“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.”
This prayer is a short course in acceptance, found in homes and churches around the globe and recited at the start or close of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and many other twelve-step programs; it is also a source of comfort to many who do not consider themselves in need of recovery or religion.
Jerry Stiller, a comedian known for delivering his lines with angry urgency, played Frank Costanza, George’s father on Seinfeld, a character whose impulsive anger had become so pronounced that a therapist ordered him to meet any slight disturbance by yelling, “Serenity Now!” at top volume.
That’s an even shorter expression, but acceptance appears to have been lost in translation.
The prayer is often attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a celebrated theologian who taught at Union Theological Seminary for much of his career. Niebuhr used the prayer in a slightly lengthier form in the early 1940’s while preaching at a church in Massachusetts, perhaps with particular concern for the spiritual well-being of parishioners during the first years of World War II. His version is clearly from a pulpit:
“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Earlier variants have been found in almost every era in recorded history; apparently humans have long been aware of the difficulty in recognizing the difference between those things which are our business and need our engagement and those which lie beyond or outside of our control.
The Niebuhr prayer seemingly asks for grace, whereas the more commonly recited version apparently asks for serenity, but both direct attention to the need to accept things that cannot be changed before seeking courage to attend to those things that can and should be changed.
Like Frank Costanza, most of us have difficulty in finding grace or serenity on demand, which raises the essential question. If we need grace or serenity to find acceptance, don’t we have to begin by accepting that we need grace or serenity?
Chicken? Egg? Is there a theologian in the house?
What’s the difference between acceptance and serenity? Perhaps an example will help:
“You’re in the Express Check Out line at the grocery store. A huge illuminated sign reads: ’12 Items Or Less”. The person in front of you unloads a huge cart, placing item after item on the counter.
If you count up the 26 items and don’t say anything – that’s acceptance.
If you don’t count – that’s serenity.”
The prayer may suggest that in pausing, in asking, whoever or whatever we ask, there is the first small step toward acceptance of our own inability to sort through difficult moments with anything like serenity, and the acceptance that without some serenity we’re going to spend a lot of time, energy, and willpower trying to change things we cannot affect, spinning us even further into graceless floundering with the possibility of considerable collateral damage to ourselves and others around us.
For those who are generally competent and responsible, a short spin is distracting and unfortunate; one might feel some embarrassment and hope to do better next time around. For those in need of recovery or significant alteration of personality and behavior, each new spin-out postpones or threatens significant change.
Let’s get back to the check out line. We step up to the counter with whatever abilities or baggage the day, or a lifetime, has provided and …
Here’s where language becomes interesting. One could say, we walk up to the situation and react. Others might say, we walk up to the situation and respond. Some might even simply say, we walk up. Without getting all figure/ground, uncertainty principled about it, there is no “situation” until we react or respond; we are not separate from the situation if we experience it as a situation.
Assuming that most of the human race isn’t floating from counter to counter on a cloud of serenity, the challenge in the moment is in quickly reminding ourselves that short of grabbing the thoughtless or clueless shopper and tossing his/her/their purchases on the floor, beating the shopper senseless, and kicking the battered remains into the display of seasonal baked goods, our place in line remains unchanged, no matter what we think or feel.
And that’s why we have to catch ourselves being ourselves.
Against all expectations, if there is a state approaching serenity, it may only come if we can put enough distance between ourselves and our judgments to recognize that we’ve got plenty to deal with in taking care of our own behavior and actions. Finding distance sounds a lot like acceptance, and it may take some practice.
The wisdom to know the difference between the things that can be changed and those that can’t may be more easily available. There will be occasions when we will need courage to take change things within our power to change, but, not surprisingly, they tend to announce themselves by arriving with palpable trepidation or full-blown fear.
Grocery store correction of one else’s bad behavior? Lots of emotion, but not much fear.
Admitting a critical error of judgment to a spouse or employer? Telling a friend you’ve broken a confidence? Admitting you have a problem you consider shameful?
Fear by the bucket.
As a friend of mine is fond of saying, it all comes down to this: There is some grace in asking for serenity and in working toward acceptance. The next step is in finding courage to change, and that process may be the work of the rest of a lifetime..