Many people, whether involved in recovery or not, know of the Serenity Prayer due it’s large cultural impact. It is a simple prayer full of meaning that many of us can relate to and find comfort and inspiration in. Although the first stanza is generally said aloud at meetings or to oneself as a type of mantra and reminder, users of the full serenity prayer attribute to its power and insight the credit for helping them maintain sobriety, stave off relapse, and provide a foundation for self-improvement and spiritual growth.
Before we say too much more, we need to read the full version of the serenity prayer and ponder it for a moment…
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
There are many ways to approach the complex meanings and interpretations of this prayer of serenity, peace, and tranquility. The best approach begins with gaining an understandings of the origins of this wonderful prayer.
The true origins reside in the realm of the unknown unfortunately, but we can trace it back a good bit. It’s easier to go backwards in time so you can understand where the confusion comes from. The prayer was first brought to the attention of Bill W. who we all know as one of the founders of the prolific Alcoholics Anonymous group. Who it was that shared with him the prayer is not known, but Bill W. popularized it by sharing it with every member of their organization by printing it on stock cards and having it passed out at meetings.
It turns out that beyond that point in time people have traced it back to the theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). The problem of attributing it to this American theologian is that he was likely just the first to put it to paper in an officially published document. We are almost positive that it circulated even earlier orally by word of mouth prior to the 1930′s where it began appearing in newspapers. The situation is that other authors began citing in print that Niebuhr was the originator due to his usage of the prayer in his sermons, however his own statements blur the reality even further. Even though it was published here and there under his name before, such as in personal diaries and other places, it wasn’t until 1951 that he himself published it in a magazine column. There is mention that Niebuhr himself denies having written it and attributes it to the 1700′s and a theologian named Friedrich Oetinger. But there is evidence that someone wrote under pseudonym that was the same name then. Who knows, at this point.
What we can say for sure is that there are versions, or at least inspirations, for our current preferred version that came long before even the 18th century and Oetinger. Epictus the Greek and Stoic had a similar prayer in the 1st century:
Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions-in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.
In the 8th century a scholar of the Buddhist doctrines in India named Shantideva wrote the following:
If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
In the 11th century a Jewish philosopher under the name of Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote the following rendition:
And they said: At the head of all understanding
is realizing what is and what cannot be,
and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.
So what we know for sure is that is that the 11th and 8th century versions from the various spiritual faiths are very close, and one could say that the 1st century Greek version definitely was inspired by the same line of thinking. We can’t be certain when the first version manifested, but it was a long time ago. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at what the prayer actually means.
First off, we must define serenity, because it is this along with courage and wisdom that we are asking to be granted. Serenity is the state of having a serene, tranquil, calm mind in a state of equanimity that is not subject to the up-and-down roller coaster ride of emotions. It is a form of detachment, but not dissociation or disregard. It sees the reality of situations for what they are (controllable or not) and acts accordingly without moving into extreme emotional states like sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, etc. It is the recognition that we are allowed to manipulate some aspects of our experience while others are outside of our locus of control, and the acceptance of this truth while recognizing that there is something much larger, smarter, and compassionate managing these affairs. It is a form of psychological surrender, a release of tension and pushback against our desires and repulsions.
The immediate idea is that we have fallen into a trap of an emotional whirlwind surrounding the things in life that we can’t control. And instead of accepting them, we have tried to escape them and sooth our negative feelings through the substance abuse or addiction to some other behavior or activity. But the realization goes to another level because we have also understood that these escapes haven’t been solutions at all. They’ve only furthered our problems, adding onto the list of things we can complain and feel bad about if we choose. But we are choosing not to. We are asking for the ability to distinguish between between the things we can actually do something about or not. Although we can’t escape the core realities of the human condition, we can not care too much about it. And although we must live with some suffering, we don’t have to compound it by engaging in a cycle of addiction. That, we can control.
A huge key for having this prayer actually work and serve its purpose in your life is to understand that we aren’t trying to ignore our feelings by denying them their expression. We want to really internalize where we are helpless or not and accept those parameters. When we accept them, we can see them as the play of a larger spiritual reality that we don’t understand but trust. These include events that we perceive as good and bad. When you’ve really accepted this truth, you really level out emotionally and become chill, cool, calm… serene.
Recognizing the things we can’t control is just one part. The other part is hugely empowering, which is to have the courage to work, grow, and rearrange the aspects of our lives that we do have control over. This means we can stop using drugs. We can get a nice job, get raises, make good money to provide us with comforts and luxuries. We can foster relationships with our old and new friends and family members. We can have a life full of meaning and enjoyment while accepting there will still be some things we don’t like and can’t control. It is recognizing that we do have a sphere of influence and power, but being wise enough to know where the limits of that power reside.
Remembering and reciting this prayer daily helps us stay the path. It’s very easy to forget these philosophies when we are knee deep in the problems, but they give us faith in our progress and recovery. We can know that the things we can control will get better, if only we apply our energies in the right direction instead of getting stuck in trying to escape and numb ourselves. This is the beauty and majesty of the serenity prayer. This is why it has made such a huge impact all around the world for over a thousand years! You as a counselor should memorize this and apply it to your own life if you haven’t already. It’s not just about addiction or just a resource for substance abuse counselor. It encompasses an approach to life that maximizes calmness and happiness!