The Serenity Prayer – Grapevine Article April 1975 by J.W.

A personal interpretation

THE CONCEPT of acceptance used to trouble me. It was not until I looked deeply into the Serenity Prayer that an answer began to appear. “The serenity to accept. . .” Somehow, I think, I had unconsciously imbued that phrase with a meaning it just doesn’t have. I thought of it as saying “to accept serenely,” and pictured a blissful Buddha smiling at his navel while “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” glanced off his impervious sides. Then I caught a glimpse of truth: My image could be correct only in the case of a sculptured Buddha, never in the case of a living, breathing, fully human being.

It was then that I began to glimpse what the Serenity Prayer is actually saying. Suppose, I thought, that I suffered the greatest loss possible to me–the death of the person I most love. Since this would clearly be a thing I could not change, there is no confusion here; accepting would be the only viable choice. And yet how could I ever muster the serenity to smile composedly over such an agonizing loss? I would have to be god, not man, for man does not have the capacity to accept the unacceptable. That is what I would be demanding of myself, but surely no just God would ask it of me–nor would He want it, since only an inhuman monster could smile over the death of a loved one.

What was I supposed to accept?

Finally, the answer came clear. I was to accept my own humanity. I was to accept the fact that, in the face of severe loss, man grieves, man weeps. And perhaps that is his greatest glory.

If I was to accept grief as an appropriate component of the human emotional spectrum, then I would have to expect the passing of grief–as all things pass–and accept that, too. No hanging on to the tattered memories of past happiness, but a willingness to drop the burden when the time is right and to go on living and risking and loving again.

I began to explore other examples of what was, to me, new knowledge. Suppose, at a party to burn the mortgage, my house caught fire and burned down–and I had forgotten to renew the fire insurance. Accept my irresponsibility with a happy smile? Of course not! What I would have to accept would be the guilt and bitterness that would be a natural human reaction to the disaster, a reaction wholly appropriate for a time, and productive of learning. Then I would have to go further and forgive myself my human fallibility and accept the always painful and often surprising fact that I am not and never will be perfect.

I do not know whether others share my continuing inability to achieve the final acceptance–the acceptance of myself as I am today, complete with multiple flaws and a seeming dearth of virtues–but I suspect many do. How did we get sold on this perfection kick? In my case, the sheer ego of it appalls me, for I am daring to condemn the forces that created me for not making me perfect! And yet, if I may paraphrase Lincoln, God must have loved human beings, because he made so many of them. And not a perfect one in the barrel! If God cannot only accept me, but love me, why can’t I?

“Courage to change the things I can.” I once comforted myself with the conviction that my courage to change things was clearly an item in the plus column of my inventory. Then I began to doubt that. What, truly, is courage? Is it, when examined, a refusal to accept? Is it banging one’s head against a wall? Is it a reckless disregard of consequences? Is it letting the chips fall where they may, regardless of whom they may hit? Is it “self-will run riot”? If it was any or all of these things, then I had it in abundance. But was it? I began to see that what I had accepted as aspects of courage described a four-year-old’s temper tantrum, rather than the actions and attitudes of a mature human being in pursuit of a goal.

Slowly, I started to realize what is actually required in order to change the things I can. The flexibility to accept setbacks and bounce back for more. The patience to wait for the proper time to act. The endurance to suffer in silence, without being sidetracked from the goal. The willingness to accept pain and rejection. The humility to accept the possibility of defeat. The selflessness to make sacrifices. The good judgment to know that the goal is a valid one. All of these are attributes of courage. All of them are creative, rather than destructive. All of them result in growth. They are a far cry from my former willingness to grab angrily and greedily for what I wanted, no matter what the cost to others or to myself. They are the fruits of maturity, not the seed of its origin.

“Wisdom to know the difference.” At discussion meetings, this is sometimes dismissed with an airy wave of the hand. “All you have to do is to realize that you are the only thing you can change,” someone will say. I subscribed to this for a while, but then I began to wonder. How much could I change myself?

