The Serenity Prayer was written by an American theologian almost a century ago and has since gained enormous favour amongst various religious groups as well prominence within Alcoholics Anonymous programs. The prayer was introduced to me by my father, a recovering alcoholic, though he insists he did not find it in that context.
It is effective on many levels. Logically it takes the form of a hypothetical syllogism. A set of exhaustive conditions which each lead to a different consequence, with the result being that we know that at any given moment one of them must obtain. Stated simply, all our challenges will require serenity or courage to face, if only we can identify which.
This also makes it practically valuable because it offers strategic and actionable guidance. When you’re facing some hardship your job is first and foremost to work out it you have control over the situation or not.
Aesthetically the prose is appealing too. A harmony of challenges and solutions, presented in simple elegant symmetry. There’s also something really beautiful about the most difficult challenges of our lives being made sense of in just a few simple lines of text.
But why I find this prayer most compelling is its sheer unapologetic honesty. It defies the logic of platitudes despite superficially presenting as one. It is not merely another self-help mantra to repeat and internalise that we should magically expect to make all our problems go away. Instead it is made clear that things are going to be difficult, the world is going to test us, and we are going to have to deal with that. It will be tough to figure out whether it is courage or serenity we need, and tough to implement either one regardless.
And though I’ve never been much of a theist myself, as a human being I am inherently emotional and as such this form of guidance which is simultaneously spiritually deep and pragmatically real really resonates with me.
What I often lose sight of is that what you can and can’t change is closely related to who the relevant subject of change is. We have the capacity for a lot of control over ourselves but ultimately very little control over others. Control over circumstances vary but we will also tend to control our own circumstances much more than those of others. So realistically we should expect to need serenity more in relation to others and courage more in relation to ourselves.
In practice, however, I’ve always had this reversed. I am extremely motivated to be brave for others but too rarely ready to stand up for myself when called on to. I am working on this, but it’s a slow transformation. Traditionally I have been very willing to adapt to whatever impossible challenges I’m facing and just accept them as my lot in life. Again, the opposite applies too: I have enormous determination to insist that the problems others face cannot be insurmountable.
This inversion has not helped me nor has it helped the people I love and care for. That is not easy for me to accept but by writing it down I hope to hold myself accountable to it. When we love people we instinctively wish to have more control so that we can know they will be safe, healthy and taken care of. This is normal and in some basic practical ways we can and do have such control in the lives of others and can and should use it to be helpful. But at the level of deep spiritual healing we simply don’t have much control over anyone but ourselves.
My therapist once told me that psychologists are trained to have low expectations of how much they can help people. If they expect to be able to dramatically change people’s lives they’ll burn out too easily because it’s just not realistic. The goal, she said, is at most to help a person to help themselves. If that is the goal for a professional helper who am I to expect to be able to do more? At a spiritual level we cannot change, heal or save others. This is something we all need the serenity to accept.
Conversely, we all can be responsible for our own emotional healing and spiritual revolution. This is something we all need the courage to engage. I am not sure how much of that I have just yet. But I did walk myself to the middle of the forest to sit on my own and cry, reflect and write.
I am wrestling with a relationship that I desperately want to have but probably just can’t and won’t be able to. I’m not okay with it but maybe I don’t have to be. I only need to be brave enough to do right by myself, and then make peace with what follows. Of course that’s easier said than done, but writing it is a form of processing I think.