God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
- Reinhold Neibuhr
Isn’t it funny that, often, getting the long-awaited answer to a prayer involves changing my mind rather than changing God’s mind?
For the last 10 months, I’ve been planning a 10-year reunion for my Teach For America Greater New Orleans corps. No one asked me to plan a reunion, but I love creating ways to bring people together for a common purpose. I also felt giddy at the idea of seeing all of the awesome people I befriended during my time in TFA in one place again. I sent out a survey to gauge interest, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I began planning with gusto with a small group of fellow alums.
However, lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stressed by reunion planning. People haven’t been signing up at the rate I thought they would, and I’ve received several regrets from people I was sure would come. What if only twenty people attend? I also started regretting some of my event planning decisions. Costs began piling up at the main event venue I selected, and I worried we wouldn’t be able to cover them due to low attendance. Finally, I tried to arrange for some alums and our former executive director to speak or perform at our events, but no one responded with enthusiasm. I started worrying that on top of being expensive and poorly attended, the event would also be boring. Before I knew it, planning this highly anticipated event had become the number one item on my prayer list. Anyone who’s asked how I’ve been doing lately has gotten an earful about my reunion planning worries.
Luckily, I had an ah-ha moment last week when I read an article written by my friend, Lelia Gowland, and also saw a Marie TV episode on the same topic: negativity bias. Negativity bias is a human’s biologically hard-wired predilection to remembering negative, or threatening, events more than we remember positive events. It hit me that perhaps negativity bias was impacting the way I was feeling about reunion planning. While I wasn’t necessarily consciously remembering past failures in event planning, I was focusing almost exclusively on what was going or could go wrong. I took some of the advice from both Lelia and Marie and tried to actively think of the positive aspects of the project, such as reconnecting with people I haven’t talked to in a while and being able to use the reunion email list to help two of our fellow alums who are going through a tough time. I also stopped wallowing in worry and made some proactive changes to our event venue contract that mean I won’t be out a lot of money if there’s a low turnout.
In retrospect, dwelling on the negative is something that was coming through even in the way I had been praying about the event. I had been saying, “God, please let this event not be a failure.” Now I’ve changed my prayer to, “God, help me be at peace no matter what happens.”
In her classic book A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson describes the perspective shift away from anxiety and toward peace as nothing less than a miracle. Williamson writes, “In asking for miracles, we are seeking a practical goal: a return to inner peace. We’re not asking for something outside us to change, but for something inside us to change. We’re looking for a softer orientation to life.” And, indeed, changing my prayer from a prayer for success or, more accurately, a prayer for lack of failure, to a prayer for peace has felt like a revelation. So what if only twenty people come to the reunion? Even if only ten people come it will be a blast to hang out with those ten people. I’m sleeping much better with my new perspective shift, and the joy and excitement has returned to my reunion planning.
I’m not naïve enough to think that this reunion-planning adventure will be my last experience getting stuck in fearful, negative thinking. That’s why I’m thankful for the Serenity Prayer written (probably) by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s no surprise that 12-step programs like AA have adopted forms of the Serenity Prayer as a mantra. The prayer is both realistic about our limitations and challenges and hopeful about our ability to find peace through acceptance. I may not be able to end the negative aspects of life, but I can end my negative thinking through God’s grace. Amen to that!
Is there something on your prayer list that you may be (unconsciously or not) dwelling on with unnecessary negativity? How might a shift in your perspective change your prayer and bring you peace? I’d love to hear from you! Thanks for reading!