THE SERENITY PRAYER
The Unofficial Prayer of Election 2016
Dwight Lee Wolter
One primary thing we did not get in the 2016 presidential primary is serenity. Now that the election debates are now over, many people have observed that like it or not, Donald Trump isn’t going to change and neither is Hillary Clinton. And while one candidate has tons of money and the other had tons of experience; neither money nor experience can buy serenity. With all that’s going on in the world today, we could use some serenity. But where and how does one find it? Many wise and learned ones ~ religious, secular, or higher-powered ~ say that serenity comes primarily from acceptance, courage and wisdom.
Serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom are not religious attributes. They may manifest in religious persons just as they may manifest in those who are not. And that is why I believe “The Serenity Prayer” is the perfect guide to get our nation safely through the dire straits of troubled waters otherwise known as our 2016 presidential campaign.
By way of brief introduction, the Serenity Prayer was written in a little stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts by theologian and professor, Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1932. It became widely known when it was printed on cards and distributed to the troops during World War II. It became even more widely known when an early member of Alcoholics Anonymous saw it in a New York newspaper obituary and many AA groups began to use it. It remains an extremely popular prayer. Let us begin this three part exploration of the Serenity Prayer with the first third of it:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change…”
Where do you find serenity? I find it by walking the beach and watching the tide coming in and going out. Part of what I like about the tide is that I am utterly in awe of and powerless over it. No matter what I think, feel, or do; and whether I am present or not ~ the tide comes in, and the tide goes out. I accept that.
But how many times do we suffer needlessly because we lack the willingness to accept the things we cannot change? Like trees refusing to bend with the wind, we snap. Like a tide rising despite our refusal to accept the change that life brings ~ we lose the ability to experience the serenity that acceptance often brings. But how do we gain acceptance of things we cannot change?
We can realize the blessings of the Serenity Prayer by accepting (not denying) our present circumstances as they are; by accepting ourselves as we are (not as we wish we were); and by accepting others as they are (not as we think they should be). It is in accepting our weaknesses; our unrealistic expectations; and our unreasonable demands that new strengths are discovered and developed. Acceptance of people, places and things that we cannot force to conform to our desires may feel like defeat; but acceptance eventually becomes the foundation upon which sustainable change can be built.
Notice that the first third of this prayer does not say that “I will grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It says, “God grant me…” The Serenity Prayer is a prayer, not a self-help mantra. It is a petition to God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as many other persons and organizations, adopted this prayer because of its appeal to all persons, religious or not, and a petition to the “God” or “god” of their understanding. Some people, for example, define God as “Good Orderly Direction” while others subscribe to a definition according to their birth right or choice.
Despite or because of these similarities and differences; the Serenity Prayer calls us to a soulful or spiritual axiom that by accepting what we cannot do; we create an opening where God can gain access to our soul and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
“God, grant me the…courage
to change the things I can…”
In part one, we considered the tide as a lesson in acceptance of things we cannot change. You can stand on the beach and threaten retribution if the tide dares to come in; and you can later plead or bargain with the tide if it will promise not to go out. But neither threats nor pleading will change the results. The onus is thus on us to seek the serenity to accept [the tide] we cannot change.
Here in part two, allow me to tell you another beach story: A woman was walking along a beach that was littered with dead and dying starfish. Periodically, she would stoop down, pick one up and toss it back into the ocean. A man was watching her and shouted, “There are thousands of starfish stranded on this beach. Your efforts won’t make a difference.” The strolling woman stooped and picked up one more starfish, tossed it back into the ocean and said, “It makes a difference to that one.” Clearly, this woman knew that she was powerless to completely reverse a dire situation; but she had decided to change the things she can, no matter what a doubting onlooker was shouting at her from the sidelines.
Many times, we feel our actions will not matter and we shrug our shoulders and say things like, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Other times, we give up on our dreams as if they were dead and dying starfish. We abandon our dreams, without first trying to place some of them back into the nourishing water.
We may even choose to do nothing about global poverty and hunger. We feel we can’t possibly make much of a difference ~ so we choose to make no difference whatsoever and we… walk… away… without realizing that when we offer even a simple bowl of soup to a hungry person ~ that one bowl of soup makes a big difference to that hungry soul, that malnourished starfish.
A person saving a dying starfish on a beach, and a person serving a hungry person in a soup kitchen are changing the things they can ~ but what about the word “courage” in this second section of the Serenity Prayer: “courage to change the things we can”? Does it really take courage to change? Not always. You can change a person’s life forever by barging into a situation with guns (or words) blazing ~ shooting first and aiming later ~ but that is not courage. There are other words to describe such behavior.The Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz says, “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? What makes the Hottentot so hot? What have they got that I ain’t got?”
