Q & A with Author Eileen Flanagan

1. What inspired you to write The Wisdom to Know the Difference

The Serenity Prayer asks for serenity to accept the things we cannot change and courage to change the things we can, which really helped me when I was pregnant with my first child nearly thirteen years ago. There were all these things I couldn’t control—when I might go into labor, whether my favorite doctor would be on call, and most importantly, whether my baby would be healthy. At the same time, I felt this profound responsibility to do what was best for my baby, so I took my prenatal vitamins and stopped drinking wine at dinner. Focusing on the things I could change made it easier to let go of the things I couldn’t.

I realized then that the last line of the prayer, “the wisdom to know the difference,” would make a great subject for a book. I could see so many situations where it applied. But I also knew I wasn’t ready to write it yet. Over several years I noticed situations that I thought exemplified wisdom, or the lack of it. I thought about it as I cared for my dying uncle and later my mother. Then one day, several months after my mother’s death, it came to me very strongly that I was ready to write this book. I stopped at a drug store and bought a notebook and scribbled ten pages of ideas right on the spot.

2. Who is this book for? Is it only for people in recovery or religious people? 

The Wisdom to Know the Difference is for anyone who sometimes stresses over stuff they can’t control or who puts up with things they shouldn’t. It draws on the wisdom of many spiritual traditions, including Twelve Step programs, but you don’t have to be part of any of these to benefit from its message.

3. Why is it particularly relevant to today’s readers? 

We live in an age of high anxiety. More than people of earlier eras, we think we should have everything under control, which only adds to the stress we feel when our plans are interrupted by an accident or a lay off. It turns out that despite all our technology and scientific advances, there are still many things we still can’t control—birth, death, other people, for example. Yet psychologists are discovering how much power we do have to retrain our minds and how that can positively impact our lives. The Wisdom to Know the Difference integrates the lessons of ancient wisdom traditions with these insights from psychology, giving a balanced, contemporary approach.

4. How has your Quaker faith helped you to learn “the wisdom to know the difference?”

One of the things that attracted me to Quakerism was the belief that every person has access to divine wisdom within them. By making time to listen to that Inner Voice, we become clear about what is important and where to put our effort. I’ve found that type of inner listening to be very helpful in my own life. At the same time, Quakers—like most other spiritual traditions—recognize that people are good at fooling themselves, and that we need other people to help test our discernment. Having a supportive community can aid in the development of wisdom, as well as help us to accept the things we cannot change and change the things we can. Those two tools, inner listening and supportive community, are found in many other religions, but they are central to Quakerism, though you certainly don’t have to be a Quaker to practice them.

5. What are some other tools that help people find “the wisdom to know the difference?”

Knowing yourself and where you tend to get tripped up. Being aware of how you’ve been conditioned. Some people tend to have a harder time with acceptance, while others are more lacking in courage. Very often we are stuck in patterns of behavior we learned in childhood, living on “auto pilot,” as one of the people I interviewed put it. Becoming aware of this conditioning can be vital in choosing new patterns.

Learning that you can’t control other people is vital, too. We tend to waste a lot of time wishing other people were different, instead of focusing on what we can change in ourselves. Sometimes accepting another person and changing the way we relate to them can transform a situation. 

6. You interviewed a variety of people from different backgrounds for this book. How did you find people to interview?

I started by asking people whom I thought would have something wise to say, often elders I respected. Then other people seemed to just appear. There was a lot of serendipity involved. At one point, I was writing the chapter on changing how we think, and I thought, “I need a Buddhist” because Buddhists have such a long tradition of training the mind. Two days later I met a Buddhist man who not only has practiced his tradition intensely for twenty years, he’s also been part of the recovery movement, so he had thought a lot about the Serenity Prayer. I felt like he was heaven-sent.

7. What was the most inspiring thing you learned from conducting the interviews?

I was struck by how resilient human beings are. The people I interviewed had faced a host of challenges: the death of a child, cancer, divorce, paralysis, bankruptcy, discrimination, homelessness, Hurricane Katrina, even Nazis—and yet these people were not bitter or broken. They had learned from the challenges life had thrown at them and tried to make the best of their circumstances. Often they ended up profoundly helping other people and changing the world, in their own way. I found that very inspiring.

8. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope they will feel empowered to listen to their own inner guidance. Each chapter ends with questions to help readers reflect on how the ideas relate to their own lives. That’s the most important thing to me—that people take the ideas that resonate and apply them so they experience more serenity and courage every day. I think the world would be a better place if we all lived with less fear.