Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan: to listen to an audio version of this interview, CLICK HERE.

NG Intro: My guest, Eileen Flanagan, writes about how to apply the Serenity Prayer in daily life—to accept the things we cannot change and change the things we should change. She joins me to talk about her newest book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change–and When to Let Go. It has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won a Silver 2010 Nautilus Book Award. Eileen is also a popular speaker, appearing on television and radio, at national conferences, and on college campuses. Her topics include: how to apply the Serenity Prayer, how to live with less anxiety, finding your calling, and Quaker spirituality.  A graduate of both Duke and Yale, she teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Nadia: Eileen, welcome to the show and thank you for coming.

Eileen: Thank you, Nadia. It’s so great to be here.

Nadia: Eileen, your new book, “The Wisdom to Know the Difference” has been getting some attention lately. Can you give the listeners a brief synopsis of what it is all about?

Eileen:  The title comes from the last line of the Serenity Prayer, which asks for serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can change, and wisdom to know the difference. So the book is about how people find that balance. It includes lots of stories of real people dealing with life’s challenges—cancer, divorce, getting laid off, just dealing with other people—and finding peace and courage in the midst of them.

Nadia: I’m interested in what led up to the writing of your book. Can you shed some light on that?

Eileen: The idea started when I was pregnant with my first child. 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.  

Nadia: Who is this book for? Is it only for people in recovery or those that are interested in religion?

Eileen: 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. It includes a few stories of people in recovery, but it’s not about that specifically.

Nadia: So when someone is trying to make a difficult change in their lives, how might the Serenity Prayer help them?

Eileen: Sometimes we focus on the wrong things—the things we can’t control. We are frustrated in our work, so we think about how we’d like to change our boss. And of course, it’s very difficult to change somebody else. When we try, it usually backfires. But we can change our own attitude, and that often shifts a dynamic in our relationship and prompts someone else to treat us differently. So, we have to be clear about what is in our power to change and what isn’t. Often the first thing that is in our control is our attitude, which of course then influences our actions and choices. But we may not realize the power we do have if we’re focused on the ways we wish our boss would change.

Nadia: I understand you are a Quaker, but many of our listeners don’t know much about Quakerism. Could you explain some basic Quaker teachings and how they relate to the Serenity Prayer?

Eileen: 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.

Nadia: So how did it come about that the Dali Lama gave you an endorsement?

Eileen: Quakers have a saying, that “way opens” when you are on your right path. That’s how I think of the Dalai Lama endorsement. I had no special connection to him, but I put him on my list of dream endorsements, so my editor just sent a copy to the address on his website. We were both thrilled when he responded because I’ve heard he usually doesn’t. I feel very blessed.

Nadia: You are a speaker too. What kind of groups do you speak to, and please share some of the topics you cover.

Eileen: Well, lately I’ve been speaking a lot about the ideas in the book and how they apply to different situations. I also speak about overcoming fear and dealing with stress, which are related to my writing, as well. One of the chapters of the book is on seeking Divine guidance, which is sometimes called spiritual discernment, and I’ve given many talks on that, particularly how it relates to figuring out your calling. The groups are very varied. I’ve spoken on college campuses, to religious congregations, at retreat centers, to women’s groups, at libraries… One of the fun things about my life is that there is a lot of variety.

Nadia: This is not your first book, is it? You also write articles. Can you tell us something about your other writings?

Eileen: I blog for the Huffington Post Religion section. I just had an article on the Washington Post online about caring for our aging parents and how that relates to the Serenity Prayer. I also have a weekly blog on my own website, that deals with all kinds of issues like that. Mostly I write about how to apply spiritual principles to everyday life. So for example, my first book was about a spiritual approach to deciding whether or not to get married.

Nadia: Tell us a little bit about your personal life, and what you do when you’re not writing?

Eileen: I have two children who keep me busy. I’m also a leader in my Quaker congregation, which is a big volunteer commitment. But right now my focus is getting the word out about the book. Unfortunately writers have to spend as much time promoting as writing, but I don’t really mind because I’m passionate about the ideas in the book and enjoy opportunities to connect to people like you, who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Nadia: Eileen, I’ve enjoyed getting to know more about you too. This has been great to talk to you and hear about everything you are doing. Before we go, please give listeners your website and tell them where they can get your book.

Eileen: Thank you Nadia, I’ve enjoyed this and am grateful for the opportunity. My website is eileenflanagan.com, and you can find links there to Amazon and the many booksellers who are carrying the book.

Nadia: Bye everyone, until next time, this is Nadia Giordana, reminding you to “Embody your vision, it’s easier than you THINK!”

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