The Perennial Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer

Most of us are familiar with the first few lines of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, even those unfamiliar with its source: “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.”

I am continually reminded of the wisdom of this prayer – in each of its elements.

There are many things we cannot change. The weather is one of them. It has been a long, hard winter here in the Twin Cities (and in many other parts of the United States). Too many days of subzero temperature and more snow than people here are used to. We can’t do a blessed thing to change the weather, but we can choose how to react to it. If I allow myself to spend time moaning about how much I hate the cold, how I can’t stand to see snow anymore, how horrible this winter is, etc., all I accomplish is to sap my energy and make myself (and potentially others) miserable. The alternative, from my Buddhist vipassana training, is to note the cold or snow and the feeling is produces and let it go. To not let myself be attached to a condition other than the one I am forced to confront.

I had a similar experience regarding rain on the Camino. There is an enormous difference to one’s peace of mind between, “Oh cr__. It’s raining today. It’s going to be miserable walking 30 kilometers in the rain.” and simply observing that it is raining, and that will be the condition of my walk.

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

In contrast, there are things the make us unhappy that we can change. If I am in an unhealthy relationship, I can remain in the relationship and complain about the damage it is doing to me, or I can end the relationship. If I’m unhappy about some element of my behavior, I can change it.

Lord, grant me the courage to change the things I can.

Obviously neither can be effective without the ability to correctly discern what I can change and what I can’t.

Lord, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.

Here is the prayer in its entirety:

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.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

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