This is the second of three posts on the Serenity Prayer.  It addresses the second line:

“[Grant me] the courage to change the things I can.”

This is about tackling things where we can actually make a difference — namely our own actions, the only things that are under our complete control. We are called to make a difference by minding our own business.

The original version of the Prayer had this wording:  “the courage to change what must be altered”.  That makes it clearer that we’re not talking about just any old change — it’s about doing the right thing.  So how do we decide what that is?

Apart from your own actions, you cannot control anything else in the Universe, including the actions of others.  By the same token, nobody else is responsible for your actions.  It’s your call — doing the right thing comes down to your own values. 

Perhaps there was a time in the distant past when everyone pretty much agreed on the difference between right and wrong, everyone knew the right thing to do in any situation.  That’s probably partly a myth.  However, there has certainly been an erosion of collective faith in absolute external standards, such as those guaranteed by the Judeo-Christian God in the Ten Comandments. 

There has been an increase in moral uncertainty, and anyone with a social media account knows how much disagreement there is on just about everything.  There’s no consensus.  We’re a society of individualists with individual responsibility, and uncertainty prevails.

We are repeatedly invited to remain flexible, to embrace tolerance and diversity.  These are fine collective values in a diverse society.  However they fail to provide clear guidance for decisions at the individual level — the resultant uncertainty breeds insecurity, and surely contributes to our epidemic of anxiety and depression.  In order to achieve serenity and sanity, each individual needs to know where they stand, at least that they stand somewhere.

Each of us needs to accept responsibility for their own values. In fact, when individuals seriously embrace that responsibility, they are able to do so.  Perhaps it is also not surprising that there is quite a lot of consistency among people at a general level (think “kindness” or “justice”, not specifics like capital punishment or drug use). 

There are certain values that are essential to anyone seeking to take responsibility for their own actions.  These include self-discipline, persistence, integrity and self-control.  In order to get from general values to the right decision in specific instances, two more things are essential — mindfulness and reason.  You need to be continually mindful of your own thoughts, feelings and actions.  You need to be committed to the application of reason to ensure that your ongoing thoughts, feelings and actions are aligned with your values.  This is a classical model for how to live, and I’ll explore it in more detail in additional blog posts.

Meanwhile, depending on who you hang out with, you may be perceived as curiously old-fashioned or as the mature adult in the room.  But the point of this ethical model is not to impress others one way or the other — rather, it is intended to give you a life that is both Good and a positive influence on the world. Your actions will be focused on what is right in your own eyes.  But they will not always be right in other people’s eyes.  That’s where the need for Courage comes in. 

I have now reviewed two lines of the Serenity Prayer.  We have seen that our serenity is best served by learning to simply accept many things we tend to get uselessly upset about— instead of getting upset, we are free to try to make a difference.  In general, we could benefit from focusing serious and consistent attention on the virtue of our own actions.  In my next post, I will discuss the third line of the Serenity Prayer, which addresses the Wisdom needed to navigate this process.

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