Friday, January 7, 2011

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

I was asked to review Eileen Flanagan's book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change—and When to Let Go. You will recognize the Wisdom to Know the Difference from the Serenity Prayer. It is one that I have used for a long time in Al-Anon. It is said at every meeting. I have used it as a mantra when things seemed unmanageable for me.

The prayer is broken into three parts. The first is a hope that God will grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. This means that I am powerless over people, places, and things. This is Step One in my program of recovery which is really about my surrender. The second part of the prayer is about the courage to change the things I can.  I know that I can only change myself. And the third part is the wisdom to know the difference between these two: my powerlessness over others and my power over myself. This is really about discernment and choices.  I must exercise healthy choices in order to live a life that is happy, joyous and free.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference is Ms. Flanagan’s idea of a well-lived life. She points out that our culture stresses taking control of everything in our lives. It is stressful to think that we can defy so many things that are really beyond our control. An example given in the book is trying to defy aging by having endless surgeries. This may be a quick fix but in the end gravity will win.

I like the way the book is laid out.  It is divided into a number of spiritual lessons. All of the ones provided are good, but I especially could identify with The Courage to Question, Knowing Yourself, Practicing Loving Acceptance, and Letting Go of Outcomes. These are ones that I would like to examine in my review.

The Courage to Question is something that I have had to work hard on.  I grew up with conditioning from my family. The conditioning was critical and shaped me to not only be critical of others but to be most critical of myself.  In recovery, I have had to change my way of thinking. I don’t have to continue with the dogmas and beliefs of childhood but can exercise my free will to decide what makes most sense to me as an adult. Yet, the author points out the difference between willingness and willfulness. She uses Alcholics Anonymous as an example where willingness to change is more important than exerting will power.

The chapter on Knowing Yourself was another one that particularly resonated with my life.  So many of us are “expected” to do certain things in life, as pre-determined by our culture, our parents, our career associates, our significant others. As I was reading this chapter, I thought of the French sailor Bernard Moitessier who decided on a solo around the world race that he did not want to go back to all the accolades and cheering people. He decided that his place was on his boat and at sea so he pulled away from the race in the Atlantic and sailed half way around the world again to Tahiti. He knew himself enough to know that he would not be happy going back. This is an extreme example. There are other examples such as staying in relationships that aren’t working, staying in jobs that don’t stimulate us, or pretending that we are someone other than who we really are. Ms. Flanagan points out that facing painful feelings helps to not let those emotions control us, which could eventually lead to anxiety, depression, and physical ailments.

One of the great things about Practicing Loving Acceptance is that my relationships with others change as I have compassion.  I may hate the disease of alcoholism, but I can love the alcoholic. Ms. Flanagan points out that acting out our best self can make it more likely that others will change their behavior. I think about not trying to control the alcoholic, but going about working my own recovery and then seeing the positive effects that has had on our relationship.

Finally, the last chapter I want to mention is Letting Go of Outcomes. This has been the most difficult process for me. But if I fully accept that I cannot change people, places, and things, then it follows that I have to let them go to make their own decisions, have their own successes and failures. In the book, we are asked to visualize something that we have been carrying for too long. Write about our fear of letting it go. Symbolize it and then release it. I think that this is what I did in making amends to my dead parents. I wrote out the amends in letters, burning each one in a sacred spot, and having the ashes carried away by the wind.  It helped me to let go of their ghosts from the past.

I found a lot of profound wisdom in this book. It is about our self-discovery and the choices that we have in life. I like the example at the end of the book in which “I’ve got to be in my boat, but I’ve got to keep paddling. But it’s in this infinite ocean. I would just be ludicrous to think I knew fully and completely where I was going….Even when we’re paddling as hard as we can, we can’t control the ocean.” In our own reality, we don’t have to travel down the path of trying to exert control over others, but can change and do those things that will bring peace into our lives.

If you would like to read other reviews of this book, they can be found here.


  1. Finally I am able to let go of any outcome and what a blessing it is to at least 98% of the time just take care of my own stuff and work on how I react and behave as things progress in life each day. This book sounds interesting and because you, Syd, recommend it I am interested in getting it. I think hubby will want it too.

  2. Good job on the review, buddy. You gave us a fine distillation of the material. Thank you.

    Pat Old Dog for me.

  3. I think it would behoove me to read that book.
    I learn much from you, Syd.

  4. Syd, thought this was u. I read Mr. SP daily now.

  5. Whew! What a breathful!

    Anonymous #1

  6. This prayer is really simple but knowing when to accept and when to act is more difficult. I can get caught up in the wisdom piece and make myself crazy. This is usually when I am able to let go. Nice review.

  7. that's sounds like a book to read...

  8. hmmm I might just benefit from reading this book, imagine that.... me needing more wisdom! lol Thanks Syd!

  9. I'm so glad that this book gave you some new insight into this old but very useful mantra. Thanks for being a part of the book tour!

  10. When I first looked at the cover, it produced a wave of anxiety in me. "When to make a change and when to let go" I am still working on *just* letting go. Making a change is just one step too many for me at this point. Being still, knowing that God is God and I can let huge progress for me.

    However as I read your review, I felt better. I will have to check it out. Thank you Syd.

  11. Hi Syd, I have been MIA for a bit. I always love coming to your blog because after ready a few posts and the comments, I almost feel like I have attended a meeting. My little town is scarce on our Al-Anon meetings so the blog is a nice second meeting ground for me. Your review made me want to fly out and get the book, which I will. Thanks Syd.

  12. Syd... glad you liked Eileen's book. She's a friend of mine and I'm glad to see this work making its way in the world.

    One of my favorite parts was her inclusion of the perspective of a Buddhist monk:

    all best, G

  13. Hi, Syd, just popping in to say hello after days of not wanting to interact with others. I liked your review of the "Wisdom" book and have respect for your insights. Glad about the success of you cornbread too. It does look awesome.


Let me know what you think. I like reading what you have to say.