I was recently having a conversation with a close friend. It was one of those conversations that began as a simple shared observation and soon evolved into one of those experiences that shapes your view. It became a very deep and difficult conversation about life circumstances, predicament, and the possibility for change. As we talked, my friend referenced the Serenity Prayer; specifically the line that says, “accept the things I cannot change.”
I don’t know about you, but the more I try to control, the more OUT of control I feel. I just become a ball of nervous energy, questioning what and how to do something to influence another person or situation. I’m working on accepting that some things will just happen, despite any effort to prevent them; that some people will make decisions or choose paths I will not like. In the meantime, I just do the best I personally can. Instead of being a control freak, I’m more of a control freak in recovery these days.
But to truly pray the Serenity Prayer, one must also acknowledge that there are things that can be changed. It just takes courage to do it. The movement from one place – maybe somewhere familiar or safe – to another is not an easy one to make. As creatures of habit, we continually return to what we know. Sometimes, that is a place of discomfort or sadness or frustration. Sometimes, it is the easy place to be, or the one that keeps us financially stable or under the radar. Sometimes it is not that a situation can’t be changed; it is more that we lack the courage to make change happen. There is risk involved.
What’s interesting about the Serenity Prayer is that it was written by an anti-Nazi theologian during the height of Hitler’s regime. Talk about a time of risk! Reinhold Niebuhr was a first-generation German-American who wrote the prayer to capture the ethical predicament faced by him and his fellow Germans who emigrated to the United States, free from persecution, but powerless to help their friends and fellow countrymen who remained in Germany. They were forced to accept the true evil at play in the world while others in Germany sought for the courage they needed to make a difference against the Nazi regime. Today, the Serenity Prayer has become the staple for AA and other self-help programs.
Writer Susan Cheever, in “The Secret History of the Serenity Prayer,” wrote “It’s rare for us to be able to see and touch evil in our daily lives. We sometimes recognize such moments as a result of other people’s behavior—and our own complicity or silence. There are times when human beings—individuals, families, even entire societies—are possessed by powers that seem to contradict everything we think of as human. Occasionally these times are so disorienting that the victims can often seem stranger and crazier than the perpetrators and bystanders. That is what it was like to live in Germany under Nazism, and, on a much smaller scale, that’s often what it’s like to live in an alcoholic household. Action seems necessary, but confusion, danger or powerlessness render action seemingly impossible.”
All of that said and history considered, the true power in the Serenity Prayer for me lies in the phrase, “and the wisdom to know the difference.” Many of us find ourselves in situations that make us unhappy or challenge us in some way. Sadly, these situations sometimes threaten our well-being. But not always are they situations that cannot be changed. Very often, in fact, the change doesn’t need to happen to something or someone else. Instead, it is one we must make within ourselves.
And so I’m left thinking about the “wisdom to know the difference.” Are the places in my life that cause me frustration really ones that cannot be changed? And what about the things I can change? Do I have the courage? I am left with one impression: that true serenity comes not in focusing on the things we can’t control, but in focusing on the one thing we can master: ourselves. Seems to me that the rest (with the help of God) will all fall in line in good time.