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As we head into another uncertain year, I have been reflecting on The Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Neibuhr. This prayer, popularized by The Twelve Step Program, is a beautiful guide to living a life of peace and wisdom. The prayer is most commonly quoted as the following:
“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.”
The prayer starts with a request for serenity – a state of mental calm and clarity. How do we achieve this state of serenity? The prayer itself gives us direction on how to develop it.
We start with acceptance – letting go of things outside of our control. When I worked at a substance abuse treatment center we would teach the families a “new” version of the serenity prayer which started like this, “God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change”. We often spend a lot of time and energy trying to change others around us which only leads to frustration and anxiety. Acceptance means recognizing that we don’t have the power to change other people or sometimes even the circumstances of our lives. Many of us also try to control our feelings by saying things to ourselves like “I shouldn’t feel this way!…I need to feel happy or oh no, am I getting anxious?!” These thoughts only make us more anxious. Acceptance of other people, circumstances and our own feelings can lead us to the next step of the prayer – taking control of what we can do.
Courage means having the strength and determination to do what is within our control. Our experience of the pandemic has brought the need for courage into our awareness. Many times over these last months I have redirected my clients to think about what they can control in their lives rather than what they can’t control or what they have lost. What health precautions can you take? How can you structure things at home around work and school that works for your family? How can you stay connected with friends, family and your church community in creative ways? Focusing on what we can control keeps us from feeling hopeless in difficult circumstances. Courage is about taking responsibility for what you can do instead of succumbing to being a victim of your situation.
So how do we know the difference between something that is our responsibility and something that is not? Wisdom allows us to know when to practice acceptance and when to practice courage. We can ask ourselves “Is this something within my control?” If not, you can then ask yourself, “what is within my control?” Sometimes it can be tricky to figure out which is which, so I recommend getting feedback from your therapist, trusted friend, or pastor. The “new” version of the serenity prayer can give us some clarity – “the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me!” True wisdom is knowing that, with God’s grace, we have the power within ourselves to change.