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.
This prayer has been used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step addiction recovery programs since the 1930’s. It has much broader relevance. It has ties to ancient Stoic philosophy and is closely related to the approach of modern evidence-based therapies. It’s not just for addicts, but embodies wisdom everyone can use. In this post, I’ll present a brief summary of that wisdom as I understand it.
That first sentence about serenity appeals to recovering addicts. One of the biggest roots of addiction is frustration at lack of control — addicts feel powerless because life doesn’t always go their way. Alcohol and other drugs provide relief and the illusion of control — even though it’s really the substance that’s in charge. Faced with this lack of control, the recovering addict prays “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” At this stage, the prayer is about the search for serenity through the acknowledgement of the limits to one’s own power.
But it’s not only addicts who face this dilemma. We all encounter events and situations we didn’t choose and can’t fix. We all sometimes get upset in these situations, resulting in fear, anger, hurt feelings, frustration, anxiety, depression and other forms of emotional suffering. Many of us simply accept our suffering as if it were inevitable. But there’s a better way. We can recognize that the cause of our suffering is not the event we dislike, but our own judgement that produces the dislike. The mature, rational solution is to get out of our own way by embracing life as it is. Obsessive emotional upset over the gap between reality and our desires accomplishes nothing.
This wisdom of acceptance is sometimes misunderstood. The point is not to resign oneself passively to disappointment, defeat or injustice. Every self-respecting person with a heartbeat should speak up or act according to their values. However, if things we can’t control don’t turn out the way we want, then refusal to accept reality is simply irrational, and further emotional upset is self-defeating. We can responsibly attempt to influence situations beyond our control, while still embracing the outcome with serenity.
[Grant me] the courage to change the things I can.
This second line is about making a difference in the world, while acknowledging that we can only get things done by focusing on what is within our control — notably our own thoughts, feelings and actions. Within this purview of control, we are called to act with courage according to our values. It is, in fact, impossible to rationally choose right actions without referencing values. Or, putting it another way, one cannot take conscious responsibility for one’s life without knowing what is worthwhile. It’s a personal decision, even though personal actions always impact other people and the world at large. Yet, on many issues people care about, there is disagreement either on underlying values or on their application. So courage is essential, along with the related values of integrity, self-discipline, self-control, persistence and forbearance.
[Grant me] the Wisdom to know
the difference [between what I can and cannot change.]
It might be appealing to pretend that life is divided neatly between our own thoughts and actions on the one hand and things we can’t control (everything else) on the other hand. In fact much of life involves situations with shared control — such as marriages, jobs, driving in traffic and elections. It takes Wisdom in these mixed situations to have both the Courage to act responsibly and the Serenity to accept the final outcome that might be very different from what we might have preferred. The challenge goes beyond the simple recognition of the scope and limits of our control. We must always accept the reality of any situation, but may also feel called to persist in our efforts at influence. In fact, persistent effort according to our values may help to dispel the useless feelings of upset that may otherwise overpower us. Nevertheless the imperative needs to flow from within, according to our own values as well as our priorities. We may be open to advice (or even divine guidance if that’s part of our value system), but integrity requires each of us to remain faithful to our own path to Virtue.