Control What We Can, Accept What We Can’t

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Diabetes serenity prayer

I have some close friends and family who have spent time in 12-step recovery programs. And every time I’ve attended an event or gathering of any kind, I’ve seen the Serenity Prayer. I’ve always liked it, and thought that it could just as well be the morning prayer for all us Diabetians. In case you haven’t seen it, or have forgotten it, here it is:

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 prayer was originally conceived (according to Wikipedia, at least) by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr sometime around 1940. It was quickly adopted by a number of organizations, and of course became synonymous with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Let’s look at this line by line, because I think each one has some pretty powerful things to say about how we relate to living with diabetes.

1. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

We cannot change the fact that we have diabetes. We cannot change the fact that it is an incurable condition. We can’t change the reality of what IS. And so we have to accept our reality. But we can’t just “put up” with diabetes — we have to live gracefully with it. We have to find serenity. Living with our condition really demands an extraordinary act of grace on our part. Day-in, day-out we have this unwanted guest hanging off our shoulders.

If we let that unwanted guest take over our minds and our hearts, we live a life of misery. We live a life of anger, discontent, and bitterness. And we do so unnecessarily. Because no matter what shape diabetes is taking in our lives, we can’t change the physical facts, we can’t change the reality of what IS. Fighting against it, hating it, putting energy toward how much we hate it, will only embitter US, and rob us of the joy we could be experiencing in other parts of our lives. That bitterness can consume you, and before you know it, all you have left is the anger.

2. The courage to change the things I can…

If all Mr. Niebuhr wrote were the first line, this prayer would’ve been forgotten by history. He starts by telling us to stop expending energy in the direction of what we cannot change, but he then asks that we USE our energy in the direction of what we CAN change. Taken by itself, that first line might be used to let us off the hook completely — “oh well, I can’t change diabetes, so I’m just going to be careless!”

The second line is all about managing our condition. It is telling us to stop being lazy, stop cutting corners, put up with the repetition, check your blood sugar even when you don’t feel like it, don’t snack without calculating, keep up the exercise routine…you get the idea. What I think is really brilliant is that neither line by itself works, but together they do. We can’t start to take on what IS within our power without first accepting that some things are NOT.

Think about that — if we feel like we have to control everything around us, we become overwhelmed and give up. But if we decide that nothing is within our control, we become complacent. Taken together, these two lines give us balance, and isn’t that always the goal of diabetes management?

3. The wisdom to know the difference…

I think it’s safe to say we have all had moments of “howling at the moon,” getting angrier and angrier about confounding blood sugar numbers that we just don’t understand. It’s so easy to get lost in anger over those little turns in our blood sugar and let worry and anxiety take over.

On the flip side, it’s also pretty easy to let ourselves become complacent and drop the ball on our daily management tasks — skip a blood sugar check, eat a little extra without calculating it, and so on. It’s so easy to slip into the ground of imbalance.

The last line is asking us to look wisely at our surroundings, to develop the capacity to clearly see what is within our control, and what is not. It is asking us to develop within ourselves clarity of vision that will allow us to quickly recognize our own behaviors, and bring ourselves back to the balanced middle ground where we greet with serenity that which we can’t control, and we greet with earnest work, effort, and diligence those challenges within our power.

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