The Serenity Prayer is a troubling bit of naive advice.
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.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
The more well known first five verses set up the contrast between action and inertia, between courage and wisdom, between divinity and humanity. For believers in a monotheistic world, it seems to be a means to shift blame and justify inaction. For unbelievers, it points to wisdom as the inspiration for decisions rather than any god or gods. The Glori Patre formulation brings familiarity.
The second stanza becomes very Buddhist for the first three lines. Accepting the world as it is rather than as I would have it be, is easy to say and certainly harder to do. In my morning meditation, I can be accepting of my surroundings; the light, sounds, and energy around me. I have learned to accept my aches, physical, emotional, and intellectual for the moments that I rest in awareness of my body but the experience is fleeting as I return to the room, the house, the world.
The metaphoric invocation is abrupt but temporary in line eight. Almost as an aside, an incantation that harkens the magic and power from beyond. The poet becomes frenetic jumping from self to Saviour as the reason to live and the means to solve the anxiety of decisions. If I relinquish the decision and the responsibility for it, I am absolved. Even if I don’t fully and truly accept the Christian myth, I am restored for making or not making a choice to act.
The prayer ends, as all good prayers should, with the incantation; repeated and bleated by so many. In the call for agreement, we reinforce the fiction that we have created together and which is necessary to make any sense of our world, our place and the concept of prayer.
As the prayer closes, it makes the big promise that regardless of whether I have wisdom or courage or knowledge and without consideration for how my self-imposed choice impacts others, I will live forever with the one who releases me of the responsibility.
To be clear, I have prayed this prayer on many occasions and my significant action bias always won out even when I didn’t have the necessary information to make the choice wisely. For the times when I know that my choice to act caused harm and for those times that I don’t recognize the hardship I contributed to, I accept responsibility. For the times that my limited view of the world suggests that my action was neutral or helpful, I accept responsibility too. No passing the buck, no shared fiction, just me being responsible or irresponsible in the moment.
This post was precipitated by having someone say to me ” God helps those who help themselves” in what I felt was a callous response to some homeless people we had an encounter with. He didn’t appreciate me suggesting that his statement was an acknowledgement that there is no god and if he still believed there was then, from my reading of scripture, that he was missing the big point by weaving a thick veil with a whole lot of very small stuff. Not my finest moment. But I was frustrated by his words and concerned that I didn’t have a better response to the two women and a man other than the giving of alms (which readers of this post will remember, I have referred to as a status verification absolution practice. ) If charity is the best we can do, so be it. But charity shouldn’t stop us from looking for root causes. If we continue to manage social issues, social issues manage to continue.
There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction. ~ John F. Kennedy