The Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer

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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.

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what is usually called ‘the serenity prayer’ for a sermon in the 1930s, although it is sometimes mis-attributed to other writers. The prayer is now quoted widely, and you don’t have to be a Christian or, indeed, have any religious beliefs to see the timeless wisdom in this simple and profound statement.

Serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Some years ago, I attended a seminar given by an excellent motivational speaker. At one point, he handed out pens with the words ‘fact of life’ printed on the side. On stage, he had a large version of the pen, and repeatedly dropped it. The idea was that, like gravity acting on the pen, some things were just ‘facts of life.’ They cannot be changed and you have no power over them. To complain about these things or to seek to change them is, at best, a waste of time and, more often, corrosive and self-defeating.

When the courtiers of the eleventh century Danish king Cnut told their sovereign that he could turn back the tides by an act of his will, the wise king had his retinue carry a seat onto the beach. As he commanded the waves to recede, the court looked on and saw that Cnut could do nothing as the water lapped around his feet and got deeper.

This famous (and probably true) story is worth bearing in mind when things don’t go our way. Often, we are better to accept the limits of our power to change things.

Courage to change the things I can

While much cannot be changed, there are certainly things which can yield to our influence. Lasting change, however, is rarely brought about by direct action. Any sense of direct control we might have over the world around us is almost all illusion, and we would be better to think of effecting change in terms of influence.

First and foremost, change requires a positive mindset. The world we experience is, essentially, a kind of echo of our inner landscape. We make mental models which enable us to navigate through the world, and we interpret the outside world in terms of this framework. Keeping a positive mindset, then, tends to draw positive experiences towards us. From this place, we are able to act in ways which will bring about change, often in indirect and surprising ways.

Keeping a positive mindset can be difficult, especially if we are used to playing negative scripts in our head. We need to be courageous. Courage is not aggression, violence or force. It is seeing the world at its best, and it is proper action, executed in the right way and at the right time.

Lao Tzu, reputedly the founder of Taoism, wrote, ‘A leader is most effective when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, his troops will feel they did it themselves.’ Action is best kept to a minimum and best kept in the background.

“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.” – Lao Tzu

Wisdom to know the difference

This can be the hardest thing of all. Sometimes, we rush in and act when we should not have done so. At other times, we hold back when, perhaps, we should have acted.

And yet perhaps it is not so difficult, after all. It seems to me that the key is being detached. When we observe in a detached way, we are more likely to make the right calls. Even when taking action, we should not be emotionally blinded by our own involvement. What matters most is the way you see the world. Anthony de Mello, a great modern mystic, called it ‘being awake.’ He wrote, ‘It’s not your actions, it’s your being that counts. Then you might swing into action. You might or might not. You can’t decide that until you’re awake.’

Being awake – being aware and unattached – can make a huge difference to the way we interact with the world. When we have the ability to know when to act, how to act, and to be sufficiently detached as we act, our influence can be enormous.

Photo by AlicePopkorn