I WAS growing up in Nebraska, I often heard older people
say, "You can do anything you put your mind to."
This old saw was apparently one of those things that were easier to say
than to prove. Even as a child, I often wondered how it could be true when
so many things were going unchanged. We didn't seem to be able to do
anything about the drought and the dust storms. The depression had almost
everybody in a kind of economic paralysis. When my grandfather became ill
with a heart ailment, nothing could be done for it, and he passed away at
fifty-six. The conditions of our lives made it clear that either there
were some things we could not do, or we were not "putting our minds to"
things that should have been done.
Well, despite its shortcomings, there was probably a lot of comfort in
our old saying; it may have helped many of us survive some difficult
times. But it certainly did me little good in the final stages of my
drinking. If anything, it only added to my sense of shame. I could not
control alcohol, no matter how much I "put my mind to it." Worse yet, I
could not even stop drinking after realizing how harmful it was to me.
My answer, as for hundreds of thousands of other AA members, came
through acceptance--not only the acceptance of my alcoholic
condition, but also the acceptance of other conditions that seem to be
part of my life. I am not a wholehearted advocate of acceptance, and there
may have been times when I've thought that the idea was being used as a
cover for sloth and avoidance of responsibility. But I know from personal
experience that many things must be accepted, at least for the time being.
There are other things, of course, that can be changed when we "put our
minds to it." The hard part is in knowing the difference. What must we
accept, and what can we change?
It's all there for us in the famous Serenity Prayer, which now seems to
be popular with people who have never even heard of AA: "God grant me the
serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the
things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." This is the most
balanced approach I've ever found to my life situation, and I'd like to
offer an interpretation of its component parts.
To Accept: The primary condition I had to accept at the very
outset was my alcoholism, the fact that I would be an alcoholic to my
dying day. I brooded over this for a while, and occasionally felt a trace
of self-pity that nature had made me different from others. But this
rebellion did not last long, and I was soon able to accept my alcoholism
as easily as I accept the rising and setting of the sun. There is serenity
in this acceptance; the issue has been completely settled in my own
Surprisingly, there was a time several years ago when a well-meaning
individual wanted to reopen this issue for me. He went to some effort to
explain that AA's method of recovery was inadequate. A true recovery, he
explained, would permit the alcoholic to resume drinking in a moderate,
I could see that this argument was logical from his point of view. I'll
applaud any alcoholic who is able to prove this gentleman's theory in
practice. But I am entirely happy with what I have found in AA, and I have
no interest in possible ways of becoming a controlled drinker. I am also
able to accept the fact that this man considers AA to be an inferior
method of recovery. I was even able to accept, with some amusement, the
realization that my own prideful zeal in boasting about my recovery may
have prompted him to offer his criticism!
But what about other things I cannot change? Here the path becomes
difficult. I am particularly susceptible to fears that I may not be
measuring up in all things. At times, I make excessive demands on myself
and have trouble accepting any kind of defeat or rejection.
To Know: A possible answer to this trouble, I think, lies in the
third part of the Serenity Prayer, requesting the wisdom to know the
difference between what cannot be changed and what can be changed. I find
that most of us tend to be disturbed about things that are beyond our
control, if we would only admit it.
We all have to place the past in the category of things that cannot be
changed. I spent a number of years in misery and depression, but there is
no way of reliving those years. I said and did things for which there can
be no real amends. I failed to recognize opportunities which could have
I also have to place my physical and mental self in the category of
things that cannot be greatly changed. I have a certain kind of body and
mind, and each has its limitations. I am only kidding myself if I get into
some activity that overextends my physical and mental capabilities.
On the other hand, there are countless ways of turning liabilities into
assets. When I want to face it, I have to admit to myself that finding AA
and its principles was the greatest happening of my life. It wouldn't have
happened without a lot of misery and trouble. This is what people mean
when they say that they're glad to be alcoholics. We are not really happy
about the past, but we are glad that things turned out so well for us. If
alcoholism had bypassed me, it is unlikely that I could have done as much
with my life and found as much happiness as the AA program has brought
As for my physical and mental limitations, these are problems only when
my ego gets out of hand. There was a time when I daydreamed of performing
great athletic feats or tried to dazzle people with my knowledge. My worst
shortcoming in these areas today is overworking or attempting things
beyond my capability. On the other hand, AA has also helped me to use my
physical energy and mind in the best possible ways.
