The Serenity Prayer and Change

A deeper understanding how the serenity prayer can help manage life change

By now, the momentum of some of our one-year-at-a-time resolutions has abated.

For most of us, initiated changes in life far outnumber sustained changes in life. Mark Twain's quote nails it: "Quitting smoking is easy. I've done it hundreds of times."

Let's look at how the Serenity Prayer offers important distinctions for more productive use of our life energy, yet doesn't highlight the key element for a transformed life.

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference are priceless reminders for more efficient and effective living. Yet, they don't include the distinction for addressing the greatest challenge to our spiritual growth in recovery.

Made clear on page 62 in Alcoholics Anonymous is an additional condition we can't change. Beyond the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body that gets our attention in active addiction is the wisdom in "How It Works," that over-reliance on self-blocks us from the spiritual solution: page 62 "…[the alcoholic] is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though they usually don't think so." We also learn that, "Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much, by wishing or trying on our own power."

Whew! We have bodies that can't tolerate what our minds can't leave alone AND we have a spiritual malady that disallows us from doing anything about it on our own.

Application of the serenity prayer to this third element of Step One's lethal trifecta would emphasize the need for serenity and acceptance, because we can't change our over-reliance on self "much" on our own. By page 66, we've learned the emotions generated by this immutable imbalance of humanness are what shut us off from the Sunlight of the Spirit. Since self can't change itself for the same reason a hammer can't hit itself or a foot can't kick itself, neither serenity nor courage, nor the wisdom to know the difference will get us unblocked.

So what's implicit in the Serenity Prayer but missing from its text? Essentially, it's to do the things I can, that will bring about the changes I can't. One of the subtle, but frequent, clues is on page 64 in the sentence, "Though our decision (in Step Three) was a vital and crucial step, it could have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face (in Step Four), and be rid of (in Steps Five through Nine) the things in ourselves that had been blocking us."

We're told clearly to face what's been blocking us in Step Four (with the courage [read fearless] to change the things we can). However, the text doesn't say "and get rid of the things in ourselves which had been blocking us," but rather says, "and be rid of the things in ourselves which had been blocking us." Thus the practice of Steps Five through Nine is following the directions for doing the things I can which will bring about the changes I can't. I am not suggesting that we change the Serenity Prayer. I am suggesting that we be mindful each time we say it that the miracle of sustained change is the byproduct of spiritual practice, much of which lies somewhere far beyond the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can.


Fred Holmquist, Director of the Lodge Program at the Dan Anderson Renewal CenterFred Holmquist is director of the Lodge Program at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center and has worked in the field of addiction and recovery for 37 years. He draws on a variety of sciences and wisdom traditions in teaching the life principles of the Twelve Steps.

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