The Elegant Simplicity of the Serenity Prayer

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The Elegant Simplicity of the Serenity Prayer

THC Editorial Team July 16, 2021
Flowers in a Vase, Philip van Kouwenbergh, c. 1700, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington (article on Serenity Prayer)
Flowers in a Vase, Philip van Kouwenbergh, c. 1700, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Contents

“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.”

The Serenity Prayer, above, was written in the early 1930s by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and popularized in the 1940s by the mutual-aid group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Its focus on themes of acceptance and personal responsibility has made it a central spiritual resource within the global 12-step substance-recovery movement championed by AA, and thousands of people speak it each day around the world.

Although anchored in ancient wisdom, this prayer also aligns with modern mindfulness movements and shares related goals, such as cultivating serenity and release.

History of the Serenity Prayer: Reinhold Niebuhr and Realism

There is some debate about the origins of the prayer text. Its core ideas can be found in ancient writings. For example, in the 1st century, the Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, “There are things within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.”However, most people credit the 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr with the prayer’s authorship. Niebuhr wrote his version at some point during the first half of the 20th century.2 The prayer was first written by a pupil of Niebuhr, Winifred Craig Wygal, who attributed it to her mentor in a diary entry dating back to 1932. By 1944, it was a well-known refrain and even printed and distributed to troops in World War II.3

As a member of the theological movement known as Christian realism, Niebuhr believed that people of faith had a limited ability to improve the world, even with the best intentions. Christian realism suggests that human beings can never reach perfection in this lifetime. However, faithful people are called to take responsibility for improving society as their circumstances and abilities allow.4 The Serenity Prayer follows this theological framework. It acknowledges that life is not perfect and that some adverse events are beyond an individual’s control. At these times, acceptance, surrender, and letting go may be appropriate. At the same time, it expresses an individual’s desire to seek change for the better when possible.

The Serenity Prayer and the 12-Step Movement

In 1942, the leaders of Alcoholics Anonymous read the prayer in a newspaper obituary in New York. They felt that it epitomized the AA philosophy, and it soon became a regular part of AA meetings and literature.2 In addition, the leaders found its simple phrasing and nonsectarian orientation appealing.

Simple Phrasing

The three-line structure of the prayer makes it a quick read that is simple to memorize. It is also short enough that it can fit onto reference items like AA chips and business cards.

Nonsectarian

While turning to a higher power is the second step in the 12-step path, AA members are not required to subscribe to a particular religion. The individual member is left to interpret the meaning of God or a higher power. Although the Serenity Prayer refers to God, its message can apply to almost any religious school of thought.

Part 1: The Serenity to Accept the Things I Cannot Change

For many people, serenity invokes notions of peace and contentment and conjures images of calm lakes at sunset or pastoral scenes. This first component in the Serenity Prayer, a desire for serenity and acceptance, mirrors goals within the modern mindfulness movement.

Serenity and Mindfulness

Serenity connotes a sense of peace, and mindfulness is a great way to achieve a calm, peaceful mindset. Mindfulness is a state of awareness in which a practitioner focuses on one’s thoughts or emotions in the present moment, as they come and go.5 As practitioners observe their minds during a meditation session, they notice the many thoughts that arise. Mindfulness exercises seek to help students learn to nonjudgmentally observe thoughts as they come into being, demand attention, and fade away.6 Through practice, they learn to let go of unwelcome thoughts and focus on the thoughts that matter.7 As a result, they develop a calmer mind and an increased ability to concentrate. Sitting in such serenity allows them to respond to challenges without panic.6

The Power of Acceptance

Challenges and adverse events are a natural part of life. However, a person’s reaction to adverse events can have a substantial effect on their mental well-being. A commitment to mindfulness allows a person to react calmly to potential challenges and eases accepting hardships in life.

