What is the Serenity Prayer?
“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.”
Those of us who are members of a Twelve Step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous have enthusiastically embraced the Serenity Prayer almost from the moment we discovered it. In fact, the prayer is widely embraced as a succinct statement of a path to sanity and sobriety.
The Serenity Prayer meshes perfectly with the spirituality of the Twelve Steps. There are several versions of the prayer, each with a slightly different wording, and there are conflicting accounts of its origin. It has been variously attributed to an ancient Sanskrit text, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Francis of Assisi, and others. Many AA members were first exposed to the prayer in 1948, when it was quoted in the Grapevine, an AA periodical. There it was credited to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s been a fixture at AA meetings and in the Grapevine ever since.
Despite its brevity, the Serenity Prayer accurately expresses a central problem of addiction and prescribes a timeless solution. In its message about acceptance, it echoes insights from Bill W., cofounder of AA. In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill described the core trait of people like us who are alcoholics or addicts: self-centeredness, or “self-will run riot.” He further described the alcoholic or addict as “an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way.” Bill’s solution: “First of all, we had to quit playing God.”
What we often seek to achieve, as alcoholics and addicts, is a sense of absolute control—one that is simply not possible for human beings. This hankering for control has two aspects. First, we are trying to control the behavior of others, a strategy that we may cling to despite its repeated failure. Second, we are trying to control our own feelings by medicating them with mood-altering chemicals. This strategy, too, is doomed to failure.
Ironically, the quest for absolute control leads to misery, which may contribute to our substance use disorders. On the other hand, for some alcoholics or addicts like us, the need to control may be a response to the unmanageability caused by our out-of-control use of drugs. Either way, the Serenity Prayer speaks wisdom to addicts and non-addicts alike.
On one level, the prayer is about learning to accept external circumstances that we cannot change. But on a deeper level, the prayer points to a fact about our inner life: we cannot directly control our feelings. However, we can influence our feelings through two other factors we can control—our thinking and our actions. Doing this moves us on to another quality described in the Serenity Prayer: courage.
This is the quality that psychiatrist Viktor Frankl displayed during his incarceration in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl concluded that everything can be taken from us except “the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl noted that the prisoners most likely to survive were those who had
a vivid sense of purpose in life. Moreover, even in the humiliation of the camps, prisoners still had choices about how to act. Some betrayed their fellow inmates and secretly allied with German guards. Others committed acts of daily heroism, everything from sharing a last crust of bread to caring for the sick.
If Frankl could make choices in the desolation of a concentration camp, then we can start making them in our daily lives. Ultimately, courage is this willingness and capacity to choose. And even in the most arduous circumstances, two choices are almost always available to us: where to place our attention and what action to take next.
It is a good practice to say the Serenity Prayer often and to keep reminders of it around you. Saying the prayer is a powerful experience that can give us peace and balance even when we are stressed, angry, or frustrated. This single sentence prayer contains six important principles of AA: Higher Power, serenity, acceptance, courage, wisdom, and change. The prayer can be a calming force if we use it daily.
In any situation where we find that we have lost our serenity, we can ask ourselves if there is something we need to accept or something we can change. If we are trying to change the impossible, we need to pray for acceptance. If there is something we can change but we are afraid to, this prayer can give us the courage to do so. Often what we find we need to change is ourselves.
In early recovery, the Serenity Prayer can take on a very simple meaning: we cannot change the fact that we have the disease of alcoholism or addiction. We must pray for the ability to accept this. But we can change how we respond to this fact. We can choose to continue to drink and use, or we can courageously choose the road of abstinence.
Later, as we gain more time in sobriety, this simple prayer will take on richer and deeper meanings beyond simply a prayer for abstinence. As the prayer says, it is our Higher Power that ultimately gives us the serenity to handle life’s challenges.
The Serenity Prayer is a wide door, one that’s open to people of all faiths and backgrounds. People who live this prayer discover how to strike a dynamic balance between acceptance and change. This gift is precious, and it’s one that we can enjoy for a lifetime.