The Serenity Prayer
In the “Serenity Prayer,” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr asks for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed.  Many of us have a hard time with such acceptance. When we feel powerless, we often struggle to regain our footing, hoping to set things right, at least by our definition of “right.”
In my work as a hospital chaplain, for instance, I often meet with people whose bodies are falling apart. All the interventions at the medical team’s disposal cannot stop the disintegration of their lives. Patients and family feel angry, sad, and afraid. Sometimes, they lash out at staff, blaming doctors for their illness or chastising nurses for taking too long to respond to their needs, or they threaten to sue. Some of them try to gain control by seeking information, as if they might find a hidden piece of knowledge that would change everything.
Other patients, more understanding of human limitations and kinder and gentler with themselves and others, resort to prayer. Hoping for a miracle, they seek to sway God’s heart, to influence their future. Praying feels better, at least, than doing nothing.
Trusting in God
Yet not everyone seeks to change the course of reality through prayer. Some pray for comfort, for peace of mind and heart. They understand there is “a time to be born and a time to die.” [Ecclesiastes 3:2] They bow to God’s will, whatever it is, and seek only acceptance of that will.
You don’t have to believe in God or prayer, however, to understand that we are mortal. Difficulties, suffering, tragedy, and death touch each person’s life. We cannot have everything we want. To experience peace at any time, but especially at the end of a life, it helps to focus on changing ourselves rather than trying to change reality.
“Grant me the serenity,” reads Niebuhr’s prayer, “to accept the things I cannot change . . . ”
Is Serenity Always Best?
Serenity is a great thing. When we face struggle and discouragement, when we’ve been evicted from our homes, or have lost our jobs, or been felled by accident or illness, serenity and acceptance can help us cope.
But perhaps serenity is not always the best response. We might choose to die trying to best our oppressor, to appeal the verdict, to gentle the villain, to force the landlord to give us another chance. How do we know when to let go and when to fight?
That’s why Niebuhr’s pray continues: “. . . the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In this column, though, we are considering serenity alone. How do we relax, let go, and surrender to the reality of life? How do we become serene, even if just for a moment?
Judging My Mother
Many years ago, one of my Buddhist spiritual directors explained to me about the “stories” we humans tell. She didn’t mean myths or folk tales, nor was she talking about the anecdotes we share with others about our childhood or our work day. Every moment of our lives, our brains are busy interpreting, explaining, and assuming. We try to make sense out of what happens to us. In doing so, we create a story.
This is not all bad. Indeed, some stories have great healing power, as in narrative therapy, or when we give voice to the world’s suffering, or share the myths that hold us together.
Unfortunately, stories can also be damaging. When we judge ourselves and others, for instance, when we interpret reality without actually observing it, and gossip and lie, we spread shame and discord.
At the time my spiritual director explained to me about “stories,” I had just started taking care of my elderly mother. I complained about her attitude, tried to analyze her actions, and judged her. For instance, I cooked her meals and brought them to her on a tray so she could eat in bed. Typically, she would be reading, and she’d accept my offering without a word or, at times, a glance.
Stories We Tell
I felt offended. I labeled my mother, called her ungrateful, selfish, insensitive. Trying to find a reason for her faults, I blamed her upbringing as an only child to two intellectuals who weren’t very good at meeting her emotional needs. I came up with all kinds of reasons for why she was such a cold human being.
To make things worse, I questioned whether my mother was really sick. She’d been spending most of her days in bed for many years. Now she’d reached the point where even putting a meal together was too much for her. But was she that weak, or did she just like being waited on?
So there I was, resentful and bitter, and I told my spiritual director all about it. I expected her to affirm my feelings, certain my mother was in the wrong and that I deserved to be upset.
Instead, she pointed out that my judgments and explanations were stories I was making up. They weren’t facts; they weren’t even observations of reality. Instead, they were assumptions about reality filtered through years of my history, of my life.
Learning to Accept the Reality
So I asked myself, “What did I really know?”
I knew that my mother spent hours in bed every day. I knew that, after cooking her meals, I brought them to her on a tray. Usually, she would be reading, and she would make room for the tray without taking her eyes from the page. Then I would leave her, often without a word passing between us.
