“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.”
~ theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
Recovery and 12-Step Fellowship meetings around the world often begin in the same way – with the assembled group reciting the Serenity Prayer together. Early on in rehab, newly-sober addicts and alcoholics are taught to recite this prayer whenever they feel overwhelmed or tempted.
But what do these words – serenity, acceptance, courage, and wisdom really MEAN?
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Serenity Refers to Inner Peace
Addiction is characterized by chaos, loss of control, and emotional turmoil.
Serenity, on the other hand, is a positive state of mind where you are untroubled by life’s ups and downs. It means remaining calm and true to yourself, regardless of what else is going on.
Some would even say that serenity is the goal of recovery.
Acceptance Refers to Taking What is Offered
Another characteristic of addiction is denial – refusing to believe what is plainly evident. Denial is an extension of our own stubborn egos – a futile attempt to reject what IS to chase after what we DESIRE.
In recovery, an example of this would be trying to control our consumption of drugs or alcohol when the very definition of addiction is that we have no such power.
Acceptance, on the other hand, means making the best of what we have. It means realizing the reality of what life has given us – genes predisposed to addiction, a difficult childhood, everyday stress, etc. – and still working with what we have been given to live the best life we possibly can.
Courage Refers to Mastering Our Fear
There is an old acronym in recovery that signifies what “fear” is – False Evidence Appearing Real, meaning that another characteristic of addiction is being controlled by distorted or untrue perceptions about ourselves, our own value as human beings, our disease of addiction, and our ability to get better.
Because of these invalid perceptions, we react in unhealthy, self-destructive ways. We drink and use to cover up our own feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and shame.
Courage, on the other hand, means reacting and moving forward positively, even when we feel negative – doing the right thing, even when we are unsure. Courage doesn’t mean that we have NO fear, it means that we refuse to be ruled by it.
Courage during recovery can take many forms:
- Honesty – even when the truth is uncomfortable
- Fortitude – even when doing the right thing is hard
- Perseverance – even in the face of obstacles
- Faith – even when we feel like giving up
- Willingness to change – even when we are unsure
Wisdom Refers to Learning from Your Mistakes
Addiction can be likened to a form of insanity. Some people define insanity as doing the same thing again and again, yet expecting different results.
For example, you may tell yourself for the umpteenth time that THIS time it’s going to be different – you’re only going to have a few beers instead of getting drunk… or you’re only going to get high on the weekends…or you REALLY mean it this time – you’re just going to muster your willpower and quit.
All the things you’ve said before.
Wisdom, on the other hand, means recognizing when something doesn’t work and being willing to try something else. It means putting our ego and stubbornness aside in order to reach our goals.
Wisdom in recovery can be as simple as understanding that our old behaviors and attitudes tend to get us in trouble, so instead of doing what WE think is right, we take the advice of our doctors, therapists, or sponsors.
What Are Some Advantages of the Serenity Prayer?
By being mindful of the meaning behind the words of the Serenity Prayer, we gain a number of benefits:
- We practice differentiating between those things we can and cannot control.
- We learn to make the best of what we have and where we are in life.
- We become empowered, because we focus our time and energy on making real, positive changes.
- We get out of our own way and stop sabotaging our own efforts.
- We stop repeating the same mistakes.
- We stay humble, because we realize our human limitations.
Most of all, it becomes possible for us to rediscover happiness through acceptance. We can find the good in what IS and in what we CAN do, instead of focusing on the frustration of what we CAN’T do.