“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.” – Serenity Prayer
“There is a kind of austerity and humility about this prayer” … this is the view of Elisabeth Sifton, whose father, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, authored the prayer in the early 1940s.
The words are indeed humble and simple. But what is conveyed is compelling and clear.
Since Niebuhr used it in a sermon in Massachusetts, multitudes have found succour reading and remembering the prayer. Barack Obama describes Niebuhr as one of his favourite philosophers. An Episcopal priest printed the prayer in a booklet for the armed forces in 1944. The United States Organizations (USO) then distributed it widely. Alcoholics Anonymous applies it in its 12-step Programme.
Steven Rose, an Ontario-based addiction counsellor, illustrates the richness of the Serenity Prayer on his website: Steven Rose PhD Counselling. The website aims to assist those struggling with substance abuse, gambling and gambling addiction, and with problem stories beyond their control (Rose, n.d.).
Rose’s exposition gives insight into the four virtues mentioned in the prayer – Serenity, Acceptance, Courage and Wisdom. He elucidates their interdependence: The one virtue leads to the next. Yet each one is needed to obtain serenity. Gaining serenity results in acceptance. Equally acceptance is a prerequisite for serenity. Serenity and acceptance lead to courage, and, ultimately, wisdom. Courage and wisdom, in turn, offer the gift of serenity. It is, indeed, a delightful mystery.
Meaning of Serenity
Rose (n.d.) explains that serenity, a mental state of being peaceful and untroubled, implies tranquillity and clarity. While addiction often brings chaos, a loss of control and emotional turmoil, serenity helps a person become calm and still.
Like anxiety, serenity is a perspective through which we could view the world, Rose says. Serenity counters anxiety. Although it takes work to develop serenity, the Serenity Prayer points the way.
The meaning of Acceptance
When serenity is achieved, it leads to acceptance of letting go of things beyond our control – instead of worrying about them, Rose (n.d.) writes. Worrying entrenches the problem by putting us into a state of anxiety rather than one of serenity. Acceptance, however, kerbs the angst and shows us the countenance of courage.
We need to muster up that courage, which is begging for recognition.
The meaning of Courage
Rose (n.d.) describes courage as follows: The courage to take an appropriate action does not mean the absence of fear. It means noticing the fear and carrying it with you as you act, despite it. Courage is about taking responsibility. He adds: “If you’ve experienced trauma leading to mental health issues, you are not responsible for the problem, but you are responsible for being part of the solution”. The key is knowing the difference between something that is your responsibility and something that is not. For this, we call on wisdom.
The meaning of Wisdom
In the Serenity Prayer, wisdom means knowing what is within our control and what is not. The wisdom to know the difference is often clouded by anxiety when we are immersed within our thoughts. Our thoughts can lead us astray – but they can be controlled. Wisdom allows us to know when to practise acceptance and when to practise courage. We can accept past events in our life, but we cannot control them. We need to focus on the controllable, on how we want to be now, and how we want to shape our new identity.
The prayer becomes even more thought-provoking when analysed from the perspective of narrative therapy. To illustrate: Should a person’s dominant narrative tell of a problem, such as alcohol abuse, that person could come to realise that the resilient virtues of Serenity, Acceptance, Courage and Wisdom are all there inside, waiting to be unlocked. These have the potential to diminish the negative story and give a fresh and beautiful me-narrative the opportunity to evolve.
May we all seek, pray and find serenity. Then we will change as we should.
Goodstein, L. 2009. Serenity Prayer skeptic now credits Niebuhr. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/28/us/28prayer.html
Rose, S. n.d. The meaning of the Serenity Prayer. Steven Rose PHD Counselling. Accessed: https://steverosephd.com/the-meaning-of-the-serenity-prayer/#:~:text=The%20Serenity%20Prayer%20means%20letting,things%20are%20beyond%20your%20control