Many Alcohol Anonymous meetings cite the Serenity Prayer, reminding attendees that many things are beyond their control. The prayer soothes the mind, relieving anxiety from our inherent need to control. We have significant limitations. We can’t do it all. Children and spouses have freedom—the freedom to choose. We take responsibility, wallowing in guilt over crimes we haven’t committed. The Serenity prayer doesn’t identify the exact line between responsibility and submission but reminds of its presence.
We improve our lives through personal-accountability; but vast areas lie beyond our control. Our futures depend upon wise decisions in the present; our peace, however, depends on accepting the unpredictable and uncontrollable universe.
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.
The Serenity Prayer’s Elements Beyond Our Control
Taking responsibility for events outside our control is discouraging. There is nothing we can do about it. We just feel guilt, weighed down by helplessness, waiting to see what will happens. The serenity prayer reminds us somethings are beyond our control. We must limit guilt over the things we cannot change. Research has found that those that accept and find meaning in serious illness, such as cancer, make greater adjustments and have improved overall wellbeing (Quinto, et al., 2022).
We can’ Change the Past
There are many things in life we can’t change. Yet, we mentally time travel back in life and ruminate of all we should have and shouldn’t have done. This practice of counterfactual thinking is largely unhelpful, stimulates guilt, anger, and sorrow over elements in our life that our done and gone. We can’t change them in the past. Hence, we must have the courage to deal with their consequences in the present.
Many parents of children suffering from addiction pummel themselves over the past, evaluating what they should or shouldn’t have done. Although psychology has moved on to better theories, old theories of behaviorism live on in our minds. When something doesn’t work out, we search for a behavioral cause.
We still think we can fix people, we can force change in others, we believe we can solve the problem by giving, hoping, and manipulating—but the addictions continue. Parents can help, but they cannot forcefully craft a favorable outcome. A little thing called free agency still exists.
Conversely, others deny responsibility and avoid action, soothing guilt with maladaptive thought patterns, excusing action and dodging efforts, condemning themselves to reliving problems they can effectively change.
Thoughtful Action and The Serenity Prayer
A powerful reminder to the difficulty of enacting change the serenity prayer asks for courage. We typically don’t know which problems are unsolvable and which ones, with a little guided action can be remedied, at least not at the beginning. Instead of quickly labeling, we must investigate deeper. The causes may be completely external—or internal. But usually causes have some of both. Reflective investigations usually uncover actions we can take. When we explore options, instead of quickly turning to helplessness, we discover strengths, even, in some cases, to influence events that initially were beyond our control.
Many disappointments are triggered by external circumstances. We drift through the normal ups and downs, experiencing joys and sadness, but with wisdom and patience, we find balance, working through the changes. Life sails smoothly for a while; but then, in a moment, everything changes. Thieves kick in the door, rob and pillage our peace. Unprepared for the rude disruptions to ordinary life, we sink into depressions. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
Self Compassion and Change
We can’t be too harsh, demanding solutions where none are readily available. We didn’t create the emergency. However, we naturally respond to these nasty surprises with emotion. Emotions are a survival mechanism, guiding responses to difficulties and joys.
Unplanned events pull the focus of an organism towards threats and opportunities. We enter a survival mode, evaluating, reacting, and protecting. We feel discomfort; hurt motivates movement. Accordingly, we remove our hand from the flame because it hurts. A shot of pain triggers a flinch, protecting sensitive tissue. Emotional pain works the same way. Emotional stirrings warn of danger. The senses scan the environment for threats to avoid unneeded pain. Emotions are a major contributor to learning. Others trigger pain and we respond and remember.
“Life sails smoothly for a while; but then, in a moment, everything changes. Thieves kick in the door, rob and pillage our peace.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Driven to the Call for Help
The serenity prayer is a supplication to god or higher powers for help. We typically call for help when life hurts and we are not sure how to navigate our way out. “Help me” we cry out. The serenity prayer reminds their is more to escape from our life of desperation than a supplication for help. There are some things we can do ourselves; and with courage we can start.
Pain creates emotional markers that signals danger later during similar happenings. We want to avoid the unnecessary unpleasantness. Pain is not the enemy; it protects. We can, however, graciously examine pain for insights. When properly processed, pain builds strength, wisdom and compassion. We can blame others, but skirting responsibility averts attention from effective action.
However, sometimes pain remains because we can’t focus on anything else. We get stuck ruminating over a wrong, reexamining the hurt, and feel paralyzed in inaction. We don’t have the courage to do the things we can do to heal. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist, suggests that repeating the Serenity Prayer may help get our brains unstuck (2015).
Healing isn’t a product of willpower. Time heals wounds. Forgiveness heals wounds. Experience and understanding heals wounds. Compassionately accepting complexity, not settling for simplified explanations, heals wounds. These are gentle processes achieved through patience not force. In a moment of distress, we call for help and seek healing from life’s pains.
We learn from painful experience, whether a consequence of our choice or not. Instead of bitterness, we accept the realities of an unpredictable life, seek support, search for healthy responses, and then move towards intentions. Wisdom is knowing where to take responsibility, where to offer forgiveness, and when we just don’t know which is which. “God Grant me the wisdom to know the difference.” American Psychologist Seymore Epstein (1924-1916) suggests that these three elements of the Serenity prayer constitute constructive thinking (1998).
A flourishing life demands attention—careful mindfulness. When the emotional storms calm, we kindly accept the realities of life, and invite wisdom to expand our skill of living and begin the work of change.
Amen, Daniel G. (2015). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems. Harmony; Revised, Expanded edition.
Epstein, Seymore (1998). Constructive Thinking: The Key to Emotional Intelligence. Praeger.
Quinto, R., De Vincenzo, F., Campitiello, L., Innamorati, M., Secinti, E., & Iani, L. (2022). Meaning in Life and the Acceptance of Cancer: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(9).