What is the Serenity Prayer and where did it come from?
Reinhold Niebuhr, a prominent Protestant theologian, claimed to have written the prayer with his wife, dating its creation to the early 1920s. His daughter Elisabeth Sifton wrote a book about the prayer in 2003 called The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make A Change–and When to Let Go. In it, she said the prayer was shared by her father in 1943 in an ordinary Sunday service at a small church in Massachusetts. She said the original prayer is as follows:
God, give me 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.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.
Around the same time, this simple prayer was spreading like wildfire and becoming a staple for those in recovery at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings across the nation. A member of AA saw a version of the prayer cited without attribution in a New York obituary in 1942 and shared it with others in the growing recovery movement. This was truly the birth of the shortened and widespread version that is popular today:
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.
Bill W., one of the founders of AA, wrote about the Serenity Prayer’s popularity in the book A.A. Comes of Age, which was published in 2014. “Everyone in AA’s burgeoning office on Manhattan’s Vesey Street was struck by the power and wisdom contained in the prayer’s thoughts. ‘Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words,’” he explained. Someone suggested that the prayer be printed on a wallet-sized card to be included in every piece of outgoing mail. Promptly after that, 500 copies were printed and distributed to meetings and individuals all over the country. That is how this simple yet powerful prayer has come to be used today by countless people, not just those in recovery, but those all over the world seeking serenity.
What the heck is serenity, anyway?
According to the dictionary, serenity is the state of being serene, calm, peaceful, and untroubled. It can be a quiet moment in the shower, that peace that comes over you after being honest, or even staying calm when someone cuts you off. Achieving this state of mind takes practice, but it means you will be able to navigate emotional turmoil and things out of your control while staying rooted to your truths. What if you are new in recovery and don’t know your true self? That’s okay! It takes time. Sometimes tapping into something larger like a higher power or a bigger picture of life and recovery, rather than what’s immediately before us, can help you stay calm when the going gets tough instead of reacting.
Often in recovery, we try to control how much we consume, gamble, use or drink, thinking that we just need to figure out the perfect combination so that we don’t end up losing it all, again. In order to find true help and recovery though, it takes the bravest act of all, which isn’t handling it on your own, but instead recognizing when it’s time to courageously ask for help.
In the prayer it mentions “God” but if that isn’t your cup of tea you can just as easily omit the God reference when using the Serenity Prayer. You can also use whatever gives you hope. Hope that walking through this difficult thing out of your control now may be good for you in the long-term. “God” can be Good Orderly Direction, Life, or the Universe.
So when can you use the Serenity Prayer?
While driving in the car
When communicating with family members
When dealing with difficult people
When faced with fearful situations
Whenever you feel like your cage is being rattled
When you are overwhelmed or tempted
The serenity prayer helpfully reminds us that life presents challenges, some of which will be in your control, and some of which will be out of your control. Let’s break it down further and look at what each section means.
Understanding each part of the Serenity Prayer
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Oftentimes in our lives, we experience things out of our control, and yet for some reason we still obsess about these things, trying to control their outcome. Let’s admit it: people struggling with addiction are master manipulators. We are constantly trying to manipulate things around us so that we can avoid discomfort, especially when actively using. Change can be uncomfortable. The new, the unknown, the fear that comes along with it can feel like sandpaper to your nerves at times when you no longer have a substance to alter those feelings. Moving from expectations to acceptance of things as they are takes practice, but it starts with accepting you don’t have the ability to change other people, places, things, the past or the truth. Using this prayer helps you to accept reality as it is, no alterations needed. Not everyone is going to have the same opinions and sometimes an event or even the weather doesn’t go as planned. And that’s okay! As Elsa from the movie Frozen puts it perfectly, “Let it Go”.
The courage to change the things I can
Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather the willingness to face situations despite it. It’s the way you keep moving forward, taking the next right action, walking through that fear. Some in recovery use an acronym to describe F.E.A.R: False Evidence Appearing Real. That skewed perception of situations, or self-worth, is often a huge hindrance to those seeking recovery. That denial of truth or reality is what often leads to a desire to cover up deep-rooted feelings of fear, shame, and remorse with substances or distractions to help check out, thus perpetuating the whole cycle of using. It can feel overwhelming when you start to see the number of things we don’t have control over in our daily lives. But that’s the beauty in it, there is always at least one thing that you do have the power to change, and that is yourself.
The wisdom to know the difference.
Staying in gratitude helps avoid being centered in self. When you are feeling fearful, angry or discontented, pause and ask yourself, “Is this something I’m willing to lose my serenity over?” If you find yourself getting upset over something, someone, the past, or the future, ask yourself, “What thoughts or outcomes can I let go of to help maintain my serenity?” You are able to restart your day at any time by reciting the Serenity Prayer out loud followed by a deep breath, exhaling those things you wish to let go of. Instead of taking things personally, pause, and think of something you are grateful for. Sometimes it’s okay if you don’t know the difference between what you can and can’t control, but rather the act of turning over the outcome in itself to the universe can bring you peace.