As per Alcoholics Anonymous, or “The Big Book,” acceptance is a vital part of the journey to recovery from alcoholism. Acceptance, for many alcoholics, entails accepting the reality of their condition and accepting that the world will not change and solve their problems; they must make a change within themselves.8 Learning to acknowledge and accept negative emotions, thoughts, and events as part of reality—instead of ignoring or denying them—can minimize their emotional impact. This type of acceptance allows people to adapt and respond to unexpected challenges rather than react to failed expectations with anger.9

Part 2: Courage to Change the Things I Can

When one feels helpless in a stressful situation, it is difficult to try to improve the situation. For example, in a 1974 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a group of participants were exposed to stress-inducing noise and not permitted to terminate it, then later were exposed to the same noise and permitted to terminate it. Many participants opted not to terminate the noise, instead remaining helpless. To compare, another group of participants who were permitted to terminate the noise at both exposures were more likely to take action.10 The learned helplessness carried over—so much so that even when the participants were able to help themselves, they suffered the stressful noise rather than escaped it.

In a stressful situation, a sense of self-efficacy lends a greater ability to deal with and change the situation. The Serenity Prayer includes an implicit challenge that addresses this topic; it encourages people to practice acceptance and cultivate self-responsibility and courage.

In particular, it challenges people to seek aspects of life in which they have some level of control. This challenge is a core component in the 12-step tradition. The prayer reminds members that they are not helpless and should look for those places where they can make positive changes with courage and conviction.

Part 3: Wisdom to Know the Difference

Some folk traditions view wisdom as a gift, something that some people are born with and others lack. It is often conflated with intelligence, but erroneously so. While intelligence often refers to possession of knowledge that can be gained through more traditional book learning, wisdom is a way of thinking that involves intellectual humility, recognition of uncertainty and change, and consideration and integration of different perspectives.11 As such, anyone can cultivate wisdom.

In relation to wisdom, the Serenity Prayer expresses a desire to cultivate discernment and release. In other words, it requests awareness of the difference between events that are in or out of an individual’s control. From there, the one praying must choose how to respond. In the 12-step community, the response becomes a decision of whether to use an addictive substance. The serenity or mindfulness that allows one to let go of the negative can inform a positive choice.12 Wisdom helps a person recognize where they can take action and change to avoid a substance and seek recovery.

The Serenity Prayer as a Personal Creed

As popular as the Serenity Prayer is within the recovery community, it was not composed for a single group. Instead, Reinhold Niebuhr saw it as a prayer that responded to the reality of life in an imperfect world.

As noted by psychologists Jill Stoddard and Niloofar Afari in The Big Book of ACT Metaphors, “The Serenity Prayer… is a succinct and meaningful way of talking about acceptance and willingness when addressing difficult life circumstances.”13

It offers anyone under challenging situations—whether related to substance use or not—a philosophy for cultivating serenity in response to disappointment and building the inner resources necessary to enact positive change and improve quality of life.

References

  1. Epictetus. (1948). The Enchiridion (T. W. Higginson, Trans.). Martino Fine Books.
  2. AAhistory.com. (n.d.). The origin of our Serenity Prayer.
    http://www.aahistory.com/prayer.html
  3. Lighthouse Treatment Center. (2017, August 3). The complete history of the Serenity Prayer.
    https://lighthousetreatment.com/the-complete-history-of-the-serenity-prayer
  4. Paipais, V. (2021). Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian realist pendulum. Journal of International Political Theory, 17(2), 185–202.
    https://doi.org/10.1177/1755088220979001
  5. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Mindfulness. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved June 5, 2021, from
    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness
  6. Karelaia, N., & Reb, J. (2015). Improving decision making through mindfulness. In P. W. B. Atkins & J. Reb (Eds.), Mindfulness in organizations: Foundations, research, and applications. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Keng, S. K., Smosku, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041–1056.
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed.).
  9. Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1075–1092.
    https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000157
  10. Glass, D. C., Krantz, D. S., & Snyder, M. L. (1974). Helplessness, stress level, and the coronary-prone behavior pattern. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10(3), 284–300.
    https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(74)90074-2
  11. Grossmann, I. (2017). Wisdom and how to cultivate it: Review of emerging evidence for a constructivist model of wise thinking. European Psychologist, 22(4), 233–246.
    https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000302
  12. Reudy, N. E., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2011). In the moment: The effect of mindfulness on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 95, 73–87.
    https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0796-y
  13. Stoddard, J., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors. New Harbinger Publications.

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