Meta-Serenity: A quick look at Niebuhr's Prayer

by phil on Sunday Oct 12, 2008 4:48 PM

You're already familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It's usually popularized as being an Alcoholics Anonymous invocation:

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.
I first encountered this in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People back in 1999. And when I first read it, I felt an incredible release of pressure and lifting of spirits. If you can figure out why certain passages of rhetoric work this way, then you can really make a difference in people's lives.

This prayer returned to my attention recently in this comment by David Brooks that Obama is a big fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian widely credited with creating the Serenity Prayer. If Niebuhr were alive today, he'd be appalled by how American spirituality has been distorted by the Christian Right. A cursory glance at Niebuhr's philosophy is intriguing, talking about a Christian interpretation for a "just war" and other topics above my pay grade.

What I want to do, though, is take the Serenity Prayer, step back from it, and apply the prayer back to itself. i.e. Ask myself, "What in the Serenity Prayer do we have the power to change?" My belief is that the first two bits are only barely under our control. Let's start with the first one, "The serenity to accept the things I cannot change." While you can nudge yourself a little to be more accepting, you're ultimately constrained by your internalized beliefs as to the acceptability of a situation. If you were to push really hard to accept things, you'd have to spend so much psychic energy that you run the risk of repression.

As for the second aspect, "the courage to change the things I can," we also have very limited control over that. We can maybe pump ourselves up for temporary bursts to give us the sense of courage. Sometimes you can even charge yourself up for an entire year, if you really want to achieve some goal. But ultimately, confidence must arise from solid foundations, such as internal principles, or incremental results in the real world. Perhaps, then, courage is simply the confidence to try. Developing long-term sustaining confidence, on the other hand, is a separate game altogether.

But the last part: "The wisdom to know the difference." That is something we can control. We can develop our sense of what we can and can't control. Sometimes I think it's simply a matter of committing to an estimate. i.e. "How much control do I have over the direction of my career?" "How much control do I have over my family problems?" etc. It may take some courage to quantify it. Go ahead, give your problems a numerical estimate from 1 to 10 as to how much control you have. It may take some humility to say, "no, I really don't have control over this situation," or it may take some guts and responsibility to say, "yes, it's really in my power to fix this." Either way, the "wisdom" to know the difference, to me, is not something that has to be God-granted, but is merely knowledge that we can choose to seek out or not.

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