The Serenity Prayer; Not Just For Alcoholics
My husband and I took up candle making when we had little money for entertainment. It was a creative venture that we could do together. We invested a great deal of time, energy and love into our fledgling creations. We discovered unique ways to decorate each candle, using mostly found materials. One time, in a little shop off the beaten path, we unearthed a poem scrolled in decorative lettering onto a sheet of parchment paper. The author was identified as Anonymous. We liked the look, feel and sentiment of it. We burned the edges of the parchment for effect and and sculpted it to exactly fit around a beautiful ivory white candle we made, one of two that we gifted my parents with for Christmas that year. We thought they’d like it because it sounded religious — and they were very religious.
We didn’t know that the untitled, anonymous “poem” we thought we discovered was actually a prayer written by theologian Dr. Rheinhold Niebuhral in the 1930s and adopted (in a slightly changed version) by of Alcoholics Anonymous. We didn’t even know what AA was, not really. Apparently, neither did my parents. It was the 1970s. Drinking and drugs were in vogue. Not AA. My familiarity with AA and the 12-step program came later, after we divorced, after my husband joined AA, and after he admitted what even I didn’t know, that he was an alcoholic.
The candle rested on the mantle in my parents’ home until the death of my father a few years ago. Among the few knick knacks and momentos I retrieved from the house was the Serenity Prayer candle. It had never been lit. It was a decoration, an adornment with little or no meaning to its owners. If nothing else, for me it was a relic of my own past and my first heartbreak. I packed it up and brought it home. I decided to put it in my office, where I see clients. That’s where I place my most meaningful objects.
Sometimes objects take on a life of their own in my office — and so it was with the Serenity Prayer. It began to speak to me — or through me, to my clients. The AA version of the Serenity Prayer reads: 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 word God means whatever you believe to be higher than yourself. In the 1970s, I took it literally. It meant the God of my parents’ religion, the religion I rejected. So I didn’t think it applied to me. Yet, whenever I was facing something I couldn’t bear or something that left me feeling helpless, hopeless, disempowered, frustrated, angry, needful of controlling my own fate, imposing my own will, the words of the Prayer came to mind: “Accept the things I cannot change,” words so ubiquitous (included in every self help book worldwide) that they’ve become trite truisms.
It’s the second sentence of the Prayer, however, that carries the most powerful punch: “(God grant me) the courage to change the things I CAN.” Most of my clients (and me) understand what it means to let go of what we can’t control. But asked what they can change, clients often look at me blankly. They haven’t thought about that. They’ve only thought about what they WANT to change but can’t. They’re stymied.
One woman, wanting her children to change their parenting style couldn’t imagine what she could do besides advise them about how to be “better” parents. She couldn’t really release her intended objective; she could only imagine more devious ways of accomplishing it. Finally, she realized she could change her own attitude, find the positives in their parenting style, remember the mistakes she made as a parent. In other words, she could change herself.
When it comes to global or political issues, many people have already accepted that they can’t change anything. It’s just too big. Yet, they’re distressed about the way things are. When asked, “Well, what is something — however small — that you could do,” they throw up their hands and say, “Nothing! There’s nothing I can do about it!” One person can’t change the world, they say. And so they do nothing. The small things aren’t as gratifying. Sometimes the things they can change are too hard, take too much energy. “I could register voters,” one woman told me in regards to wanting to see a political shift, “but I don’t have time.” We explored other options, but she had an excuse for each one. She didn’t want to DO anything. She just wanted to complain about how things are.
The one thing we CAN change is ourselves, our attitudes, our actions, our expectations. That’s why AA tells its members early on, “You can’t change people, places or things.” Yet, that’s what we all want to change. Not ourselves.
The last part of the prayer asks for “wisdom to know the difference,” the difference between what we can’t change and what we can. We can’t change global warming, but we can stop buying plastic, recycle bottles and cans, and use less water. We can’t change our children, our spouses, our friends, but we can love them, support them and look more closely at ourselves. Maybe we can work on being less controlling, less fearful, less judgmental. Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that one step in healing is to “be of service” to others. In essence, to be a little more selfless. It suggests that we make amends to those we’ve hurt, that we do an exhaustive inventory of ourselves, all things required of therapy as well.
One need not be an alcoholic to follow the advice of the Serenity Prayer. One needs only to be human and to recognize we all have a growing edge. The Serenity Prayer is just one more tool we can turn to in those nights of despair and hopelessness. And maybe we need it more than ever now, in today’s world where things can, at times, feel overwhelming and we all want to change the world. Maybe the Serenity Prayer can be that one lit candle in dark times.