Once again, I became aware of the ego implicit in this concept. What God produced only in an imperfect state, I was going to perfect for Him! How? By an effort of will? But I had spent my life, drunk and sober, in trying to do just that, and I really didn’t think I had gotten very far. Every alcoholic has plumbed the depths of a million failures in his efforts to control or stop drinking. Only when he accepts his powerlessness over alcohol does he achieve the peace of sobriety. The Big Book says, “We are not saints.” The Sixth and Seventh Steps suggest that we become ready to have God remove our defects and that we humbly ask Him to do so. Nowhere is it suggested that we change ourselves.

Are we, then, completely powerless? When we ask for “courage to change the things we can,” are we making a hopeless request? Is “the wisdom to know the difference” a hoax that leads to a delusion of power?

I think not. I no longer believe that I have the power to change myself–but I think I am able to let myself be changed. I think that if I bypass my ego and open myself to change, it will occur.

To clarify, I took an example. Suppose, for instance, that I hate my job. What can I do? Of course, I can make an effort to find something more satisfactory; but until I am successful, I am stuck right where I am. So. . .Do I decide that I won’t give an inch? Do I make up my mind that my employer is unchangingly loathsome? That my fellow workers are lazy or inefficient or obnoxious and always will be? That I am overworked and underpaid–and always will be? That, therefore, it is only right for me to hate every moment I am forced to work there?

In the past, I have frequently embraced such an attitude, ridiculous though it seems when looked at squarely. I have clung to dissatisfaction as though it was my proudest possession, daring anyone to take it away from me!

Is there, perhaps, an element of fear in this attachment to a negative attitude? Do I cling to it to protect my ego? Am I really afraid of having to admit that I judged too hastily or too uncharitably, that I was wrong and that the job isn’t really so bad after all? Would I really prefer to put myself through the upheaval of relocation, rather than admit I was wrong?

If not, then the solution is clear. I can win, not necessarily by changing jobs, not through a decision to make myself love the things I hate (that is impossible), but simply by becoming willing to be changed, by letting myself see and enjoy the inevitable good side inherent in every situation. True, I may still change jobs if that is clearly advisable; but if I do, it had better be with a willingness to accept the unpleasant aspects of the new position, or I will be no better off.

If I am correct, then the wisdom to know the difference lies in learning that there is no difference! When I make a decision to change a given situation, I must be aware of the need to accept many of the things that change will bring–tension, delay, doubt–before reaping the benefits of the change. If, on the other hand, I decide to accept what I have now, I must realize that change is implicit in the acceptance: My action in surrendering, rather than fighting, will affect the responses I evoke from people and from life.

Acceptance and change, then, must be two sides of the same coin, two boundaries of a spectrum of possibilities. Each contains the other, and the two interact harmoniously and eternally without my having to lift a finger. I can simply let go and let it happen.

I believe this theory to be a valid one. But, as is the case with all theories, it will take time to assimilate it to the extent that it will affect my attitudes and actions. Meanwhile, what do I do back at the ranch?

First and most important, I must determine to the best of my ability whether the change I am about to throw my weight behind is constructive. The sort of move I am most likely to make is from the frying pan into the fire, and I doubt that I am alone in this failing. It is always easy to change things for the worse. Changing them for the better, if it can be done at all, is arduous and time-consuming. I generally want change to occur, if not yesterday, at least today. If I cannot learn to temper my impatience with caution, I will probably be better off trying to accept what I have.

The second way I try to gain “the wisdom to know the difference” is this: Once assured that the change will be an improvement, I go all out to make it. I try everything that comes to mind; I ask advice; I give myself to the project unstintingly. If, after I have done my utmost, there is still no perceptible difference, then I must swallow the bitter but necessary knowledge that I have attempted the impossible. At that point, battered but doubt-free, I find the ability to accept the situation easier to come by. A further bonus of this experiential method is that it adds to my scanty store of “wisdom to know the difference,” ready to be used when a similar situation arises in the future. My personal feeling is that we are not born with wisdom, nor does God provide it at the drop of a prayer. It must be earned, much of the time, by plain old trial and error.

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