Basically, that is all that I knew. That is what I could observe. Everything else was “story.”
For instance, I had a story that it was wrong for my mother to ignore my service. Because I believed it was wrong to behave as she did, I then judged and condemned her. I figured I knew what was going on in her heart and mind, and I decided she was selfish and thoughtless.
Focusing on Oneself
Yet what did I really know about how she felt or what she thought? Maybe she didn’t like me, or maybe she really was an unpleasant person. Or perhaps she was shy, uncertain, withdrawn because she didn’t know how to express her love. She might have been so wounded she couldn’t face the reality of her life, so lost herself in books and games and barely noticed when the real world interrupted. Since I didn’t ask her, and she didn’t offer to tell me, I will never know. After my spiritual director explained to me about stories, I realized I didn’t need to know.
At the same time, I realized it would be best for me to look less at what was “wrong” with her and more at what I was experiencing inside myself. What did I feel? What did I want? Why, for instance, was I taking care of her in the first place? Did I want to continue? If so, did I need to discuss my feelings with her, or would I rather carry on quietly, managing my emotions on my own? Could I find compassion for her? Could I remember the many times I had felt loved and supported by her, times when she had been generous? Would that make a difference?
Ultimately, I had to decide what could I change and what I could not.
Letting Go of Stories
I decided I could not change my mother. No matter how much I judged her or how many times I told myself she was wrong, she would be the same person. Even if I told her how bad I thought she was, it wouldn’t have helped.
In the end, I chose to continue taking care of her. I did this in part because I loved her, in part because I felt it was the right thing to do, and in part because I was grateful to her for all she had given me over my lifetime. Having made that decision, I needed to accept my choice. I did not choose to take care of her because she would thank me or reward me, so why did I seek some kind of praise or thanks?
By letting go of my stories about what I should get or should do or should have, I found serenity. Without my spiritual director, I might never have found a way to accept my mother and myself. I might not have noticed my feelings, nor seen the way my thoughts fed those feelings. Certainly, I wouldn’t have realized that just because I had those thoughts didn’t make them real. They were stories I made up about reality. They weren’t reality itself.
When we let go of our stories, we often find serenity and acceptance.
Other Paths to Serenity
There are other ways to find serenity, of course. Meditation, prayer, yoga, dance, music, poetry, collage, recovery meetings, grief groups, and sharing a cup of tea with a friend are all examples of ways to find a peace that helps us accept the reality of our lives. Niebuhr, in the second stanza of his prayer, offers a few other suggestions. 
For instance, he seeks the ability to surrender to God’s will. Once something has happened, it cannot be undone, no matter how much we wish or resent or blame. If we can’t control something, doesn’t it makes sense to surrender to the reality of what exists? What happens if we surrender to the moment, if we sit and do nothing, simply observe what is before us? What might we then notice? Fear of our helplessness? Anxiety, shame, anger? When there is nothing for us to do except let go, how do we feel?
Whatever the feeling, whatever our inner experience, it is not reality. It’s just part of our story.
Accepting All that Is Our Lives
Other ways Niebuhr prays for serenity is to live moment by moment and day by day, to be present to life’s beauty and joy. He advises us to embrace hardship rather than fight it because through hardship, we grow and, eventually, we find peace. Embracing the totality of our lives helps us accept the things we do not like, which helps us let go of our disgruntlement. In his prayer, Niebuhr asks for the ability to trust in God and in the rightness of all things.
We know less than we think we do about what is best or good or even what is just. Serenity reminds us that we have a choice of how we respond to the world. We can accept the reality of our lives or we can believe the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that bolster our self-esteem and justify our judgments. Serenity invites us to release those stories and choose acceptance and peace.
This is only the beginning of the prayer, however. Next month, we will consider the times when change is not only possible, but is best.
In faith and fondness,
- The full text of the Serenity Prayer can be found many places, including here on the Beliefnet.com website and here at Wikipedia. For some history behind the prayer, see The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, by Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton.
- The second stanza reads:
- Living one day at a time,
- Enjoying one moment at a time,
- Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
- Taking, as Jesus did,
- This sinful world as it is,
- Not as I would have it,
- Trusting that You will make all things right,
- If I surrender to Your will,
- So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
- And supremely happy with You forever in the next.