The Serenity Prayer

Striking a balance between acceptance and change

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.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have enthusiastically embraced this prayer—known as the Serenity Prayer—almost from the moment they discovered it. In fact, these 25 words are widely taken as a succinct statement of a path to sanity and sobriety.

The Serenity Prayer meshes perfectly with the spirituality of AA's Twelve Steps. In her book The Kitchen Mystic: Spiritual Lessons Hidden in Everyday Life, author Mary Hayes-Grieco notes that this prayer "contains the sum total of what spiritual life is: a series of lessons about when to accept life as it is, and when to make changes for the better."

There are several versions of the Serenity Prayer, each with slightly different wording. Also, there are conflicting accounts of the prayer's origin. It has been variously attributed to an ancient Sanskrit text, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and others. Many AA members were first exposed to the prayer in 1948, when it was quoted in the Grapevine, an AA periodical. There it was credited to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Despite its brevity, the Serenity Prayer accurately expresses a central problem of addiction and prescribes a timeless solution. In its message about acceptance, it echoes insights from Bill W., cofounder of AA. In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, (published by AA World Services), Bill described the core trait of alcoholics as self-centeredness—something he called "self will run riot." He further described the alcoholic as "an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way." Bill's solution: "First of all, we had to quit playing God."

What some alcoholics seek to achieve is a sense of absolute control—one that is simply not possible for human beings. This hankering for control has two aspects. First is an attempt to control the behavior of others, a strategy that addicts cling to despite its repeated failure. Second is the attempt to control feelings by medicating them with mood-altering chemicals. This strategy, too, is doomed to failure. Ironically, the quest for absolute control leads to misery, which may contribute to substance abuse problems.

On the other hand, for some alcoholics the need to control may be a response to the unmanageability caused by their out-of-control use of drugs. Either way, the Serenity Prayer speaks wisdom to addicts and non-addicts alike.

On one level, the prayer is about learning to accept external circumstances that we cannot change. But on a deeper level, the prayer points to a fact about our inner life: We cannot directly control our feelings. However, we can influence our feelings through two other factors we can control—our thinking and our actions. Doing this moves us on to another quality described in the Serenity Prayer: courage.

This is the quality that psychiatrist Viktor Frankl displayed during his incarceration in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl concluded that everything can be taken from us except one thing "the last of human freedoms—to choose one's own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way," he wrote in Man's Search for Meaning (Beacon Press).

Frankl noted that the prisoners most likely to survive were those who had a vivid sense of purpose in life. Moreover, even in the humiliation of the camps, prisoners still had choices about how to act. Some betrayed their fellow inmates and secretly allied with German guards. Others committed acts of daily heroism, everything from sharing a last crust of bread to caring for the sick.

If Frankl could make choices in the desolation of a concentration camp, then we can start making them in our daily lives. Ultimately courage is about this willingness and capacity to choose. And even in the most arduous circumstances, two choices are almost always available to us: where to place our attention and what action to take next.

The Serenity Prayer is a wide door, one that's open to people of all faiths and backgrounds. People who live this prayer discover how to strike a dynamic balance between acceptance and change. This gift is precious, and it's one that we can enjoy for a lifetime.
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