When I became president of my condo association, I started to notice that some neighbors were not particularly neighborly. People would do things like put their garbage outside their door and leave it there for hours before taking it down and depositing it in the dumpster. They would hang their doormat to dry on the railing of the catwalk rather than inside their own apartment. They would leave the laundry room door ajar, obstructing the view and blocking passage, and neglect to turn the lights off, costing the association money. They would stamp across the lawn rather than walk on the concrete path, or wade right through the ficus hedge, just to save a few seconds.
Constantly taking note of all these things did not make for a great deal of serenity. It kept me taking people’s inventory, and that made for repeated instances of annoyance, irritation, and just plain displeasure.
I thought it was my job to pay attention to all those things and do something about them. After all, I was “the president.” So I would write and post on the building’s bulletin board diplomatically worded notices gently urging people to be, let us say, a little more considerate. Did it do any good? Not at all.
Of course, I practiced surrender and acceptance. I was powerless. Let go and let God. Grant me the serenity. But these things seemed to serve only a remedial function, after a situation had already presented itself that I wanted and sometimes tried to change but subsequently realized that I could not. The wisdom to know the difference came after the fact. This was huge progress for this alcoholic: there would have been little restraint of tongue and pen otherwise. But I sensed I was missing something. These things were still troubling me. And I didn’t want them to. I wanted peace.
Then one day I came upon a little quote from William James, and I immediately saw the problem. “The art of being wise,” said James, “is knowing what to overlook.” That was it. I was overlooking nothing. I was paying attention to everything. James was suggesting I didn’t have to. Some things could be ignored. Wisdom consisted (in part), in knowing which.
Considered in light of the Serenity Prayer, that didn’t seem to require a great deal of “art.” I already knew that most of the things I could change lay inside of myself and not externally in people, places, and things. I knew that most of the things that people did were outside of my control. Hence, if I couldn’t change them, then it followed that I could ignore them. I could, in fact, overlook most things.
This brought me to a fuller level of acceptance. Serenity was more than accepting people’s offending behavior. It was accepting people. People do what people do, and knowing and accepting that disposes me to accept those things and be ready to overlook them the moment they present themselves. A particular offense is just an instance of something I have already accepted beforehand. I can dismiss it as more of the same.
Besides accepting that people are people and that I’m powerlessness over them, James’ quote helped me to see another reason why most things can be overlooked. They are just not that important. Most of what my neighbors did consisted of minor infractions. They were not of great moment. My wanting to change them lent them an importance they didn’t have. So I stopped wanting. Then I stopped looking. I saw the garbage and promptly turned my attention to better things.
Back in the mid-'70s, when I was going through yet another crisis and heading toward yet another bottom, I did what someone with my '60s rebel background would say was a very “bourgeois” thing. I went to see a therapist. “How important is it?” was the question Pauline would pose to me again and again as she tried to relieve me of my pain. I had no idea what she was talking about, and I’m not sure she did either. In any case, she didn’t explain, and even if she had, I probably wouldn’t have listened. I was, after all, drinking. Thirty-odd years and a lot more pain later, somebody did explain, and I was ready. It was simple. The more importance I attach to something, the more that something is going to affect me emotionally when life happens and things don’t go my way. Give it less importance, and the emotional impact lessens.
We have to reduce the demands we make on ourselves and other people, is the way Bill W. put it. But, of course, we make unreasonable demands because we attach too much importance to things and want them too badly.
Having connected the dots again thanks to James, I came down from my perch as “Chief Inspector” and began to overlook what it was now obvious I ought to overlook. Overlooking things as much as possible has become part of my daily practice of surrender and serenity. I try to take the attitude that most of the things that would bother me if I paid them any mind don’t really matter and are not worth giving my attention to. That applies to lots of things, objectionable or not. I don’t have to make a mental note of every person’s foibles, weak points, mistakes, and errors, much less try to make sure they know I noticed or try to correct them. I can give myself and people a break.
Knowing what to overlook is distinguishing between what’s important and what’s not. Things matter when there’s a question of principle involved. That’s where I have to practice the “art” of wisdom and discern what I can and cannot overlook. But, in everyday life, such situations are rare. When they arise, wisdom begins by seeking God’s will for me in prayer and meditation.
Anything that doesn’t rise to that level is not worth bothering myself or God about. Or anybody else. I can practice peace, calmly overlook the bad, and constructively look for the good and what I can add to it.
[Posted 11/07/13. Image: Bill W.'s house in East Dorset, Vermont, now named a historic place.]