Charlie's Blog: Reflections on the Serenity Prayer


Reflections on the Serenity Prayer

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

When I go to confession, my priest almost always gives me the Serenity Prayer as a penance. This probably has something to do with my confessions about anger. I first encountered the prayer through Alcoholics Anonymous. I do not belong to AA, but I am familiar with them from an article I wrote for the school newspaper back in high school. One of the things you learn about sobriety is that it isn't about managing drinking. It is about managing life. When an alcoholic can't handle life, he or she turns to drinking. When they get sober, their life skills aren't much better, and they become a "dry drunk." The road to recovery requires new life skills. This is where the Serenity Prayer comes into play.

The prayer reminds me of the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus who expressed something similar. Epictetus wrote,
 Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.
Epictetus provides the wisdom part of the Serenity Prayer. This quotation from him lets you know the difference between what you can change and what you cannot change. Sad to say, most things in life are beyond our power to change. And the things we can change such as our thinking, character, and behavior we do not endeavor to change.

I struggle with anger and laziness. As I reflect on the Serenity Prayer, I see that it holds the answer to those dilemmas. My anger comes from enduring things I am powerless to change. My laziness comes from not doing something about the things I can change. For instance, I can't change my job, but I can change jobs. The reason I don't change jobs is because they usually turn out to be the same with the same frustrations.

One of my famous sayings is this one. I can't make it better, but I can make it different. The gist of this is that some problems are just fundamental to existence. For instance, people might want to leave the snowbound north, so they move to Florida where they must endure hurricanes. It's not better, but it is different. You can't escape the weather. You just have to decide which misery you find more tolerable.

Another variation of this problem is when people want to move and relocate thinking that life is somehow better somewhere else. Then, when they get there, they find they are still miserable. This is because their misery is not outside of them but inside. As they say, wherever you go, there you are. I know people who have moved multiple times and changed jobs many times. But they don't change themselves.

Another aspect of the Serenity Prayer is a quotation from St. Augustine on prayer which says, "Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you." Obviously, not everything depends on us. But by the same token, we should not surrender to fatalism either. We should strive to make things work. If we pray and work, we should leave the rest up to God. Ultimately, God is the one who brings it to completion.

The extremes here would be anxiety and indifference. Some people become anxious over things they can't change. Others become indifferent over the things they can change. Wisdom is the midpoint between those extremes.

In conclusion, I think it helps to read the entire prayer that Reinhold Niehbuhr composed.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.