THE COURAGE TO CHANGE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE SERENITY PRAYER

NOVEMBER 28, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

The well known Serenity Prayer, of Alcoholics Anonymous, was originally written by the late American theologian from Union Seminary in New York, Reinhold Niebuhr. A.A. adopted it as an official prayer sometime after the close of World War II. Who was Reinhold Niebuhr and how did he come to write that prayer?

Reinhold Niebuhr was product of the German Evangelical Church in America. His father, Gustav Niebuhr, was a minister and a model for his son to follow. Niebuhr’s father left his native Germany and immigrated to America because of disagreement over German military service. Gustav was somewhat liberal and progressive for an evangelical Christian. His son, Reinhold, followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the ministry. After a very successful pastorate of 14 years in Detroit, during which he did a great deal of writing and lecturing around the country, Niebuhr was offered the position of associate professor of Christian ethics at Union Seminary in 1928, which he accepted. It was a fortuitous decision and set the course for an illustrious teaching career of nearly 30 years, during which he published some well known books in theological circles such as, Moral Man And Immoral Society, and An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. Niebuhr was involved in a host of social issues over the years—issues of war and peace, civil rights and race relations, labor and unemployment, etc.—and for awhile flirted with Marxist and socialist political views. He ended up as a pragmatic democratic liberal much influenced by such thinkers as William James, Walter Lippman and Arthur Schleisinger.

I mention these things to give you the context out of which Niebuhr wrote his now famous Serenity Prayer. This was not the prayer of a man who was wrestling with purely individual problems—struggling with bad habits and discovering the limits of his personal strengths and weaknesses—though he no doubt had come to terms with such things. No, this was the prayer of a man who had struggled mightily with the great social issues of his day, struggled and often failed, won perhaps little victories here and there for one worthy cause or another. He eventually came to the recognition that all social and political goals and ideals were forever flawed by the harsh facts of human nature—power, greed, pride, fear and despair—contending always with the higher virtues of love, justice, compassion, pity and hope. And all of it played out on the stage of human history. The dream of creating a near perfect society, the Kingdom of God on earth, was a hopeless and impossible religious ideal, yet necessary fuel for the endless spiritual quest.

Niebuhr wanted to be a theological realist, a social pragmatist, and a moral idealist all in one, to have religion make sense in the real world of work and politics, and to not be disillusioned by the inevitable failures and shortcomings of any human undertaking. Yet at the same time to keep one’s faith in God and the better side of human nature what ‘er betide. All of this is reflected in the Serenity Prayer, which Neibuhr wrote in the 1940’s when the nation was at war with Germany and Japan. The original prayer went as follows:

During the war a friend published it in a collection of prayers for the Federal Council of Churches which the USO distributed to hundreds of thousands of service personnel. Richard Fox, Niebuhr’s biographer, reports that in post W.W. II German a word-for-word translation of the prayer became as universally known there as here in America, something Niebuhr never knew, only it was incorrectly attributed to an 18th century German theologian, Friedrich Oetinger. The reason for the error was due to the translator, a writer named Theodore Wilhelm, who used the pseudonym, Oetinger. Somehow or other Niebuhr was not credited with the original authorship. In any event, Fox reports that the prayer "hung over family hearths stitched into mass-produced weavings" in both Germany and America. The prayer even became "the official motto of the West German Army academy—a fine irony, since it was from the service of the German military that Gustav Niebuhr had fled nearly a hundred years before."

One final note of irony. In 1970, the year before Niebuhr’s death, an ad appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "AMAZING EMBROIDERY OFFER. Beautiful ‘Silent Majority’ Serenity Prayer Now Yours in Fabulous Crewel Stitchery." For Niebuhr to have his prayer claimed for Nixon’s "Silent Majority" was "cruel" irony indeed. Poor Rennie, as he was called by his friends, and whose health was failing, would practically go into apoplexy whenever President Nixon’s image would appear on the television screen. He was not a happy man to see his prayer claimed by the political opposition. But it was just one more example of how universally appealing his Serenity Prayer is whatever one’s nationality or political persuasion.

The Serenity Prayer touches on common universal human experiences of life—anxiety and acceptance in the face of inevitable tragic events—fear of change and difficulties in bringing about constructive changes in self and society—the struggle to achieve serenity, courage and wisdom in all that we do or happens to us. Niebuhr’s Prayer pulled it all together in a few simple sentences which everyone could understand and relate to. It was the kind of prayer that A.A. could easily adopt and apply to the life experiences of alcoholics. It was even the kind of prayer that the West German Army Academy or Nixon’s Silent Majority could adapt to their particular political life experiences however different from that of its author. Who knows, maybe there’s a Russian or Chinese translation hanging somewhere in the Kremlin or Beijing. There’s a lot of good common sense and practical wisdom in that prayer for a world of real politick.

Let us reflect briefly upon the meaning of Niebuhr’s prayer as we find ourselves approaching the threshold of a New Year, a new century, and a new millennium. "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change." There are so many things we cannot change in our lives. We waste vat amounts of physical, psychic and spiritual energy with useless regrets, failed fantasies, or embittered recollections. I may be blind, deaf or lame—black, white or yellow—alcoholic, diabetic, anorexic—short, tall, fat or skinny—introvert or extrovert—bald or curly—handsome, beautiful, plain or ugly—bright, average or below in native intelligence—strong or weak in physical constitution. There are some things about myself I cannot change or can only change within certain very well defined limits.

