Thoughts on the Serenity Prayer
Ray Whiting


"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 is repeated by millions of people every day, in many different settings.  In fact, we've looked at it before here in Two Scoops, but it's one of those things that bears a second (third, fourth...??) look. Seems like there's always a new wrinkle to discover. 

"God, grant me...." 
This is a phrase I will not interpret directly for anyone, for obvious reasons.  I can, however, say that this format makes it a request addressed to whatever understanding you might have of the term "God."   Another way of looking at it follows the pattern of the metaphysicians, making it an affirmation or declaration of what IS (present tense), rather than a petition for something to be given (yet future).  "God manifests now through me as Serenity to accept. . . etc." 

Still another way to begin would be if you, like me, prefer a rationalist or humanist approach might be something like: "Clear thinking, reason and common sense bring me to Serenity to accept. . . etc."   Whatever way you wish to begin, for the next three days I'll be looking at the three remaining phrases.   We start with: --- Serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

. . . peace. . . tranquility.  It's a state of inner balance and mental calmness.  The opposite might be that state of mind-racing (thoughts fly through your head jumbling into confusion) and the emotional upset and turmoil of conflict.  Serenity is the surface of a pool before you take your first dive . . . flat, perhaps gently rippling, but holding a good reflection.

Acceptance is where many find confusion.  "Hell no, I will NOT accept that.. it is wrong. . . I won't tolerate that . . . how can I accept something like that?" And you know all the other phrases of non-acceptance.  Acceptance, in this context, just means acknowledging the undesirable person, place, thing, or condition exists.  It does not mean you have to LIKE something.  It doesn't mean you have to open the doors of your life and let it move in.  It doesn't mean you must own it for all time.  It also doesn't mean you must put up with it forever.  

Yes, your boss might be a jerk.  As long as you fight it inside yourself, as long as you keep rehearsing your boss's foolishness in your head, as long as you plot sweet revenge when you think the boss isn't looking. . . as long as you refuse to just accept that he is a jerk, you will not have serenity.  Until you get to the point of accepting the fact of its existence, that undesirable thing will destroy you.  And, surprisingly, when you can actually accept that this undesirable thing (or person, place, or condition) exists, you are suddenly empowered to go to the next step--doing something about it. 

There are things you cannot change -- people, places, and (often) conditions and situations.  People will always continue to do whatever they do and you have no power or right to stop it, most of the time.  You can't change your boss, you can't change the bad timing of the traffic lights on your way to work, you can't change the way certain co-workers manage to squeeze an extra five minutes longer on their lunch hour than they should.  Computers will have glitches.  Rain will continue to ruin people's plans.  You cannot change it.  All that you can do is accept the fact that that's the way it is.  For now, anyway.  It may not always be this way, but for this moment, that is exactly the way it is. 

But it isn't ABOUT you, it's not FOR or even AGAINST you.  It just "is."  That's the way it is.  Realizing and accepting that there really are things in your life that you cannot change really does bring a great relief and serenity.  And when you have reached a point of serenity about those things that trouble you, you will be ready for the next step. . . finding the Courage to change the things you can. 

There are people, places, and things that are not to our liking, but as long as we spend our time not-liking something, that is time poorly spent -- time that we could have instead focused on things that we CAN change (and, trust me, there are LOTS of things we can change).  The full scope of things we can change is embrace by a circle described by the length of our arms.  Everything within that circle is yours to change:  
Your Mental State -- attitudes, beliefs, judgments and all the ways you perceive and THINK about your life and the people and events in it;
Your Emotional State -- fears, resentments, disappointments, loves, and all the other ways you FEEL about your life;
Your Physical state -- words, actions, behaviors and everything else you actually DO in your life. 

You have the power to change everything that you think, feel, or do in response to the people, places and things around you.  The tricky part, however, is finding the courage to actually change those things.  It is so much easier to sit and stew over how other people have done you wrong, or hurt you in some way.  It is easier to say, "I have a right to be resentful after what was done to me and I won't feel better until I get an apology."  Sure you do.  You have every right in the world to sit there on the pity pot and feel sorry for yourself.  But so what?  What good comes from that? 

