To Know the Difference

By Fred S

In June of 1995 I left the court-ordered residential treatment center which had been my home for the past five months.  I was sent there after drunkenly causing a car wreck and being convicted of felony Intoxication Assault.  While there I faced my step one powerlessness, immersed myself in the AA program and learned how to extract what I needed to maintain sobriety while sidestepping the religious aspects.  I particularly appreciated the insight contained in “the serenity prayer”, as it is called.  I dismissed the prayer aspect, and in my mind the words “God grant me…” became “I will draw up from inside myself…” or, “I will cultivate the qualities of…” or, “I will be guided by…”.

As I left the center, my earthly possessions consisted of three changes of clothes; a stack of recovery-related literature; and a car 600 miles away with four flat tires, an expired inspection sticker and no insurance.

Aged 42, I had earned an Associate of Arts in computer science in 1993, and before the wreck I had been in my senior year of college toward a Bachelor of Science in computer programming.  That was gone now, but I still hoped for employment using my programming skills.  However, I was only able to find work as a data entry clerk at a steel fabrication plant.  This job offered me the stability I needed in that first year of recovery, but beyond that, it presented a significant opportunity to apply the wisdom of the serenity prayer in a real life experience.

The job consisted of reading data from blueprints and converting that  information to a computer file that could be understood by the CNC machines in the shop.  Our computers used the MS-DOS operating system, which could only run one program at a time; multi-tasking would come later with Windows.  So to process one blueprint we would start a computer program, enter some data into it, save that to a file, close the program, start another program, open the saved file, edit the data, save it off again, close that program, open another one, make further edits, and so forth… in all we went through nine programs to produce the file that the shop machines could understand.

With a software developer’s knowledge of computers, I explored the contents of mine at work, and soon discovered that hidden in its file system was a software development application which I could use to write computer programs.  When I found that, I said to myself, “I’m going to automate our process.  We won’t have to start and stop nine programs any more; we will just start this program I write, and it will handle everything else through to the end, only stopping when it needs input from the user.”

So I began working on it when I wasn’t working on an assigned blueprint.  It wasn’t a simple task.  Sometimes there were multiple possible choices a user could make, with a different action taken for each one; I had to write code that would perform each of those actions, and then I had to run my program and test each of those possible choices to be sure they all worked properly.  I looked forward to showing it to my manager and the team, but held off doing so until I was sure I had worked out all the bugs.

I was almost finished, just doing a few final touchups and getting ready to show everyone, when one day my manager, Freddy, was walking behind my desk as I was running the program.  He stopped and watched until it finished, and asked, “What was that, that was running on your screen just now?”  So I explained to him what I was doing, and and ran the program again for him.  “Hmm,” he said, and went on into his office.

The next day I came in to find that the code files I had been writing were gone from my work computer.  Freddy called me into his office.  “Don’t be fooling with that stuff,” he said.  “You’re not here to be playing around.  Just do the work you’re hired to do.  I don’t want to find out you’ve been messing with that stuff again.”  I tried to explain the value of the program, but he said, “That’s all.  Go on back to your desk.”

A couple of days later, Freddy called me into his office.  On his screen he had the source code of my program.  “Here,” he said, pointing at the screen.  “What is it you’re doing here,  ‘is less than, is greater than’… what is that?”

“Is not equal to,” I said, telling him one of the most basic comparison operators in the programming world.

“Oh, ‘is not equal to’, gotcha.  Okay, you can go on back now.”

This happened several more times over the next couple of days, and a couple of times he actually got up from his chair and had me sit down and edit some of the code rather than trying to explain it to him.  I was happy with his continued interest in the program.  I thought, “Any day now he’s going to have me finish it so the team can use it.”

One morning I came in, and one of my coworkers excitedly greeted me with, “Have you seen the program Freddy wrote?  Man, it’s fabulous.  It automates everything we do.  That program will probably cut our man-hours by half or better.  Freddy’s gonna be upper management’s fair-haired boy for a while.  He’ll probably get a promotion for this; a raise for sure.”

In shock and disbelief I said, “Wait… Freddy said he wrote that program?  I wrote that program.”

My coworker’s smile faded and he broke eye contact as he said, “Oh, he said you helped him on it some.”

Now consider my options.

  • Confront Freddy and demand that he tell everyone the truth. Oh, yeah, that’s going to work.
  • Tell everyone the truth myself: “Hey, y’all, Freddy didn’t write that program; I did!” Oh, yeah, that’s going to work.
  • Go to upper management and tell them my manager stole my program and took credit for it. Oh, yeah, that’s going to work.
  • Use a baseball bat to reduce Freddy to a bloody mass of boneless meat. Oh, yeah… oh, yeah.

I spent a few days in silent rage, screaming inside at the injustice that had been done to me and plotting different ways to torture and murder Freddy.  Finally my emotions began to settle down somewhat, and I was able to distance myself from them and examine the situation calmly, objectively.  And when I did that, the wisdom of the serenity prayer came into play.

If you think through each of those choices for a few moments, you will see what I saw back then: that there was nothing I could do that would resolve the problem in my favor.  Each of these options, if taken, would result in the situation becoming worse than it already was.  Probable outcomes included derision, loss of respect, loss of trust, firing, revocation of my probation, prison time.  This is where I needed “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”  I sat on a porch and watched the sun go down, and consciously strove to reach inner calm… peace.  Acceptance.  And I succeeded.