An alcoholic cannot change the fact that he or she has developed an irreversible constitutional addiction to alcohol beyond that person’s ability to control. All one can do is resolve, with the help of God and the support of other sympathetic human beings with the same problem, to abstain from drinking, one day at a time. I can’t change the fact that I inherited male pattern baldness from my father (or mother), where it came from doesn’t matter. I could have hair transplants from the back of my neck to the top of my head, a painful process, or wear a wig. But after some 40 years of living with the bald persuasion, would I want to go through the psychological changes of a new sense of outward identity? Not really. However, I recall as a young man of 19-20 going to a hair specialist, getting sapped in the head with ultra violet electrical charges and rubbing various salves and lotions into my scalp, all in hopes of saving my hair. But try as I might the salves didn’t save and I had to learn to live with a wide part in the middle of my head. Though I still have an occasional dream of seeing myself with a full head of hair, when I wake up in the morning I still have no more hair to comb than when I went to bed the night before.

I can’t change—you can’t change—the mistakes in human relationships made in the past year or years of our lives. We can make amends to a degree, say we’re sorry, ask for forgiveness, forgive others, and forgive ourselves (much harder to do). But we cannot change the fact that we have been (and will be) at times angry, insensitive, selfish, stupid, uncaring, forgetful, dishonest, mean, even spiteful. That’s the human condition. There are few saints among us, and even the saints have their flaws. We can’t change the past. What we can change is our relationship to it and our attitudes and actions stemming from it.

Which leads us to the second proposition in Niebuhr’s great prayer—courage to change what should be changed. Notice that Niebuhr originally referred to things that should be changed, not merely those things that can be changed. There is a world of difference between the two. We have the power, limited though it may be, to change all kinds of things in many different directions, good and bad. The question is, of all the things that could be changed, what should we change and to what end? The word should is in the imperative mode and implies a sense of rightness and moral order. Though the psychoanalyst Karen Horney warned us about the neurotic guilt fostered by too many "shoulds" in our lives, still we cannot avoid the presence of real moral obligations in our lives. The power of the should, of the call to righteousness, is also a fact of human beings living in society. "Right on!" is the contemporary expression of the power of this moral imperative.

I owe it to myself, to God, and to others to do what I can to keep myself reasonably healthy in body, mind and spirit. Life is a gift and what I do and think and say makes a difference in the world, contributes to the evolving pattern of human historical existence. Other people care about me, count on me, need me to complete the bonds of love and justice in their lives. If I drink too much, smoke too much, eat too much, and get stressed out with too many emotional and mental problems, I add to the disharmony in others’ lives and in the collective life of humanity. The things I should change in my life and in society are those things that by changing will help restore a sense of harmony, health and well-being and contribute to a social pattern of love, justice and peace in the world. No easy task, to be sure. That is why the prayer asks for courage to change the things we should and can.

Though change is the one fact in our lives we can all count on whether we like it or not, we all know how difficult it is to bring about conscious, deliberate, rational and moral change in our individual lives and even more so in the collective life of society. There is an innate conservatism in us that is resistant to change, even constructive change. It is sometimes easier to live with the bad habits we know than to give them up and face the unknown in ourselves. Extend that resistance to the attempt to change institutions and social structures and it is magnified even more.

Yet we all know that constructive social and institutional change is possible. The Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement of the 1960’s brought about change, though the resistance to that change was highly charged and intense. It took courage to participate in those difficult social changes. It takes courage to initiate less dramatic but no less difficult changes in our personal, domestic and vocational lives, but courage we have if we reach for it, pray for it, and draw upon what A.A. calls "a power greater than ourselves." That power is not necessarily an anthropomorphic deity outside ourselves. It can also be a power within us greater than our current, limited and restricted view of ourselves, the God within. We all have the potential to be more than we are at the moment—more loving, more forgiving, more honest, helpful, hopeful, joyful, caring and compassionate. All we need is to learn how to draw upon the strength of that higher self, that greater power within. Grant us courage to change the things we should and can.

Finally, we come to the concluding line of the Serenity Prayer, wisdom to know the difference between the things we can and cannot change. We cannot know ahead of time whether the changes we would bring about are possible or even desirable, or whether the results of such changes will be as we intended. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Many good intentioned folk fought for and passed prohibition legislation in the 1920s as a means for curbing the abuses of alcohol consumption. It didn’t work. It led instead to the growth of organized crime, gang wars, speakeasies, home breweries, etc., thereby compounding the former abuses with violent and illegal activities. The legislation was repealed and the nation a little wiser from the experience. So it is also in our personal lives. We learn from hard experience and past failures.

If we enter into a marriage relationship with the intention of making someone over to fulfill our expectations of a perfect lover and helpmate we soon learn that it is impossible to change someone else when they don’t have a mind to. And to change ourselves, even when we do have a mind to, is difficult work enough. Sometimes this wisdom is gained by the painful experience of separation and divorce. The next time we marry wiser and more mature. At least we hope so.

Wisdom to know the difference—such wisdom is an art, the art of living, gained by risk, failure, intuition, study, experimentation, success. We can never be too wise for our own good, only too wise for someone else’s good. "Judge not that you be not judged", taught Jesus. Take the mote out of your own eye before setting about correcting the faults of everyone else. If both parties in a relationship have a mind to bring about constructive change together that is another matter. Then it becomes mutual self-improvement and contributes to social change on a small scale. In pooling our wisdom we help to build a better world. We don’t have to be wise all by ourselves. We can learn from others and they from us. But don’t be a wise guy. Nobody likes a smart alec. Have a little humility. Be instead a caring human being always seeking to grow in wisdom and love.

Help us, O God, to be wiser than our years, stronger than our tears, more courageous than our fears. Help us to change first ourselves, then our world, for the better. "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days." Amen.