Why do we spend so much time worrying about things we can’t change?

I find myself repeating versions of the “Serenity Prayer” to myself all the time. As most readers probably know, the most popular version is:

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.

What I usually say to myself is:

God, please help me to stop worrying about changing the things around me that I can’t change. I can only change my reaction to the things that happen. I can only change myself.

Now, I would never claim I am 100 percent successful in this effort. I worry about things I can’t change all of the time, including in some posts on this blog.

But, interestingly, I have found that one of the primary messages of the Gospel, and the message we are about to hear in General Conference this weekend is: “concentrate on the things you can change to make your life better and to bring you closer to God, not the things you cannot change.”

Jenny’s boyfriend justified slapping her because he was mad about President Johnson

The world, meaning most of society around us, wants to distract us by having us concentrate on all of the outrages that we cannot change. Just to give one example, think of all of the apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change and how people all around us are urging us to concentrate on trying to change the weather, for heaven’s sake. (For the record, I do believe the Earth is warming, and that man has contributed at least some to that warming, so please don’t be triggered. The point is that if you stop and think about it, there is not much you personally can do about that problem, while there are many things you can do to improve your own life).

Think of all the things you can do with your personal life. You can eat better, you can exercise more, you can make a decision to try to control your temper in situations that make you angry. You can tell your spouse you love her or him. You can offer to help a friend who is in need of help. You can decide — today — to say sincere prayers twice a day and read the scriptures every day. You can decide — today — to make an appointment to go to the temple. You can decide — today — to do more family history work.

What are the source of stress and conflict in your life? How many of them could you possibly change through different reactions that you can control?

A quick story: when I was in my 20s and obviously the smartest person in the world (in my own mind) I found that I was always bugged by people at work. So many of them had annoying habits, or were just plain stupid, or not doing their jobs the way they should. And I had no compunction about telling these people what I really thought about them. And for some reason I was always having conflicts with people at work! The nerve of those people!

Now that I am in my late-50s I am struck by the fact that I almost never have problems with people at work. I really do get along well with just about everybody I know in person. So what changed?

It should be obvious that it was not all of the annoying people around me who changed — it was my attitude and what I choose to do with my time and energy. I find that I care personally more about the people I work with, and I know more about their personal lives and their hopes and dreams. And, miracle of miracles, none of them is annoying or stupid!

I really do try, especially at church, to see the best in the people in my ward. I try to support leadership and the people in their callings and to avoid gossiping and judging. And, again, I get along great with people in my ward and I have almost exclusively positive opinions of the people with whom I worship regularly.

It seems clear to me that one of Satan’s distractions is to get us to spend a lot of time obsessing about things we cannot change.

I have used the example of climate change, and I want to be clear that it is obviously a good thing to care about the Earth. The Church has actually put out a statement on environmentalism, which I discuss here. So, I am not saying you should not care at all about the environment or any other big issue.

My point is that there are so many things that should be higher priorities. Don’t be like Jenny’s radical boyfriend in the movie “Forrest Gump,” who justified slapping her because he was mad about President Johnson. For the record, I think LBJ was one of the worst presidents ever, and Jenny’s boyfriend was justified in disliking him. But the point is that you will be a happier and more fulfilled person if you worry about the relationships around you and being nice to everybody, rather than getting outraged about things you can’t control.

Yes, you should vote and be aware of the larger issues. But why do you care so much about who the president is and care not at all about who your local mayor or school board member or city councilman (or woman) is? Your local official is much more likely to affect your life personally, but I still have friends who are obsessed about former President Trump, more than a year after he left office! How many of the people who are obsessed about the former president can even name their mayor, or city council member or school board member?

One of the strange side effects of the pandemic was that policies would change from state to state, county to county and even city to city. One of the things that made the pandemic bearable for me is that I live in a relatively conservative area of Colorado. If I lived in downtown Denver or Boulder, where people are still walking around outside with double masks and screaming like lunatics at the un-masked, I probably would have had to move. But the pandemic showed us that local policies are the ones that can affect us most of all in our daily lives.

If we apply that same principle to other areas, we can see that caring most about things we can control personally — and really trying to focus on these things first — we can improve our lives in ways we cannot even imagine. This is why the Brethren spend so much time talking about repentance — because this is something all of us can do to make our lives better.

Elder Uchtdorf said it well last year in a short message called “Focus on What You Can Control:”

As a fighter pilot and airline captain, I learned that while I could not choose the adversity I would encounter during a flight, I could choose how I prepared and how I reacted. What is needed during times of crisis is calm and clear-headed trust.

How do we do this?

We face the facts and return to the fundamentals, to the basic gospel principles, to what matters most. You strengthen your private religious behavior—like prayer and scripture study and keeping God’s commandments. You make the decisions based on best proven practices.

Focus on the things you can do and not on the things you cannot do.

You muster your faith. And you listen for the guiding word of the Lord and His prophet to lead you to safety.

As usual, Elder Uchtdorf is right. So as we prepare for General Conference tomorrow, it is a good idea to remember that our sights should be set on what we can control. We can actually have an effect on the local things around us in terms of politics and society, and we can have an effect on how we interact with friends and family, and we can change ourselves. We are not very likely to be able to change the weather, among other things.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

3 thoughts on “Why do we spend so much time worrying about things we can’t change?

  1. In preparation for General Conference I “fasted” from media during the month of March. I feel so much better that I decided to continue. It is too easy for me to get worked up about all the troubles in the world, that I can do nothing about, and then not have energy to live life and take care of myself and family.
    One of my favorite history teachers in college would tell us all about what the king, pharaoh, or other ruler had done and then she’d say, “Now as for the rest of us peasants . . .” and tell us about what everyday people were doing. She taught me that no matter who is in power, life goes on and most of us are unaffected to any life changing degree by what goes on at the national leadership level. Yes, bad policies make life harder, but for the most part we just keep working, raising families and living life to the best of our abilities.
    I’m so grateful to have knowledge of the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation. Mortal life would be unbearable otherwise. Looking forward to the encouragement of General Conference!

  2. For every evil under the sun,
    There is a remedy or there is none.
    If there be one, seek till you find it.
    If there be not any, then never mind it.


  3. “God, please help me to stop worrying about changing the things around me that I can’t change. I can only change my reaction to the things that happen. I can only change myself.”

    “The Enchiridion” by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus helped me in how to control my reaction, and how to connect that process to the gospel.

    Epictetus was not formally a Christian, as far as I know. But I think be was a pious God-believer.

    Anyway, that book — https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/45109
    helped, along with his “Golden Sayings.”

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