 “If I cannot change what Freddy has done, what can I change?”  Now I needed “the wisdom to know the difference.”  I considered my situation at length.  Freddy represented himself as a programmer; he had a degree from one of those ripoff schools that advertise on TV and put all their effort into recruitment rather than curriculum.  But I knew from our discussions of my code that he hadn’t the slightest knowledge of real programming.  He would never be able to duplicate what he claimed to have done in writing that program.  And I had already noted three other ways that our productivity could be enhanced with more programming.

Now I needed “the courage to change what I can.”  I asked Freddy’s manager, Danny, for a meeting.  When the time came I mustered all my courage, took a deep breath, and approached him.  Now, as it happened, it was Danny who had interviewed me when I applied for this job.  So I said, “I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but I am a programmer.  I have a degree in software development, and I’d like to put that skill to use to benefit the team, if you’ll give your permission.”

He told me to go on, and so I explained my ideas to him.  He was surprisingly receptive; he gave me the go-ahead.  So I said, “Is it okay to work on these on company time?  While I’m on the clock?”

“Sure,” he said.

And so this overrode Freddy’s instruction to me not to work on programming.  I devoted about half of my time to blueprint work and the other half to programming.  As my first program began to shape up, word got around and coworkers began to stop at my desk to see it on my screen.

One day a man came in and introduced himself.  “I’m the head of the IT department here,” he said. “I’ve heard that you’re doing programming over here.  Would you mind showing me what you’ve got?”

Would I mind?  Hah!  So I demonstrated my program.  He seemed impressed.  He must have been, because about a week later he called me and invited me to come apply for a software developer position in the IT department.  I did and of course was accepted.

I spent the next five years working in IT for that company, honing my skills, developing experience and gaining knowledge.  And then in 2000 I moved to Dallas, Texas, where I applied and was accepted at a large health care organization.  My starting salary was almost triple what I had been making at the other company, and raises came every year.  In 2002 I took out a mortgage on a house and bought a new car.  In 2014 I paid off the mortgage; I now own my house free and clear (except for annual taxes… ouch).  I am financially comfortable, with no expenses beyond utilities, insurance and the like.  Not bad for a guy who, 20 years before, had three changes of clothes and a junk car to his name, yes?

I attribute this success in large measure to my applying the wisdom found in the serenity prayer, which counseled me to discern what I could and could not change.  I could have assaulted Freddy, messed him up good, and enjoyed the momentary satisfaction of venting my rage and exacting my revenge.  Of course, almost immediately that would have seen my probation revoked, my employment terminated, and me on my way to prison.  Instead I heeded the urging not to fret over what I could not change, and I found serenity.  I was guided to look for something I could change, and to muster my courage and change it.  To know the difference.  And what a wonderful effect that has had in my life.

About the Author, Fred S.

Fred S plunged deeply into alcoholism before getting sober in 1995.  Sobriety was good to him and he prospered.  After several years he looked at his comfortable situation and thought, “Things went to hell all at once in my life back then, and I handled it poorly by drinking.  Now, with my life calm and settled, I believe I can drink in moderation.”  He found out he could not.  Because of the religious aspect he steered clear of AA at first, trying over and over to get sober again by himself.  At length he returned to AA and discovered We Agnostics Group of Dallas, which was just what he needed.  He now has 1 1/2 years of sobriety.  He spends his free time drumming and woodworking.

Audio Story

The audio version of this story was recorded and narrated by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send en email to

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John S
5 years ago

Thank you for your contribution to Fred. I enjoyed the article and can relate quite well. The Serenity Prayer is a powerful tool, and not because we are communicating with a supernatural deity, rather it’s a reminder to ourselves to take the time to slow down and think, what can I change, and what can I not change, and work on acceptance of those situations in life that we simply can’t control.

Bob C
Bob C
5 years ago

I loved this. The synchronicity always amazes me. I have been struggling of late at my work, feeling demotivated and small in my thinking. I have just completed a masters degree full time while working full time as well. It took me 16 months without a normal break. By the end of it (i just finished on Dec 10) I was a bit of a basket case. BobAnyways , it was very refreshing reading this just now, because I know for sure I have to focus on the parts I can actually do something about.


Thomas B
5 years ago

Indeed, Fred, a wonderful story explicating how the principles of the Serenity Wish (as we refer to at the Portland Oregon Beyond Belief Meeting, which we copied from AA Agnostica) works in the concrete flesh and blood world of reality with our feet firmly planted on earth. I especially appreciate how you multi-tasked your programming skills to achieve the optimum result from the various courses of action you had available to you to right the wrong Freddy had done to you. That’s using the well-trained brain you have, which is much more effective than waiting for a miracle to occur… Read more »

Jerry F
Jerry F
5 years ago

This is truly an inspiring story. And I, too, have a deep appreciation of the Serenity Prayer although I don’t pray in supplication to any deity. I believe that expressing sincere desire for serenity, courage, and wisdom -even if they are actually coming from my own higher self- is enough for me to achieve them. A note of caution to the newcomer: there is no guarantee that when you sober up your life will turn out as wonderful as Fred’s. Some people stop drinking and stop using and don’t get a great job at triple the salary. Instead they get fired… Read more »

5 years ago

Fred, good story, and I guess all I ought to do is to learn the lessons I can from it, but I can’t quite help wondering what happened to Freddie. Did anybody ever wonder why he couldn’t finish the program he had started to write?

Fred S
Fred S
5 years ago
Reply to  life-j

life-j, the unfinished parts were just cosmetic. Nobody would miss them, because they didn’t break the program.  I just wanted it to be more professional-looking before I showed everyone.  Interestingly, when I transferred to IT I expected they would have me finish what I had started, but they didn’t.  They had bigger things going on, which is why Freddy’s boss was happy to have me doing it.