Serenity is an Unconditional Yes
by David Richo, Ph.D.
There are some things in life over which we have no control, probably most things. We discover in the course of our lives that reality refuses to bow to our commands. Another force, sometimes with a of humor, usually comes into play with different plans. We are forced to let go when we want so sense much to hold on, and to hold on when we want so much to let go. Our lives—all our lives—include unexpected twists, unwanted endings, and challenges of every puzzling kind.
Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Protestant theologian, composed a prayer that has become the cornerstone of the recovery movement: “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.” This is a profound aspiration. But what are the things we cannot change? Are they unique to each of us, or are there some things that all of us must acknowledge and accept in order to find peace in our lives?
As a psychotherapist working with clients—and in my own life—I have seen the same questions and struggles arise again and again. There are five unavoidable givens, five immutable facts that come to visit all of us many times over:
1. Everything changes and ends.
2. Things do not always go according to plan.
3. Life is not always fair.
4. Pain is part of life.
5. People are not loving and loyal all the time.
These are the core challenges that we all face. But too often we live in denial of these facts. We behave as if somehow these givens aren’t always in effect, or not applicable to all of us. But when we oppose these five basic truths we resist reality, and life then becomes an endless series of disappointments, frustrations, and sorrows.
These five givens are not the bad news that they appear to be. In reality, our fear of and struggle against the givens are the real sources of our troubles. Once we learn to accept and embrace these fundamental, down-to-earth facts, we come to realize that they are exactly what we need to gain courage, compassion, and wisdom—in short, to find real happiness.
A given is a fact of life over which we are powerless. It is something we cannot change, something built into the very nature of things. From one point of view, there are many givens. In addition to the five disturbing givens stated above, there are also delightful givens: we experience bliss, our hopes are sometimes exceeded, we discover unique inner gifts, things have a way of working out, luck comes our way, miracles of healing happen.
There are in fact, givens in every thing we do and in every place we enter. A given of having a job is that we might advance or we might be fired—as well as any number of possibilities between. A given of a relationship is that it may last a lifetime or it may end with the next phone call.
I have found that anything that crosses swords with our entitled ego is a powerful source of transformation and inner evolution. The five simple facts of life defy and terrorize the mighty ego that insists on full control. Life happens to us in its own way, no matter how much we may protest or seek to dodge it. No one is or has ever been exempt from life’s uncompromising givens. If we cannot tolerate them, we add stress to our lives by fighting a losing game. If we can say yes unconditionally, our lives open to reality and our feet land on reality and our hearts bless reality.
Each of the givens or conditions of existence evokes a question about our destiny. Are we here to get our way or to dance with the flow of life? Are we here to make sure everything goes according to our plans or to trust the surprises and synchronicities that lead us to new vistas? Are we here to make sure we get a fair deal or are we here to be upright and loving? Are we here to avoid pain or to deal with it, grow from it, and learn to be compassionate through it? Are we here to be loyally loved by everyone or to love with all our might?
The ancient Romans spoke of amor fati, the virtue of loving one’s fate. Some of us find it hard to handle the anxiety aroused by the conditions of our existence; we fight against our human situation. The method for handling the givens and gearing them to our destiny is stated most clearly by Carl Jung: “Givens can be embraced with an unconditional yes to that which is, without subjective protests, an acceptance of the conditions of existence . . . an acceptance of my own nature as I happen to be.” Such a yes is a willingness to land on concrete reality without a pillow to buffer us. Such a yes makes us flexible, attuning us to a shifting world, opening us to whatever life brings. Such a yes is not a stoic surrender to the status quo but a courageous one—an alignment to reality. Once we trust reality more than our hopes and expectations, our yes becomes an “open sesame” to spiritual surprises.
Yes is the brave ally of serenity; no is the scared accomplice of anxiety. We find help in saying yes and in facing the givens through mindfulness—that is, through fearless and patient attention of the present moment. We also gain support from nature, from psychology, from religious traditions, and from spiritual practices.
Hamlet speaks of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” a poetic definition of the givens of life. When something happens to us that echoes with the painful thud of any of the unalterable conditions of existence, we can ask, “What can I learn here? How does this serve?” We can learn to trust the givens of life as having transformative or evolutionary potential. We can trust that the laws of existence somehow help us to achieve our destiny.
When faced with one of life’s givens, we might ask: “Why did such a terrible thing happen to a good person like me? I deserve better.” The mindful version of that question is: “Yes this happened. Now what?” We will notice we are happier when we accept what we do not like about life as a given of life. Our mindful yes is an entry into this sheltering paradox. When we make an unreserved consent to the things we cannot change, we are saying yes to ourselves, as we are, in our ever-unfolding autobiography. The conditions of existence are our personal experiences, not alien forces or hurdles to avoid. They are also the universal experiences of all people. Every human who ever lived faced the five major givens. This makes them part of being human, so they must be a necessary part. When we finally embrace the givens as extensions of our human selves, we say yes to them not in resignation or acquiescence. We say yes to the ingredients of our own humanity.
All the givens of life are based on one underlying fact: Anything can happen to anyone. This is the given of givens. Most of us have a hard time really believing this applies to us. We imagine that very good luck or very bad luck is supposed to happen to other people but never to us. To believe, finally and fully, that anything can happen to us is an enormously adult accomplishment, and it grants us two wonderful gifts. First, we let go of our ego’s privileged view of itself as entitled to special treatment; we let go of the childlike belief that a rescuer, otherworldly or this-worldly, will come through just for us and grant us an exemption from life’s hard knocks. Second, believing that anything can happen to us helps us become humble and helps us feel our comradeship with our fellow humans. “Nothing human is alien from me,” the Roman poet Terence wrote in the second century b.c.e. There is something so consoling about a sense of belonging, of being in it with everyone else, no matter how difficult life may become.
The givens of life are a code to our personal evolution. An unconditional yes to the givens is how the code is broken or, rather, opened. In the traditional Buddhist view, birth as a human is a great boon. In the human realm there is said to be just the right mix of suffering and joy for us to awaken, to become enlightened. In other words, the givens of life help provide us with the perfect, awakening blend of experiences. All things have a natural, irrepressible tendency to evolve, that is, to reach their full potential within the changing conditions of the environment. Therefore the hope we often feel so comforted by is not a foolish pipe dream. Hope is an authentic response to life’s inherent, irrepressible inclination toward fulfillment. An unconditional—that is, mindful—yes to the givens, without debate or complaint, is all it takes.
Copyright © 2005 David Richo, Ph.D.
This article is excerpted from The Five Things We Cannot Change and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them (Shambhala, 2005).