The really big challenge, however, lies in accepting other people's
attitudes and actions without becoming a fatalist or a pessimist. I've
worked out some generally effective ways of doing this. The Serenity
Prayer is, after all, a spiritual exercise, and we can accept other people
if we do it in a spiritual way.
The way I do it is to remind myself (a hundred times a day, if
necessary) that other people are God's business. They have a right to be
here, just as I think that I have a right to be here. They have a right to
hold ideas that are at variance with mine. I have no right to force my
ideas on them or to make them behave as I think they should.
Even if I disapprove of their behavior, it's something that I have to
accept. I may think that another person is destroying himself, but there's
almost no right way of helping him if he refuses such help. I may think
that certain people are a threat to me and to my family, but I must turn
this over to my Higher Power. Other people are God's business. He
obviously did not assign me responsibility for directing the affairs of
others, or He would have given me more love and intelligence than I now
To Change: The second phase of the Serenity Prayer has the most
appeal to me, for an obvious reason. It gets back to what my elders used
to tell me: "You can do anything you put your mind to." Well, not
anything. But it does hint that a lot of changes can be made if
only we have courage.
"Courage" is one of those beautiful words that is easily misunderstood.
It has often been confused with bravery in war or fortitude in adversity.
But it comes from the Latin word cor, for heart. When my elders
talked of putting your mind to something, they really meant setting your
heart on something.
A dictionary definition, of courage is that it stresses firmness of
mind or purpose and the casting aside of fear. In other words, if a person
really holds something firmly and deeply in his heart, he is able to rise
above fear and reach his goal. Since the heart is also the symbol of love,
this relates to another saying, "Perfect love casts out fear."
How does one go about getting the kind of courage he requires to make
needed changes in his life? The Serenity Prayer makes that obvious. It is
given to him by a Higher Power. If a person does not have the courage he
needs, it can come after sufficient prayer and meditation. On the other
hand, his prayer and meditation may reveal to him that he is trying to
change something that cannot or ought not be changed, for the time being.
Then the likely result of prayer and meditation will be acceptance.
This is something the older people in Nebraska didn't tell me when I
was growing up. They told me that you could do anything you put your mind
to, but they didn't show me how I could make sure that this was always
going to work for good. I did set my mind to a lot of things, such as
drinking, and it produced no end of trouble. The Serenity Prayer
apparently takes this same principle and causes it to work for me
instead of against me.
Here are some of the things that I've been able to change or to accept
through the AA program.
- General disposition. I always had a quick temper and periods of
depression. These have been almost completely eliminated after years of
- Jealousy. I frequently receive a few prods from the green demon,
just enough to know that he's still around if I want to let him in. But
it's been a long time since I felt the paralyzing kind of jealousy that
once almost destroyed my life.
- Resentment. I've often been told that we have to accept some
resentments. Well, all right, I'll accept a few. But if I have to accept
too much resentment, I'm going to be in real trouble, because I just
can't handle it. Fortunately, I've learned that most resentments can be
swept away if I work on them.
- Sex problems. Perhaps I'm judging everybody by myself when I say
that this is the biggest problem of alcoholism. I haven't joined St.
Augustine in celibacy, but I can truthfully say that honesty and good
judgment have helped me keep sex problems in perspective.
- Education. One of the things that grieved me the most was the formal
education I missed because of my early emotional problems and drinking.
I was finally able to do something about this. I earned my high-school
diploma in 1967 (at age forty-one) and last year received my associate's
degree from our local community college.
- Family, community, friends. Persistence in AA has also given me a
fine family of my own and, apparently, the respect of the community and
many friends. I had managed to become an outcast in my hometown in
Nebraska, and for a time I was even blacklisted in some of the taverns.
I cannot go back and relive those years of failure and rejection. But it
isn't necessary. It is far, far more important that there are order and
decency in the life I am living here and now.
I still go back to Nebraska every year or so to visit my mother and
stepfather. On one visit, a fellow who had known me "back then" became
interested in the new life that, for me, began in 1950 when I was a
patient in the state hospital. He listened with interest as I explained
how I had gone for years without taking a drink and had remained active in
AA during that time.
"Well, I'm sure glad to
hear all that," he said, as I stood up to leave. "And
your story proves just what I've always said. A man
can do anything he puts his mind to."