Mind Matters — The Things We Cannot Change

Given all the self-help books that seem to pander to our fantasies of “having it all” and “all will make us happy,” David Richo’s book, The Five Things We Cannot Change … and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, is in itself a fortunate change.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous follow the prayer often attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “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.” Richo defines what those things we can’t change actually are.

He notes five universal givens that are our constant and unavoidable companions in life’s journey. Richo’s list:

  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.

Our culture often wants to be in denial of this existential situation. In the long run, such denial leads to disappointment, not happiness.

Happiness, Richo asserts, can be ours when we embrace these “five facts” and realize them as our teachers. What Richo refers to here reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s words about our enemy or our discomfort as being our best teacher. When the ego that always wants control is confronted, there is an opportunity for inner transformation. Is this a bitter pill to swallow or a delicious gift?

These five givens are our gifts, says Richo. After all, the word “given” itself has both the meaning of something that cannot be changed as well as “something that has been granted to us. Once we say yes, the givens of life are suddenly revealed as gifts, the skillful means to evolution.”

Paradoxically, the “gift” is hidden in the “given.” Richo reminds us that although everything changes and ends, there is renewal and rebirth, cycles and evolution. Despite that things don’t always go according to plan, we may also become aware of synchronicity and be surprised by new possibilities.

I recall a young man whose Ivy League university plans were thwarted by a jealous classmate. When he detoured to a local college, I wondered how he would fare. Well, he thrived in this community and later returned to become a tenured professor there. Instead of resenting how his plans were disrupted, he took the challenge philosophically, in stride.

Richo notes that, while life is not fair, we can ourselves strive for fairness and justice; that while suffering is a part of life, we can develop empathy by identifying with the pain of others; that while people are not loving and loyal all the time, we can respond with loving kindness.

When we don’t say “yes” to the “givens,” Richo informs us, we are searching for control. And control is “running away from life as it is” and straight into stress and fear.

We cannot have it all, but we can reduce our stress and fear by saying yes to the givens we cannot change.