Breaking Down the Serenity Prayer

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Many support groups begin their meetings with the Serenity Prayer. But how often do we really listen to the words? (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)
Many support groups begin their meetings with the Serenity Prayer. But how often do we really listen to the words? (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

We recently broke down the AA Preamble into separate parts, noting that it was important to understand the text which begins every AA meeting. But the Preamble doesn’t technically begin every meeting. Both AA and NA meetings generally start with the Serenity Prayer. Much like the Preamble, some just say the Serenity Prayer without really contemplating the words. But in our opinion, this is quite unfortunate. The Serenity Prayer contains more blueprints for life than most casual listeners may be aware, and it is important to take a look at the words of which it is comprised.

There are actually multiple versions of the Serenity Prayer, but the one known best to those in programs such as AA and NA is as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things that I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This is the version upon which we will be casting most of our focus, although there is another version which we will also be taking a look at. This alternate version is as follows:

God, give me the grace to accept with Serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

The second version may not seem significantly different, but there is actually more text in this version that we have left out for the time being. Trust us, we will get to it in a moment. For now, know one thing—the purpose of this article is not to influence you on a religious level, but rather a spiritual one. No matter what actually runs through your head when you use the word “God” (and some actually omit this from the Serenity Prayer altogether), we hope that you will learn in time that the Serenity Prayer should not be used as lip service. It is meant to help you. But for that, you will have to put in the time to contemplate its greater meaning.

The Serenity

Serenity often requires us to tune out the bad things in the world so that we may focus more fully upon the good. (maxpetrov/Shutterstock)
Serenity often requires us to tune out the bad things in the world so that we may focus more fully upon the good. (maxpetrov/Shutterstock)

The first part of the Serenity Prayer is quite appropriately geared toward serenity. In the alternate version, we must accept the serenity to accept things that cannot be changed. But in the version we use in AA and NA, the pronoun “I” is indicative of the fact that we ourselves cannot change certain things, regardless of whether or not they can be changed in general. This ties into Step One (the admission of powerlessness), Step Two (belief in something greater than ourselves), and Step Three (the surrender of self-will). In other words, serenity as defined by the Serenity Prayer is all about having faith that things will work out for the best, even if we are not the ones to influence them.

As mentioned above, the alternate version contains much more text than we posted in the introduction. Here is the rest of that version of the Serenity Prayer. It should become quite clear from the following that serenity is almost completely defined by faith.

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Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

To truly accept the importance of this text, you may have to put aside your thoughts and feelings toward God, Jesus, and the notion of an afterlife. Looking past those things, what you find is two irrefutable truths—that the world is full of deadly sin, and that we can do very little to change it. What we can do, however, is remind ourselves through the Serenity Prayer that we do not have to succumb to evil. You are not Daredevil. You are not Wonder Woman. You are not Underdog. And even if you were, these heroes lose battles all the time (with the possible exception of Underdog). Never try to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, because all that will come of it is emotional disturbance.

There are smaller battles we face as well. You might get passed over for a job or promotion. A relationship may not work out because the chemistry simply isn’t there. And maybe you’ll try to convince yourself through pride or sheer denial that you can change these things. But we often find that our attempts to influence such changes will only make things worse for us. If we truly wish to be happy, as per the longer text of the Serenity Prayer, we must learn to accept these things. Once we do, it will be far easier to live serenely, at peace with who we are and where we are at in our lives.

The Courage

Courage requires us to dig deep down past our fears and discover the lion within. (Cranach/Shutterstock)
Courage requires us to dig deep down past our fears and discover the lion within. (Cranach/Shutterstock)

The second part of the Serenity Prayer notes that we must have the courage to change the things that can be changed. But note that the alternate text changes this slightly to indicate only the things that should be changed. There is a wide gulf between the things that we can do and the things that we must do, so this will require a little bit of analysis. Spoiler alert: we’re going to be going with the alternate version on this one.

