The Path to Serenity


“Do your work, then step back.

It’s the only path to serenity.”

– Lao-Tzu –

Have you ever been peacefully reading or watching TV or even sleeping when a thin buzzing sound zooms in on you? You swat, and silence returns for a few seconds. The next minute, it’s back, pesky, persistent, and irritating. (An African proverb says, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you obviously never spend the night with a mosquito.”)

Worry is like a mosquito, darting in with an insistent, irritating buzz. I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to swat at a mosquito interrupting my sleep. I’ve also woken up in the middle of the night to swat at a swarm of worries. That’s why, when I read Lao-Tzu’s advice about serenity, I took note. If you follow me on my other, briefer blog, Carry the Calm, you know that I’m serious about finding and maintaining peace and calm. So how do we find calm?

“Do your work,” Lao-Tzu counsels. Yours. Not someone else’s. Do what’s yours to do in your career and at home, in public and private, in response to issues you care deeply about, in relationships with family, friends, and co-workers.

“Do your work, then step back.” When I speak about child development, I often tell parents that raising children is like flying a kite. You hold the string and the kite as you run along the ground, testing the wind. As the air begins to lift the kite, you let go of it, still holding the string and keeping it short at first. Gradually, as the kite gains height, you let the string play out, and the kite goes higher and farther. That’s where the analogy to parenting ends, though. In parenting, we cut the string and let the kite sail away on its own. We do our work and then step back.

It’s the same with any of our work. In writing I have to decide, at some point, that I’ve revised to the best of my abilities, and I have to step back and let the book go out into the world. I’ve controlled what’s mine to control, but I can’t control how the book is received. I have to let it go. When I paint, I have to drop my expectations of creating some perfect masterpiece. I have to do my work and then step back and call my painting finished. I’ve done what I could. I can’t control how someone else sees it.

“Do your work, then step back. It’s the only path to serenity.” Serenity comes from a Latin word that means clear, cloudless, or untroubled. One definition of serenity is “utter calm.” I think of floating, totally giving my weight to water, air, my mattress, whatever is holding me up. Serenity rests on trust. Trust allows us to step back, away from the buzzing swarm of worries and rest, for “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich said.

Recently a friend and I shared a moment of frustration, amazed at how we wave away our worries, intending to be rid of them, but they come creeping – or buzzing or zinging or whining – right back when we least want to deal with them. As my friend detailed one of her worries, I saw it as a balloon. “That’s not your balloon,” I told her. “Let it go.”

I’ve since pictured each of us holding a bunch of helium balloons so that they’re level with our face, like a bouquet. But only a few of those balloons are rightfully ours to hold. The rest are not ours to deal with. Still, we’re inclined to fill our hands with more and more balloons that belong to someone else, situations we can’t control or cure. The more balloons we hold, the more they block our view. If we let go of the balloons that aren’t ours and let them float away, then we’re left with the few that do belong to us, and we can easily shift them out of the way or peer around them, under them, over them . . . we can see.

So check the balloons you’re holding. Let go of the ones that aren’t yours – maybe they were once yours, but you don’t need to hold onto them any longer. You’ve done your work. Now step back and let those balloons go. If they ever drift back to you, grab the strings for a second, but then toss them up and let them go again. “It’s the only path to serenity.”

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Kite photo courtesy morguefile. Other photos courtesy