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.
I have always found the Serenity Prayer quite beautiful. It was written by the American theologian, pastor and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr could be called a ‘middle way thinker’ who, throughout his life, reflected on, wrote about and tackled some of the most contentious socio-political and religious issues in American history. Several US presidents, including Barack Obama, have credited Niebuhr as having influenced their own thinking.
The original prayer was much longer, with courage to act on change coming before serene acceptance of things that cannot be changed but the central message has remained the same. In the 1950s, the prayer was adapted and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and it became a cornerstone of the organisation’s recovery programme for those struggling with addiction. It has had many other incarnations, with people changing the wording to fit a particular purpose and audience.
As a Buddhist, I do not use the word ‘God’, for instance – or at least I conceptualise ‘God’ differently – so instead of viewing the qualities of serenity, courage and wisdom as attributes outside of ourselves to be ‘granted’, I see this trio as a state of being that is naturally occurring and can be found through deep reflection and which we align our body and mind with, through Buddhist Practice.
Niebuhr’s treatise, in its original form, began: ‘Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other’, which points to the openness needed to face both the events happening in our lives and the wider world and our willingness to look at our reaction to them. To change what must be changed is just as much a call to work for self-change, as it is to act compassionately and responsibly to change the world around us.
In the earlier version, courage came before serenity. Is this because serenity is synonymous with reflection and this has to be our first step? The Merriam Webster Dictionary associates serenity with ‘depth of ocean and expanse of sky: clear and free of storms and shining bright’ and gives the descriptive metaphor ‘steady the moon, serene in glory’ to exemplify this. This is imagery familiar to a Buddhist and points to the source of Truth and Truth itself.
And yet, in this regard, we cannot separate courage and serenity. We need courage to seek serenity and serenity to find courage. Intrinsic in both is wise activism and acceptance.
The prayer has a second, longer verse, which begins:
one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace
These words sit easily with me as a Buddhist. They are the essence of Practice. In living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, fully accepting both joy and difficulty as equals, we find peace.
However you wish to tap into the prayer’s message, it is awe-inspiring to me that, despite various adaptations, words that were first spoken from a pulpit in 1940s America, have stood the test of time. This, I conclude, is because the message is both simple and True and by ‘True’ I mean that, irrespective of their religious origins or which version of the prayer is used, the words align with a universal honesty about the human condition and how we can approach the days of our lives.