New Castle News

Lisa Madras

April 30, 2012

Lisa Madras: In times of trouble, hold Serenity Prayer close to your heart

NEW CASTLE — How did I get myself into this mess?

As a dyed-in-the-wool self-blamer, my life is oftentimes a sadly comedic personification of "Crime and Punishment." Flat tire? Must have driven somewhere I shouldn't have and picked up a nail. Boyfriend cheated on me? What did I do to make him stray? Headache? Must've had too much caffeine again.

I remember sitting in my doctor's office just a few weeks ago, doubled over in pain and clenching my abdomen. "What am I doing wrong?" I asked her. Her half-amused response actually stuck with me despite hearing it through what felt like disembowelment with a dull butter knife.

"Why do you always try to blame yourself for everything?"

It wasn't the first time I'd heard the question, but I guess it was something about the way it was asked (like she was talking to someone about as bright as a sackful of rocks) that made an impression this time. I just figured that if I could figure out what I was doing wrong, I could make the pain go away.

I guess it took a scientific perspective to make me realize that while I do control certain aspects of my body (eating too much = weight gain, or not getting enough sleep = tired and crabby) there are simply some things in life that the universe just hands you, like cancer or mental illness. (You'd have to be a pretty cold person to blame the victim for her own leukemia or bi-polar disorder.)

But that's exactly what I've been doing to myself for every single thing that's gone wrong in my life. I even remember asking a friend of mine, who also happens to be a therapist, several years ago how someone could have such incredibly awful luck in virtually every aspect of her life. At that time as well, I wanted to know what I was doing wrong.  

His response was, "The fact of the matter is, some people DO just have really crappy luck. I see people in my office every day making terrible decisions, like staying with an abusive boyfriend or not showing up for work and wondering why they can't keep a job. Sometimes I just want to shake people and tell them to stop being so blind. But there are people like you, too. People who make all the right decisions and still get the short end of the stick. Bad luck happens. It just happens, whether you like it or not."

And then the kicker: "You have to stop trying to control everything."

Ouch. It's no wonder I tucked that little tidbit of uncomfortable wisdom away until I was laid out flat on an exam table and given a second dose of it. Who wants to believe that you have no more control over your own destiny than that of a puppet at the end of someone else's strings? Or that a universe could be so cruel as to inflict punishment upon an innocent victim?

But the fact is, it happens every day. Disease, plagues, natural disasters, children at the mercy of abusers — none of the victims of these occurrences did anything to deserve what was unleashed on them. And many of us withstand similar fates, on a more private level, all the time. But we suffer quietly, and without the comfort of the arms of the world, and without community fundraisers for our plight and assurance that we have done nothing wrong and that all will eventually be all right.

And in that silence creeps the greatest misfortune of all: self-reproach.  

Of course, we have to always accept responsibility for our own actions, and we can even examine different possible outcomes had we made a different decision or chosen a different path. But in the end, if you did what you knew (at least at that time) was right in your heart, then you have to learn to let it go. Punishing yourself for perceived crimes isn't going to help anything.

It's times like this that the Serenity Prayer becomes a wonderful mantra. All my life I've seen it in numerous locations — on the walls of homes and businesses, even graffitied on the occasional underpass.

"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."

Ahhh, the wisdom! What comfort can be had with that little bit of insight.

If you are ever struggling with the compulsion to beat yourself up over things that, upon closer inspection, were not YOUR fault, but the tug of those proverbial puppet strings, hold this prayer close to your heart — even if you're not, by nature, a spiritual person.

There are things you cannot change. 

There are things you should strive to change.

And the greatest discernment is knowing the difference between the two.


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Lisa Madras
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