Last issue, (Search “Lax”), I presented evolution’s three collaborative yet contentious cooks—variation, selection, and retention—and assigned them nicknames that express their personalities:

1. Lax: Loose variation, going with the flow

2. Axe: Discerning selection, the cut that accepts some things and rejects others

3. Ox: Persistent retention, stubbornly asserting itself to do more of the same

This week I want to extend these three characters’ reach, identifying other arenas where they appear.

The Serenity Prayer

Grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The serenity prayer employs these same three characters. The serenity to accept what we can’t change about our circumstances is Lax. Lax serenely (or complacently) changes to accommodate whatever the environment imposes.

The courage to change what we can about our environment is Ox. Ox courageously (or stubbornly) tries to make the environment conform to him so he doesn’t have to change.

The wisdom to know the difference is Axe. Axe selects between the two options, wisely (we pray) choosing when to be stubborn like an ox and when to be lax.

When we apply the serenity prayer to what we can and can’t change about ourselves rather than about our environment, Lax and Ox switch roles. The courage to change ourselves becomes Lax—the serenity to let our environment change us. The serenity to accept ourselves becomes Ox, the courage to persist as we are.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


This reversal of perspective illustrates two general points. One is that it’s easy to get confused about the characters because their roles change depending on perspective. Second, Lax and Ox reflect each other. The courage to change ourselves requires the serenity to accept what our environment imposes on us. The serenity to accept ourselves requires the courage to impose ourselves on our environment.

What’s sweet and universal about the serenity prayer is that it makes virtues of both courage and serenity. What’s implicit in it is that, when misapplied, both courage and serenity are also vices. The courage to inappropriately impose oneself on one’s environment is obnoxious and indulgent. The serenity to inappropriately accommodate one’s environment is cowardly and weak. We pray for the wisdom to use serenity and courage appropriately.

Note that Axe’s wisdom to know the difference is about when to employ Lax and Ox, and Axe therefore stands above and in judgment between Lax and Ox. So too in evolution, natural selection is what the outside environment imposes upon the organism’s balance between retention (Ox) and variation (Lax). Axe’s characteristic state of being a step above or outside of Axe and Ox matters in the other parallels I discuss this week. Sometimes Axe’s defining feature is simply this removed quality.

Take It, Leave It, Try to Change It

As I’ve noted before, when the going gets rough, you’ve got three basic choices. You can take it, leave it, or try to change it. Taking it is Lax, suffering your tough circumstances. Leaving it is Axe, exiting your circumstances. Trying to change it is Ox, persisting against your circumstances so as to change them.

Loyalty, Exit, Voice

Political scientists also talk about three options open to citizens who face political frustrations. Loyalty is Lax, going along with your government right or wrong. Exit is, of course, Axe—moving to Canada, for example, and voice is Ox, protesting, insisting that the government change.

Fear, Flight, Fight

The body’s sympathetic nervous system is responsible for three main emotions: Fear motivates surrender to a threat. It’s lax, adjusting oneself to the dictates of one’s environment.* Flight is Axe, cutting and running. Ox is fight, the stubborn determination to defend your established territory.

Me, You, Us

Interpersonal conflict gravitates toward the question of who is responsible for the problem. In a conflict, I could ask myself, “Is it me, you, or us?” If it’s me, I need to loosen up to accommodate you (Lax). If it’s you, then I need to assert my will so you change (Ox). If it’s us, then maybe we need to disengage (Axe).

Expectations, Plans, Goals

When we set out on a journey to reach a goal, we picture three things:

1. Our expectations for what the journey will be like

2. Our plan or path to reach the goal

3. The goal itself

If we encounter setbacks on the journey, we have a choice to modify one of these three. Changing our expectations means accepting the journey as it is, going with the flow, in effect, going lax. Changing plans means demanding that our expectations be met, even if by other means, in effect becoming ox-like or stubborn. Changing goals means exiting, giving the axe to the goal.

Say my goal was to stay blissfully married ’til death do us part, but my marriage isn’t going so well. I have three choices. I could change my expectations, saying, “My expectations were unrealistic. Marriage is a disappointment but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Adjusting my expectations to my environment, I would be going lax, employing the serenity to accept what I cannot change about my less-than-blissful marriage. Alternatively, I could stubbornly hold my expectations constant and change my plans, saying, “I deserve this to be a blissful marriage. I have to do something different to change what I get from this marriage.” My third option is to change my goals, saying, “My expectations were realistic and my efforts were thorough. There’s no way I’ll ever achieve my goal here. I have to give up on staying blissfully married ’til death do us part. It’s time to exit, to divorce, to get outside of this marriage. Maybe with someone else my plans and expectations can be met.

Id, Ego, Super-Ego

The id is your Ox-like inner drive to assert your will upon your environment. The super-ego is your environment forcing you to be Lax, compromising to accommodate it. The ego, Axe-like, selects or mediates between the two.

Notice that Freud’s model can be interpreted with Lax and Ox’s roles reversed. Your super-ego demands that you conform to social conventions, basically doing more of the same as everyone else. That’s society’s Ox-like imposition on you. And if your id inspires you to defy society by acting on your varied impulses that’s you being Lax with respect to society’s standards. One person’s Lax is a competing person’s Ox.

Here’s a ready-reference guide:

The three factors as forces in evolution Variation Selection Retention (by replication or repetition)
As personalities Lax Axe Ox
As Hindu gods (from last week) Brahma (the creator) Shiva (the destroyer) Vishnu (the preserver)
As types of adaptation (fit) Adaptation as fitting in. Adaptation as evolving, accommodating and asserting to fit your circumstances. Adaptation as survival of the fittest (throwing bigger fits)
In the serenity prayer as applied to changing your environment Serenity to accommodate your environment The wisdom to know the difference (to get above and choose between serenity and courage) Courage to impose upon your environment
In the serenity prayer as applied to changing yourself Courage to change yourself The wisdom to know the difference (to get above and choose between serenity and courage) Serenity to accept yourself
In everyday life Take it Leave it Try to change it
In politics Loyalty Exit Voice
In the sympathetic nervous system Fear Flight Fight
In questions of fault in social interactions The problem is me The problem is us The problem is you
Expectations, plans, goals Change plans Change goals Change expectations
In Freud’s work: From your perspective. Super-ego Ego Id
In Freud’s work: From society’s perspective Id Ego Super-ego

* Note how counterintuitive this seems—fear is anything but relaxed. But this contradiction is consistent with the way the serenity prayer flips when applied to changing oneself or one’s environment: When the environment “courageously” imposes change on us, we’re fearfully forced to accommodate with serene acceptance.