American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr composed his famous Serenity Prayer in 1923. Throughout the 1930s and 40s the prayer spread throughout church groups and was adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs without attribution to the original author. According to Wikipedia, Niebuhr used it in a 1943 sermon in Massachusetts. It also appeared in a sermon of Niebuhr’s in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces. Finally, Niebuhr poem was subsequently published in the “Queries and Answers” column in The New York Times Book Review on July 2, 1950.
Not only did the prayer’s attribution change, but the actual text of the prayer evolve as its popularity increased.
Niebuhr originally wrote: “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.”
Over time he changed the words to create the poem we know today: “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.”
While I’m not the slightest bit religious, nor am I in the habit of quoting scripture or referencing clergy, I still learned the power of The Serenity Prayer. I felt it most acutely when I was the parent of teenagers. Remembering to focus on the issues and concerns that I actually had a chance of changing allowed me to keep stay sane or, to quote Rudyard Kipling, to “…keep (my) head when all about (me were) losing theirs.”
Needless to say, while we’re all dealing with the effects of the Coronavirus Crisis, The Serenity Prayer is even more powerful – and more comforting – than ever.
“Accept the things I cannot change.”
Wow – aren’t we all doing that right about now?
We can’t change the global ferocity of the virus. We can’t change the di minimis response of our political leaders. We can’t regain the contracts that’ve vanished, the opportunities we’ve missed or the money we’re lost.
For example, Ford and GM have collectively cancelled over $1.5 billion in advertising purchases. If you run a TV station, magazine, or website, or sell media for them, this is devastating news. But there’s also nothing you can do about it. The budgets have been slashed. You must accept that and move on.
“The courage to change the things I can.”
We’ve both heard people say, “the only thing you can really change is yourself.” I don’t believe that’s true. Of course, with enough work and discipline you can change yourself. But you can also change others – or at least change their situations – for the better.
Are you sick of sheltering-in-place? Volunteer at a food bank.
Are you suddenly the stay-at-home spouse while your husband or wife still goes to work? Why not do the laundry and grocery shopping or have dinner ready when your partner gets home?
Don’t want to give the panhandler on the corner your spare change, especially now? You can hand them a fresh, clean mask instead.
“The wisdom to know the difference.”
Perhaps this line is the real key to Niebuhr’s poem and its relevance today. Because now is not the time to be tilting at windmills. Now is the time to accept what we cannot change while we change what we can. And the only way to do that is to know the difference between what you can change and what you can’t.
The result of all this? According to Niebuhr it’s serenity.
According to me, it’s certainty.
What is it to you?
If you want to know more about achieving certainty, click HERE.