It does take courage to give up the resentments, and let go the expectations.  You might never get an apology.  You might never get the satisfaction from an admission of guilt.  And you might never wake up to the fact that the other person does not know or care that you are wasting your life thinking about some past event.  Whoever you think did you wrong is probably enjoying his or her life somewhere else.  Why don't you do the same thing?  You can change what you think about and how you feel by thinking about something else -- think about how you can better your own life instead of thinking how to dish out revenge or force an apology. 

You can change how you feel by focusing on your own strengths and virtues, and thinking about those who love and support you in your life today, instead of remembering all the hurts from the past.  You can change what you do by taking care of your own self -- your health and nutrition and exercise, your work skills, your hobbies and social interests.  Someone once said that all you get from sitting on the pity pot is a big red ring around your bottom . . . which makes an easy target for the next person to kick the bullseye!  Finding the courage to change in you what needs changing will erase that target and will propel you forward in your own life.  

How do you find that courage?  By considering what will happen when you change -- how will your outlook brighten when you change what you think about?  How will your emotions be lifted when you concentrate on your support network instead of those other folks?  How will your physical world function better when you do the things you can do for yourself, like taking a class, cleaning your home, washing the car, joining new social circles, etc?   When you see the good that will come from a change, the courage to follow through comes more readily. 

When you are faced with a perplexing problem that threatens to disrupt your peace of mind -- whether it is a computer that refuses to work, an acquaintance who seems to have insulted you, a boss acting like a jerk (or a jerk acting like a boss!), a loved one hurts you . . . whatever it is, there are a few simple questions to help you figure out if this is something you can change or not:  

1.  Does this problem have a real impact on the quality of my own life?  We are surrounded by rude, loud, obnoxious people in this world.  Sometimes it's the woman on the bus who forgets our face the minute she gets off at her stop.  Other times it's the co-worker who is making your work environment impossible to work in.  You can't change the woman on the bus, and because it is a passing moment, don't invest another moment thinking about it.  You also cannot change a co-worker's attitudes (because nobody can actually SEE an attitude inside another), but you can speak to your supervisor about the work environment and general work-place behaviors.  The question here, then, is just how great an impact the problem has. 

2.  Did you create the problem?  If you behaved your way into a situation, it is up to you to behave your way out of it.  If it is a situation created by someone else, you might not be able to change the situation, but you can take steps to distance yourself from continuing in it.  This question isn't about blaming anyone, but more about recognizing true responsibility. 

3.  What can be done? When you get past who or what created the problem, you need to figure out if there is something that can be done to fix it.  You weren't put on this earth to fix it for everyone else, or to clean up the results of other people's behavior.  But there are times you will need to do just that in order for your own life to keep going.  But before you loudly proclaim "Somebody ought to do something," make sure that there is actually something that can be done.  When a hurricane hits, you can't do much of anything until the water subsides, so you might as well sit in the boat and sing campfire songs, or go make sure others are in a boat to wait it out safely. 

4.  Is there something YOU can do?  If there is, do it.  Don't talk about doing it, just do it.  If there isn't something you can do, the choice is yours -- either accept the fact that that's how it is and leave it alone, or sit and complain about things you can't fix.  All of this sounds simplistic, perhaps even naive.  But almost everything that seems at first to be an impossible problem can be resolved at a manageable level if you just stop and think about it -- how big is it really?  Where did it come from?  What can be done?  How can I participate in the solution?  

At each of these steps there is an opportunity to gracefully accept things as they are, or move toward possible resolution.  As you answer these questions, you come closer to wisdom -- you either accept things or change them.  Not much middle ground in this equation.  You might find, as you break down the problem, that it is actually several smaller problems.  And you will find that some of those problems can be fixed, and others cannot.  For each of them, you can apply these same simple steps.


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