The Serenity Prayer

When you look around at the world, it’s easy to be angry. There are socio-political problems all over: Darfur, Myanmar, Iraq, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Somalia… the list could go on and on. There are also the scourges of poverty and hunger that never seem to leave us. And the more mundane but pervasive problems of theft, violence, and murder. And this is not even to mention the lower-key but no less troubling problems of racism, (hetero-)sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, general carelessness, ignorance, and outright selfishness. In short, “man’s inhumanity to man.”

I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control.

And though I don’t think anger at these things is bad–after all, these are ugly things–I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control. Any single man or woman, despite their dedication, power, and time available, cannot end any single force listed above. Even the American president–arguably the most powerful man in the world–requires a large bureaucracy and a number of allies to change anything in a noticeable way.

This is not to say that you cannot work to change things on a small scale. You can, for example, share your conviction that the rest of the world must act to end the conflict in Darfur. If you share this widely and well, you’ll probably convince at least a few others of that fact. But if you set out with the impression that you alone will end the conflict, you’ll only end up disappointed.

One of my favorite reminders of this is the Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how you feel about the Christian God, the use of the prayer by Alcoholics Anonymous, or the controversy over it’s authorship, I think everyone can learn something from it. The version I commonly hear says:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Interestingly, Wikipedia cites the original version as follows:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I think there’s a subtle and important difference between the two, but both are cogent explanations of the way one should act in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. Surely other people, religious or not, have said the same thing, but if they ever said it with greater brevity or beauty, I’ve not seen it.

One could rightly critique both versions of the prayer for not being completely clear about what distinguishes between “things I cannot change” and “things I can.” That would be “things that cannot be changed” and “things that should be changed” if you use the second version. I think that “things that should be changed” is a more useful idea on this account, though it is also less clear about the distinction between what one should and should not get angry and worked up about.

Certainly, you alone cannot end racism, but it’s a problem that should change, and one you can work on. I would find it impossible to defend the idea that you should permit it. Parents shouldn’t let their kids be (overtly) racists, friends shouldn’t let friends be racists, and maybe strangers shouldn’t let other strangers be racists. But trying to end overt racism is not going to immediately end racism everywhere, and maybe racism will still remain just under the surface. But you must keep trying to change the things you can.

I think there’s a troubling possibly, after hearing this prayer, that one could begin to accept all behaviors. After all, the behaviors of others are necessarily beyond my control. But by expressing a conviction that certain behaviors should not be tolerated, I can influence how some act. Only those who will let my opinions influence their behavior will change–but I’d be changing the things I can.

You alone will not change the world, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change what you can. That is the valuable reminder of the Serenity Prayer.

7 responses to “The Serenity Prayer”

  1. That’s a very good point. I hadn’t thought about the “serenity prayer” in terms of the danger of lumping the big problems you can’t solve alone into the category of “things to just give up on and accept.” If you can make evan a small difference on a big problem, then it’s not time to wisely accept the problem as insurmountable.

    Personally, I’ve always thought of the “serenity prayer” in terms of relationships and not trying to change people against their will. I talked about this in my post about the secular version of the same proverb: If there’s no solution, there’s no problem.

  2. Your last point, about the dangers of the accepting too much, is a strong one. The final line of the prayer, regarding the wisdom to discern where change can be made, is it’s key.

    Good call, Leslie :).

  3. Found you through the Humanist Symposium.

    The problem with this little prayer, as you elaborated, is the lack of group thinking. Our culture and society tends to think of ourselves as islands, or ships, alone in the sea of the big world. Group thinking and acting is the only way to combat the big problems. But taking that attitude in a country built on “me” doing what “I” want, is a battle in itself.

    Thank you for contributing some good thinking toward that goal.

    Garnet David

  4. One could rightly critique both versions of the prayer for not being completely clear about what distinguishes between “things I cannot change” and “things I can.”

    I always thought the last line represented a “punch line” — a reminder that “knowing the difference” often isn’t so easy, which is why you need the wisdom!

  5. […] Ideally, we do this with all thing. We strive to see what good is unfolding without seeking to shape or change what we cannot. When something changes over which we have no control, we recognize it and seek to find good in the new order of thing. When something doesn’t change that we want to, we reassess and accept the unchanged situation without getting emotional. (Yes, I did basically steal this from the Serenity Prayer.) […]