There is no shortage of things that we can change. Unfortunately, these changes are not always for the better. Slashing someone’s tires would certainly change their routine for the day, but that doesn’t mean that we should do it. This may seem like an extreme example, but the point is that we must use our best judgment in divining the true intention of the Serenity Prayer before we get it into our heads that we are somehow courageous for imposing our will on people and situations when we would probably do better to stay our hands.

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Courage is certainly doing what must be done. Sometimes we will be faced with a tough moral dilemma. Perhaps someone we know is planning to do something wrong, or even illegal. We must consider whether or not we have the power to stop them by confronting them about it or, if that doesn’t work, contacting the proper authorities. If they’re someone close to us, this will be a frightening prospect. There is a line from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that seems quite appropriate in such instances:

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

If anything, it might take more courage to stand up to our friends. We manage a few sober living facilities, and one of the rules is quite naturally that drugs and alcohol are not allowed. But every so often, a person may relapse. In most cases, it isn’t too difficult to discern from a person’s behavior when this has happened. But in some cases, we find out because one of their friends had the courage to tell us about it. Not out of hatred for that person, but out of fear for their well-being. Changing that person’s course and trying to prevent their relapse from snowballing was far more important than maintaining a friendship on false pretenses. Some may lose friends for doing the right thing, and the loss of a relationship is scarier than anything else in the world. Still, we must do it if we truly care about them.

Much as with the examples we used for serenity, not all situations are so grave. Let’s go back to a previous example of being passed over on a job or promotion. We cannot force our way into that job, but courage may lead us to look at new prospects. Perhaps we need to redefine who we are, who we’d like to work for, or even what we would like our career to be. It can be scary to look outside of that which is familiar to us, but we must look at life as a constant series of changes and we must occasionally give into these changes if we are to achieve serenity. To quote Winston Churchill:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

By seeking change, we can continue no matter what harm or disappoint may befall us. Perhaps the Serenity Prayer was not meant to encompass change at the level of which we are speaking, but this is why we suggest contemplating the words of the Serenity Prayer and everything that these words could mean for us if we incorporate them into our lives.

One last note on courage before we continue—never believe that courage is the absence of fear. There is a passage from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

Bran thought about it.

 

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

 

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

When you are afraid of a change that must be made, this is when you need courage the most. If you are attending a meeting with such fears in your heart, then you must truly listen to the Serenity Prayer and embrace all it represents. Then you can approach the necessary changes you are trying to make—especially if they pertain to yourself and your character defects—with due serenity.

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The Wisdom

Wisdom is not actually a light bulb that just flips on and off. It is gained from life experience, and the willingness to learn from others. (Digital Storm/Shutterstock)
Wisdom is not actually a light bulb that just flips on and off. It is gained from life experience, and the willingness to learn from others. (Digital Storm/Shutterstock)

We spent quite a bit of time on courage, as we thought it might require a bit more discussion than serenity. But the Serenity Prayer ends with the notion that we must learn to distinguish what cannot be changed from that which can, or must. The above passages should provide you with a few examples and words of wisdom that might help you make this distinction, but we’d like to speak on it briefly before concluding.

It can be easy to tell ourselves that we are able to change things when we are not. We make this mistake in our relationships, our careers, and even our sobriety. But if we constantly try and fail to change something, it may be time to think outside the box. This is where you get to some of the things we said about courage, and how sometimes we must rethink things and seek a change. In our article on selfishness, we quoted a song by the Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes

You just might find

You get what you need

Perhaps we cannot change certain things because we simply don’t need to change them in order to live a life of purpose. Through serenity, we can learn acceptance and find other ways to be happy. Through courage, we can make other changes that we might not have considered while also standing up and making the changes that truly need to be made in our lives. And while many of our examples pertained to outside situations, these changes largely have to be made within ourselves. As we learn to become better, happier and more courageous people, the wisdom should follow.

The wisdom mentioned in the Serenity Prayer is a wisdom gained largely through experience. It does not develop overnight. As we say the Serenity Prayer and contemplate its meaning, we will come to realize the depth of subtext behind these few simple lines. This is when the Serenity Prayer will work best, as it will have inspired us to take a look at ourselves and improve our lives for the better. And upon making these changes, we will discover more serenity than ever before.

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