If you are familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, have ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s 'Slaughterhouse Five' or saw the recent Denzel Washington movie 'Flight,' then you have encountered the Serenity Prayer. The prayer has worked its way into so many cultural outlets that many non-Christians know it, or at least the beginning, by heart:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
The prayer is commonly attributed to Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who composed it in the 1940s. According to its website, Alcoholics Anonymous adopted the Serenity Prayer and began including it in AA materials in 1942, which may have done more to canonize it than any other cultural use of the prayer.
What is the secret behind the Serenity Prayer’s power? The language is humble, its lessons simple and its history not particularly romantic. But its messages are both personal and universal; easy to understand yet difficult to execute.
The prayer reveals five timeless truths (and no doubt more!) that challenge us to re-imagine what serenity really is:
1. Acceptance is not laziness.
When we devote inordinate attention to the things we cannot change, we expend physical, emotional and mental energy that could be directed elsewhere. Accepting that there are some things we cannot change does not make us complacent. It constitutes a leap of faith -- an ability to trust, as the prayer goes on to say, “that He [or the universe or time] will make all things right if I surrender to His Will.” We thus make the choice to let go and have faith in the outcome.
2. We must have courage to change ourselves.
One of life's greatest challenges is imagining how our lives could be different than they are now. Often, our deeply-ingrained habits are our own worst enemies, and simply identifying them is half the battle. Since habits gain power through repetition, it takes real focus and perspective to take a look at ourselves and our habits and ask, "Is this how I really want to live?" As the prayer states, this act of self-investigation is nothing less than an act of "courage." As Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked in The First Circle: "If you wanted to put the world to rights, who should you begin with: yourself or others?"
3. Hardship can be good for you.
As the prayer states, we must accept "hardships as the pathway to peace." Every person confronts obstacles in the course of his or her life. When we view these obstacles not just as frustrations or failures, but as opportunities for growth and learning, we can transcend our circumstances.
4. Surrendering requires courage, too.
The word "surrender" has mostly negative connotations; we associate it with resignation, failure and weakness. But the Serenity Prayer reframes the notion of surrender as an act of faith and trust. The wisdom of the prayer lies in exchanging a life of endless "what ifs" for a life of trust in powers beyond ourselves.
5. Happiness is attainable -- now and in the future.
The prayer's ending has something very profound to say about happiness: if we follow the prayer's advice, we may be "reasonably happy in this life." Just reasonably? At a time when our culture measures happiness and success mostly in terms of money and power, that word "reasonably" stands out as an appealingly modest definition of a successful life. Rather than wondering why we aren't happier, or picking through every minute aspect of our lives, the prayer asks us to focus on the present, "Living one day at a time" and "enjoying one moment at a time." Whether or not you believe in God or an afterlife, and whether or not the prayer's ending -- a vision of being "supremely happy with Him forever in the next" -- appeals to you or not, there's something universal in the prayer's quiet celebration of understanding our own potential, our own limits, and our capacity for transcendence.