For the past five years or so I have made a practice of reciting The Serenity Prayer several times a day, often while on my daily walkabout up and down the hill on which I live in San Francisco. I first learned this prayer in my early teens, having a close family member in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Members in A.A. use the prayer extensively and it is used to open and close many of their meetings.
For those unfamiliar with the prayer it goes like this:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
I have found that having this as a daily practice has given me enormous serenity, peace of mind that is both sustaining and palpable in my everyday affairs. I have also learned a few things in this practice and they each have to do with the integrity with which I engage this prayer.
First lesson: acceptance is not being resigned to some condition having to be the way it is while holding on to a strong attachment that it be otherwise. This is not acceptance; it is resignation. Acceptance is being at peace with the situation, even though you may prefer it to be different. Pretending I accept something I do not is lying to myself.
Second lesson: again, tell the truth about what I can and what I cannot change. Part A of this lesson is to understand there are very few things I cannot change. These include other people, the rise and fall of the oceans due to tidal forces and my eventual death. Beyond that, I’m not so sure. We’ve seen how we all have an effect on the weather and climate, so we have an impact on many things simply living as human beings on this planet. We do have control over how much impact we have. Some people use the “I have no control over that” excuse to ignore the consequences their habits and lifestyles are having on this world. In boating terminology, they fail to watch their wake.
Part B of this second lesson is to be truthful about what I can actually change. Many people go about trying to change things that they cannot change, such as other people, thus being the source of much misery in the world. Love is accepting people as they are. Refusing to accept people as they are is not an act of love, even if the published intent is “for their own good.” I have never seen as much wasted effort resulting in so much pain as people trying to change others, whether it be family members, co-workers, lovers or friends. We all know what it feels like when someone is trying to change us. It isn’t pleasant and it implies conditional acceptance. I am fortunate to have several people in my life who love me unconditionally and, believe me, it is a fabulously rich experience!
Third lesson: praying for courage means, if my prayers are answered, I will feel emboldened to take stands I wouldn’t have taken previously. I will be willing to risk more than in the past. I will be willing to go beyond the fear that has previously stopped me. I must be willing to change, to stick my neck out a little further than I’ve been comfortable doing in the past. This will be new behavior. I need to be sure I want what I am praying for. Otherwise, I am out of integrity and fooling myself.
The fourth lesson is one I am still learning and therefore hesitant to write about with conviction. It’s about having the wisdom to know the difference between what I can and cannot do to change things. I suspect this is a living lesson, a course from which one never graduates.
Then again, perhaps all these are living lessons. Maybe that’s why I say the prayer several times a day while also asking for the humility to take each day as it comes, experiencing everything newly, and for the willingness to be guided in my daily choices.
Recently I saw this quote by poet Patrick Overton, author of The Learning Tree:
When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown, we believe one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or, we will be taught how to fly.
This is the kind of faith I find far easier to embrace in my new serenity than I ever could before. This is the kind of discernment I pray for, the wisdom to know the difference.