to the other side. Even more difficult is the fact that some people don’t want to be “fixed” by me. As a result, my efforts breed resentment on both sides.
That morning, while holding tightly to Diane’s wise reminder that not everything is mine to fix, I revisited an old friend. “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” begins the Serenity Prayer. As I said the words, something shifted deep within me allowing me to take a step backward from the situation.
I continued with the next line, “Grant me the Courage to change the things I can.”
“I’ve got this one,” I thought smugly. “I never back down from a challenge. I can take on anything. I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and fix the world.”
As I stopped and pondered this line, I realized that I have only been practicing one kind of courage–an outward courage that faces down any kind of problem. What I hadn’t considered was drawing on a quieter, inner courage. The courage to changes things by simply letting the situation be what it is. The courage to step back and allow things to get messy or uncomfortable or sad. The strength to offer the love and support Diane was speaking of, instead of solutions.
My head full of new challenges, I whisper the last line of the Serenity Prayer, “And the wisdom to know the difference.”
This is where I usually get tripped up. On the fly, in the heat of the moment, the lines between accepting what I can’t change and understanding what is mine to fix get a little confused. My pattern–to help at all costs–is deeply ingrained. So, I decided to use some of my problem-solving ability and figure this out. I took out a sheet of paper and divided it in half. On one side I wrote: Things I Can Change. On the other, I wrote: Things I Cannot Change.
The results were interesting. As expected, there was a long list of brick walls that I’d been running at repeatedly–with the best intentions, of course, but with little success. I realized that I was going to have to commit to consciously redirecting my efforts. Learn how to love and support without trying to fix. But more surprising, was the substantial list of items I could change. These were my own areas of frustration or stress that I’d been ignoring while I was so busy fixing everyone else’s lives.
It was an enlightening exercise (and I encourage you to get out a sheet of paper right now and make your own lists of what you can and cannot change), and it will take me some time to fully absorb the lesson. For a while, I may need to jot down columns of what is mine to solve and what is not as each situation arises. In the meantime, as I learn, I will hold the Serenity Prayer in one hand and the words of my wise friend Diane in the other. I cannot fix everything.