It feels like we have been gazing into a dark mirror lately. Reflected images of anger, helplessness, and hopelessness seem to look back at us as we struggle to find a glimmer of happiness. But our dim vision is one based less upon reality and more on biased constructs. While it is evident that there are significant concerns over important issues such as racism, religion, gun violence, addiction, and corruption (among a host of others), our bleak perspective may be just a bit skewed. There is an incredible amount of good to be found and joy to be discovered when we look just a little bit longer.
I was talking to a 16-year-old boy this morning. He is a bright young man who has taken on a part-time job while starting his junior year at what is considered one of the best and most challenging high schools in the country according to U.S. News and World Report and the Washington Post. Their mission is to “provide all students with a data-driven, intellectual and creative learning environment appropriate for success and citizenship in an ever-evolving world.” However, his experience is one of which he calls a toxic learning environment where vicious competition exists even in the quest for valedictorian. Stress seemed to be oozing from every pore of this gentle young man. It seemed to me to be a fine time to share with him the insight of The Serenity Prayer.
I discovered The Serenity Prayer in 1972 while reading Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five. The hero, Billy Pilgrim, is an optometrist who is struggling with his inability to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, despite many horrible things he witnessed as a soldier during World War II. He is unable to trust in a traditional notion of God because of the trauma he suffered but does find a power greater than himself which he finally accepts. The prayer is framed on the wall of his office and ultimately helps guide him to try to change humanity’s sorrow and pain over death. His courage is restored.
Legend has it that Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous was introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer in early 1942 by his friend Jack who saw it used in an obituary in a New York Herald Tribune obituary. He was so taken by the Serenity Prayer that his fellowship printed 500 copies and distributed them to AA members. Since then, it has become a cornerstone of recovery for untold thousands (or perhaps millions) of people who suffer from substance abuse disorders.
Much more can be written about The Serenity Prayer, but suffice it to say that this simple little verse continues to do what Billy Pilgrim so desperately wanted. It changes the world. By offering a plea for serenity, courage, and wisdom, the prayer guides us along a sacred and intentional path to peace especially in times of struggle, despair, and uncertainty.
Other-Reliance; Invisible Means of Support
Authentic serenity, courage, and wisdom become possible when we begin to understand that there is a power greater than ourselves which is in charge. When we trust this is true it removes us from the driver’s seat and directs the ego to take a break. This is not so easy in a world that so highly values self-reliance. For those who have experienced trauma, it is even harder. People who practice The 12 Steps have come to believe that such other-reliance is necessary in order to grow beyond addictions and compulsions.
Most of us have some sort of relationship with a God of our own understanding. But many do not…or feel like they cannot. Finding a power greater than oneself becomes a greater challenge when this is the case. I once counseled a group of eight adolescent boys who had suffered unimaginable trauma at the hands of predatory adults. For them, it was almost impossible to trust in a God who they believed allowed them to be wounded so deeply. But their desire for healing was greater than their pain and fear. Each one of them embarked on an exploration to find a Higher Power. One boy chose the Universe because of its obvious endlessness. One, who was the son of a math professor, chose numbers because there is no beginning or end to them. Another chose nature with all of its awesome power and beauty. Each of them was able to find something that was bigger than they were. The result was a restoration of resilience, hope, serenity, wisdom, and courage. These boys taught me how to Let Go and Let God.
Grant Me Serenity; A Calm in the Midst of Chaos
There is a secret to finding serenity. You cannot hope to find it through pursuit. In that way, it is like trying to capture the beauty and grace of a butterfly. Though you may learn all about serenity in a study of philosophy or divinity, there are only facts to be gained there. You might catch a butterfly in a net, but all you will have is a pretty bug. However, if you sit quietly in a garden of flowers, the essence of beauty and grace will alight on you in the form of a butterfly. If you let go of your expectations and give up trying to control the outcomes of everything, the essence of serenity will find its way to your heart. Religions, self-help groups, and life coaches try to provide us with directions and gimmicks which might guide us toward it, but the pathway is really not so complicated. Serenity can be achieved simply by accepting life on life’s terms, letting go, and embracing the many gifts you’ve already received.
Grant Me Courage; You Are an Agent of Change
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”~ Mohandas Gandhi
Gandhi was a great teacher of courage. It is not the courage of violence over tyranny, but rather the courage of a warrior who is willing to die for his beliefs while refusing to kill for them. When we let go of our stranglehold on the belief that we must control in order to overcome, something wonderful happens. We become agents of real change. Jesus was very clear about this notion when he offered The Great Commandment. The Buddha instructed of The Dhamma which is a code of conduct rejecting violence while embracing moral change. These principles are embraced by all religions.
The kind of courage required to live a good and happy life is not so much about overcoming evil. It is about facing every situation without shrinking from the truth. It requires standing tall while holding on to your morals and not allowing the storm to throw you off course. It doesn’t mean we resist change. It means we become active agents of change as we grow in wisdom.
Grant Me Wisdom; A Compass to Guide You Home
It has been written that King Solomon asked for only one gift from Yahweh. His prayer was not for more wealth or power, but for wisdom. Wisdom guides us with what Senator Ted Kennedy called a ‘True Compass’ which displaces an emptiness found inside each of us and provides an awareness of the right direction to take.
Wisdom involves knowledge and experience but knowledge and experience do not necessarily provide wisdom. The gift of wisdom comes with when there is an openness to the ups, downs, and uncertainties of everyday life. It is a deep understanding that everything passes and plays out over time which offers us a feeling of calm and balance. It gives us a sense of tolerance and the knowledge that we are all connected with each other and with all things. It requires that we live fully in the present moment with acceptance of the past and willingness for the future.
Happiness and Peace; Played from the Inside Out
We have discovered that serenity, courage, and wisdom are the ingredients for a happiness and peace recipe. When combined, they should be allowed to reach a temperature of about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, it’s an inside job. There are several ways to get there. One of the most popular trends is through the practice of mindfulness meditation (or what I call iMindfulness). Regular devotion and prayer time is just as good. It is important to be consistent with these by allocating at least ten minutes a day to them.
Finally, use The Serenity Prayer freely and often. Memorize it. When troubling situations show up (as they are bound to do) use the words as a silent mantra.
This will activate your True Compass and set you on the better course. Remember that forces on the outside will be both hot and cold. Storms will blow up out of nowhere. Material things will promise comfort and can certainly provide temporary joy…but they are transient. Other people will walk in and out of your life “like busboys in a restaurant” but you will remain until the very end.
Now take that longer look into a brighter mirror. Look at you! You look marvelous. After all, peace and happiness were always that close.
Robert Kenneth Jones
is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse. ,In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.