Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change—and When to Let Go by Eileen Flanagan

You are probably familiar with the Serenity Prayer: “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.” In The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change—and When to Let Go, Eileen Flanagan, a leader in her Quaker community, attempts to answer the question: How do we develop the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot? Using her own experiences and challenges as well as the stories of people she interviewed from a diversity of spiritual/religious backgrounds, Flanagan structures her answers around seven spiritual lessons: “The Courage to Question,” “Knowing Yourself,” “Seeking Divine Wisdom,” “Shifting Your Perspective,” “Practicing Loving Acceptance,” “Letting Go of Outcomes” and “Finding Wisdom in Community.” Each chapter includes an exercise as well as a series of questions to reflect on. The focus of this book is both personal and global: Flanagan examines how we can make changes (or accept what we cannot change) in the wider world as well as in our personal lives.

I was a bit worried that this book would be too Christian or too preachy for my tastes, but that was far from the case. In fact, Flanagan demonstrates that the spiritual lessons in this book can be applied by anyone, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or simply a believer in a higher power. There were only a few stories that made me slightly uncomfortable (specifically the ones of people who had heard the voice of God).

While reading The Wisdom to Know the Difference, I had an “aha” moment about the importance of accepting the way things are before you can figure out whether or not you can change them. In one particular area of my life, I had been yearning for the way things were instead of coming to terms with the way things are now, which has made it very difficult for me to see my options with any clarity (having things return to the way they were is obviously not an option). Already, letting go of what was has made a difference—and has shifted the way things are in a positive way. It was worth reading this book just for this insight.

Another point Flanagan makes that has gotten me thinking is that each of us has a purpose or calling. As Flanagan says, “While getting in sync with this loving design does not mean that you will be giddy with joy every minute of the day, finding your purpose often brings both serenity and courage, not to mention clarity about what you should try to change and what you should just let go of and accept”
(p. 85). I have known for a while that I’m not “in my lane” (to borrow a metaphor Flanagan uses), but reading this book has prompted me to reflect further on the fact that I don’t know what or where my lane is—among other things, I’m hoping the Discernment Exercise Flanagan proposes in chapter 3 will help with this.

Finally, there was one passage in the book that particularly stood out for me:
“Disciplined spiritual practice can be one of the benefits of being part of an organized religion or a community like AA. For those who have rebelled against the rigidity or sexism of a traditional religion, it can be tempting to adopt the comforting or fashionable aspects of various traditions, while avoiding the hard parts. You may wear Buddhist beads, attend a Native American sweat lodge, visit a friend for Passover, or go to church on Christmas, but never participate in a community that challenges your False Self. In fact most religious traditions have practices that are difficult, like tithing or fasting, which are meant to strip away your selfish parts and develop qualities like gratitude and compassion. By practicing one tradition deeply you can benefit from such challenges, which can also help to transform your attitude.” (p. 145)
Because I grew up in a secular household—we didn’t even go to church on Christmas or Easter—I haven’t exactly rebelled against a specific set of beliefs. However, I have certainly been a dabbler, trying out elements of Eastern spirituality (yoga, Zen Buddhism, mettā) and flirting with Unitarian Universalism and neopaganism at various points in my life. When I was younger, I shied away from joining any type of spiritual or religious community for fear of censure and constraint; recently the benefits of both regular practice and community have become more obvious to me—and Flanagan’s words are a further nudge in that direction.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference is an insightful and thought-provoking book that deserves to be read slowly and reflected upon in depth—something I didn’t have time to do as much as I wanted to before writing this review. I highly recommend this book—it’s definitely one I will be rereading.

Thank you to Eileen Flanagan for sending me this book to review.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in December and January. Visit these other blogs for reviews, interviews and giveaways:

Patricia’s WisdomConstantly Evolvingarriving at your own doorAwake Is Good (interview) • Serenity & StyleAlways Well Withinemilyism.comEvolving BeingsLiz LamoreuxEvenstar ArtEnchanted OakI’m just F.I.N.E.change therapyKnowing the Difference

Other reviews:

Book FetishGuinevere Gets SoberNew Consciousness ReviewThe Power of SlowSpirituality Practice

Guest posts or articles:

“Living the Serenity Prayer” @ beliefnetGuinevere Gets Sober“How Religion Changes Lives” @ The Huffington PostWithout Wax

Interviews with the author:

The Creative CompetitorEmbody Your VisionLynn Dove’s Journey ThoughtsBeyond BlueRead the SpiritSelling BooksShe WritesThe Social Work Podcast (with transcript)


  1. The Serenity Prayer is a favourite of mine, I have been considering it as a tattoo.

    I enjoyed your post/review very much.

  2. Thanks for a great review. This sounds like a book I need to read.

  3. This sounds like a book that I would enjoy. Sometimes I really need an uplifting or inspirational read. Great post!

  4. I'm so glad that you had that "aha" moment! I love it when a book speaks to me in unexpected ways like that.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  5. This sounds like a thoughtful and thought provoking book that I'd also enjoy and benefit from. Very nice review!

  6. This sounds like an interesting and though provoking book. I think I may just look into it.

  7. Hi, Eileen here! Thanks so much for the review. One of my goals is to make spirituality accessible and less "preachy" to people who are not religious, so I'm especially glad to hear that a dabbler enjoyed it:)

    Best wishes to everyone at the end of this year and for the new one to come!

  8. Adding this one to my List and loved your review for it's honesty. Well written and thoughtful guidance for your readers to consider.

  9. Sounds like a powerful and thought-provoking read. I truly believe that "letting go" is the only way to move forward in life. I think I would enjoy reading this one.