The Half You Can Control
“A little thought will show you how vastly your own happiness depends on the way other people bear themselves toward you. The looks and tones at your breakfast table, the conduct of your fellow-workers or employers, the faithful or unreliable men you deal with, what people say to you on the street,[...] the letters you get, the friends or foes you meet – these things make up very much of the pleasure or misery of your day. Turn the idea around, and remember that just so much are you adding to the pleasure or the misery of other people’s days. And this is the half of the matter which you can control. Whether any particular day shall bring you to more of happiness or of suffering is largely beyond your power to determine. Whether each day of your life shall give happiness or suffering rests with yourself.” ~George S. Merriam
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” ~”The Serenity Prayer”
In recent years, the serenity prayer has become a transformative mantra in my life. I wrote previously on how this powerful prayer has shifted my mindset to one of courage, when courage is called for, and acceptance when all is out of my hands. The courage part is harder for me than the acceptance, and I continue with spiritual work to increase my courage to change what I can. Acceptance of things I cannot change is becoming second nature to me, and the freedom that it offers is life-giving. I experience peace and the ability to breathe deeply in a vaster space of trust and contentment.
George Merriam’s exhortation to focus on “the half of the matter [we] can control,” is a prescription for smoother days, with fewer conflicts, less emotional turmoil, and less “drama” in general. What Merriam is writing about is essentially a transcendent manner of being in the world. How can we transcend the daily irritations, offenses, and complexities that threaten to stress, frustrate, and deplete us on any given day? We can adjust the half we can control: how we conduct ourselves towards others. We cannot dictate how other people will behave towards us, try though we may, and fret as we might. But we can be considerate and intentional about how we will treat the people we encounter.
If a colleague continually gossips about me behind my back, I at least can make a decision not to do the same. If a family member is insensitive and ungrateful in their interactions with me, I can remain sensitive and grateful in my dealings with them. In a world obsessed with fairness, this might seem unjust. But on the other side of a tenacious insistence on fairness is peace and self respect. I feel better about myself every time I take the high road in my interactions with others. It increases my confidence and saves me from negative thought spirals. I think, “I have done what I can. I have been kind. I have been helpful. The outcome is out of my hands.”
As Merriam’s quotation also suggests, I can actively seek to be kind and loving to improve someone else’s day even if my own day is looking bleak. I can offer support, forgiveness with grace and cheerfulness so that I can be an uplifting force in the lives of the people I see that day. That kind of demeanor is infectious, and I find it’s difficult to feel morose when I’m in the process of lifting up others. It is as American lawyer, orator, and writer, Robert Ingersoll once said, “We rise by lifting others.”
The emphasis on intentionally finding ways to build up the people around me saves me from excessive self focus and helps me become more humble. The events of my day, the behaviors people express towards me, are not the only concerns populating my mind. I make room for others in my day’s agenda which enables me to get outside of myself periodically, and periodic freedom from self-absorption can do wonders for a depressed or anxious spirit. I find this generally leaves me much happier and more grateful. By no means do I manage all of this perfectly. There are plenty of days when it is harder to accept what I can’t change or to be kind and forgiving to people. Sometimes I resist having the courage to change what I can, or I give in to irritation rather than focusing on how I can help someone else and be a positive presence. What seems most important, though, is that there is growth in my ability to respond to life in a more transcendent fashion. Every time I choose my new way of thinking and being, it becomes more ingrained in my character.
What in your life right now is out of your control? What do you need to accept? Is there anything you can change if you can call upon the courage required? How can you increase your courage? What can you do this very day to improve someone else’s day?
How do you think it will make you feel to be deliberate in your pursuit of lifting others up?