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.
This prayer, attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has become a beloved part of every 12-step recovery group meeting. My own group recites it at the beginning and end of our weekly gathering and many of us use it on a regular basis to remind ourselves of the lessons we have learned in recovery. When I was decorating my first apartment as a single woman, I found this picture and it has a place of honor in my new home. It reminds me daily of three words that have been key to my recovery process: serenity, courage and wisdom.
Serenity is defined as the state of being serene, that is "calm, composed, tranquil, peaceful, untroubled, relaxed, at ease, unperturbed, unruffled, unworried." (New Oxford American Dictionary) This word certainly did not describe me in the immediate aftermath of my world crashing down! And let's be honest, it does not describe most of us on any given day or in any given situation. We are bombarded daily by the latest crisis or tragedy in the world--news that used to take weeks to get to us is now broadcast as it is happening. It is difficult to maintain serenity on the best of days and when trouble comes, most of us do not meet it as peaceful, tranquil or untroubled individuals.
And yet recovery promises that we can get to a state of serenity about or in spite of the circumstances in our lives. Serenity may not be our first reaction to bad news or difficult circumstances but we can get there and the key is "accepting the things I cannot change." "When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation--some fact of my life--unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment." (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th ed., p. 417).
"Accepting the things I cannot change" involves letting go of the past I thought I wanted or giving up the hope that the past could be any different than it was. Read that again--it is letting go of the past I thought I wanted, deserved, was promised . . . . period. Is this easy? No, a thousand times no. I have struggled so much in recent weeks with accepting that my marriage was not what I thought I had. I struggle with accepting that I spent over three decades trying to connect emotionally with someone who was unavailable for connection, trying to build a relationship with someone protecting a deadly secret. Serenity comes when I can accept that what was, was. The past wasn't what I thought it was, it wasn't what I wanted or believed I had. It wasn't what I deserved or worked for. I can fight against that cold, hard fact or I can accept it.
But "accepting the things I cannot change" also means accepting the unacceptable challenges of today. I have found the first three steps of the 12-step program helps tremendously with accepting what often seems unacceptable both in the past and in my present. A short summary of the first three steps is, I can't; God can; I'm going to let him.
Courage is defined as "the ability to do something that frightens one; strength in the face of pain or grief" (New Oxford American Dictionary). But the original meaning of the word was "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 12). I exhibit courage when I tell my story from my heart--the unvarnished story, the one without the rose-colored glasses. A vital prerequisite of the second stanza of this prayer--"Courage to change the things I can"--is to tell myself the truth about my life. It means putting aside the fairy-tale version and looking at the reality.
And it takes courage to do this work but "courage does not mean the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to walk through changes that would have overwhelmed me previously" (Reflections of Hope, p. 158). I quickly completed steps 1-3 of my 12-step program but step 4 was very frightening to me--a thorough and complete moral inventory??? But I have found that it is insightful and affirming to speak the truth to myself about myself. And steps 4-10 will give me an opportunity to admit my shortcomings to God, myself and another person, become ready to have God remove my defects of character, and ask him to remove them. Then I will make a list of all persons I have harmed and work on becoming willing to make amends; I will make amends and then do the inventory all over again. Wow--sounds intense and it is. Does it demand courage, yes!
But, "As I enlist God's help, my shortcomings have changed into more positive ways of acting. I consciously think of the way I want to act, and then implement new behaviors. It hasn't been easy, but the results have been worth it." (Reflections of Hope, p. 158).
Wisdom is defined as "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment" (New Oxford American Dictionary). It is by drawing on our cumulative experiences, knowledge and judgment that we determine what we can change and what we cannot change. Wisdom is learning what I can and cannot do; it is respecting the boundary that separates me from another; it is staying on my side of the street and not assuming responsibility for or taking ownership of problems that do not belong to me. It is quite simple and yet quite profound.
Wisdom reminds me that powerlessness is not the same as helplessness; teaches me that if I didn't cause it, I can't control it or cure it; urges me to detach with love and compassion; nudges me away from people-pleasing; and shows me how to be gentle to myself and to trust my Higher Power and the process. Wisdom values the experience, strength and hope of others in recovery; it causes me to reach out when I need a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or a pat on the back. Steps 11-12 indicate that by improving my conscious contact with the God of my understanding, I will have wisdom and experience a true spiritual awakening. I can then be a beacon of hope to others struggling in the storms of life.
Three words: serenity, courage and wisdom--much more than a beautiful wall hanging--a prescription for doing life differently, a road map for recovery. There are far more eloquent prayers one can pray but none with more power to change lives than this one.