Many people claim that if they could eliminate fear from their lives then they would be more courageous. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Courage is not the absence of fear; but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”
What, to you, is more important that fear? If courage is not recklessness and arrogance; then what is it? Courage ~ to many spiritual and/or religiously-inclined people ~ is depending on God (however we may conceive, believe, understand or mis-understand him, her or it) to guide us as we do the next right thing. Courage is demonstrating ~ not what we can do ~ but what God can do to and through us. Courage is not a way to bully our way into victory. It takes courage to realize and accept that while God may not spare us from all adversity; God will surely guide us through it. God is a source of strength and help in times of trouble. Therefore, we shall not fear… or at least we shall not allow fear to paralyze us into inaction as we ask God to grant us the courage to change the things we can.
“God, grant me the…wisdom
to know the difference…”
Welcome to part three, where we pray not only for the serenity to accept the change we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can ~ but also for “the wisdom to know the difference.”
Look around the world today. Do you see a whole lot of wisdom? Maybe wisdom is a thing of the past. Maybe the modern-day wise ones avoid the media, politics and religious. Or maybe people are looking for wisdom in all the wrong places. Or maybe looking for wisdom isn’t such a wise thing to do.
Wisdom isn’t simply deep intelligence, worldly knowledge, vast experience or even compassionate understanding. You don’t get wisdom out of a textbook, not even the Bible. If you could, then everyone who read the Bible would be wise and that clearly is not so. “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” it says in Proverbs.
You also don’t necessarily receive wisdom simply by listening to others; even if the ones you listen to are wise. If that were so, then everyone with ears to hear would be wise and that too is clearly not so.
And you also don’t necessarily receive wisdom by accumulating experiences. We all, I assume, know people who have done things over and over again and yet seem to have failed to learn, grow or change from them. A wise friend refers to this phenomena as, “repeating the same year over and over again between birthdays.” Experience, like knowledge, in and of itself is not enough.
And it pains me deeply to admit and accept that you don’t receive wisdom by writing about wisdom either. If that were so, the author of every thesis or dissertation that line the shelves of libraries would be wise; the author of every article in every magazine in the waiting rooms of every office would be wise; and every sermon of every clergy person would reflect their wisdom. But writing about wisdom, like experience and knowledge, in and of itself is not enough.
Despite my many disclaimers thus far in this writing that the Serenity Prayer is not the exclusive domain of religiously-inclined persons; bear with me as I tell a story from Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament and a very brief one from Christian scriptures, also known as the New Testament:
Millennia ago, Solomon became King of Israel. He could have asked God for many things but Solomon asked for wisdom (1 King 3:9) and God said to him that since he had asked for wisdom and not for long life or wealth for himself, nor did he ask for the death of but enemies ~ but had asked for discernment in administering justice ~ God declared that God would do as Solomon had asked. And so God granted Solomon a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like him, nor will there ever be. And people came from the ends of the earth to hear the Wisdom of Solomon.
In the New Testament, Jesus was said to be full of wisdom even as a young child. Later, Jesus taught in his hometown synagogue and people were astonished and asked where he got this wisdom and mighty works (Matt 13:54). The conclusion was that something greater than Solomon was present in the young Jew named Jesus (Luke 11:31).
So where does wisdom come from? True wisdom, as simple as it seems, is found in praying and asking for it. Thus, the Serenity Prayer could also be called the Acceptance Prayer; the Change Prayer; the Courage Prayer; and the Wisdom Prayer. This prayer reminds us that wisdom is, ultimately, a gift from God, whoever we may understand God to be. The prayer petitions: “God grant us the wisdom to know the difference” between when we should accept the things we cannot change and changing the things we can.
In this presidential election season of rancor and debate where one of the few things upon which people agree is that we are hitting new lows on an almost daily basis ~ perhaps it is indeed wise to pray to the God or god of our understanding or mis-understanding that there will be an opening where God can gain access to our soul and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, one day at a time. Most certainly, we could use a little help.
The Serenity Prayer, as written by Reinhold Niebuhr, is actually much longer than the few verses with which most of us are familiar. Check it out. It is a good investment of the ten seconds or so that it takes to read, and the ten seconds or maybe a lifetime that it may take to embody and fulfill.
And if you agree with this, visit #SerenityPrayer2016Election and cast your ballot to make it the Officially Unofficial prayer for the 2016 election. Let’s vote for serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom. Meanwhile, hear our prayer:
“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.”
Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of many books as well as the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com and #SerenityPrayer2016Election.