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The Serenity Prayer and Beyond

 

The lines, now recognized as the Serenity Prayer, are rooted in a sermon that Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, gave either in 1932 or 1933. They are the following:

  • Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the insight to know the one from the other.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have adapted it in the following way:

  • 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.

Regardless of the wording, the basic meaning does not change and, I would maintain that these words have had a profound effect on the way people think about things. One of the difficulties I have found people to have is their belief that they are capable of changing situations that they simply cannot. Thus, employees are not likely to change their boss’s behavior just as spouses are not likely to change certain traits their partners may have. The distinction is that they can change the way they react to their bosses or their spouses much more easily than changing how these significant others behave toward them.

An important ingredient in cognitive-behavior therapy is implicitly stated in the Serenity Prayer: You can change the way you think about others but don’t expect others to change for you. This is not to say–you can’t ask your spouse to change a certain type of behavior that you might find bothersome or annoying–without ever arriving at the desired consequences. You may. But generally, I have found that in most situations it makes more sense for a married couple to be able to live with and accept each other’s ingrained differences. Frequently, couples enter marital counseling with each partner blaming the other without understanding how each one’s behavior impacts the marriage.

Another illustration of this could be a student, after studying long hours, performs poorly on an exam. That student may blame her/himself for not doing well. Let us look at this example more closely. If the student did the best he/she could, then perhaps she/he may come to the conclusion that he/she is not particularly skilled in the area that exam covers. But if this is the case, does she/he have to feel badly about himself? Given the above information, I would answer this question with a firm “no.” However, what if that same student did poorly because of intense test anxiety, but she/he would have achieved a much higher score if the experienced anxiety was under control. Because no one of us can perform equally well in all areas that we may partake in, in the first situation it may be preferable for the student to accept this fact and focus on another field. In the second case, however, in which the student is suffering from test anxiety, she/he can change this through techniques involving relaxation and/or meditation with the possible help of a therapist or expert in that subject.

Many people are upset not only by the current coronavirus, but also by the way our leaders are handling the state of the world. I don’t doubt that these people may have the best of all intentions but I consider it unhealthy if their anger is such that they are paralyzed, thereby, preventing them from moving forward. Certainly, if you want change be sure to vote inasmuch as that is an activity within your power. However, changing the state of society is a huge task well beyond the scope of any one individual. Rather than expending so much mental energy in thinking about the impossible, I would advise these people to choose something near and dear to their heart in which their involvement might affect some type of change, whether it be small or large. Here, once more, we see from the Serenity Prayer the importance and wisdom of delineating between what we can change and what we cannot.

By docallegro

Consulting Psychologist
Specialties in: Cognitve-Behavioral Interventions, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Stress Management, Relationship Expertise, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Fluent in Spanish

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