Serenity Prayer

Sufi in boat

Serenity Prayer

She sat outside the meeting once or twice and eavesdropped. You can come into the meeting you know, I told her. Everyone would welcome you. No no, she said, I’ll wait here until you’re done.

She didn’t drive at night by then and after the meeting I drove her home. The meeting always begins and ends the same way: the serenity prayer, the most common form the following:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer is often attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It was embraced by one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., and became part of the opening or closing to Anonymous meetings since the 1940s.

B sat outside our meeting, she sat in the other room, she listened.

One day as I was taking her home, she said to me: you know I love that prayer that you say at your meeting.

What prayer is that?

You know, this one:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the persons I cannot change
The courage to change the persons I can,
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

Yeah, I said, that’s good.

B has passed now, but her version of the prayer has stayed with me. The standard it sets is more demanding than the common version. In the common version, I might think that what another person does or thinks or how a person lives might be something I can manage. In B’s version, I might have the serenity, wisdom, and courage to know that ultimately being me is full time and I have the power to change that and maybe that only, and through my life, my behavior, my being I might have an influence on someone else. That may be the most powerful influence I have on others, to be better bigger stronger more alive myself. To the extent I might effect change in the world is the extent to which I model change.

It brings me back to the physician’s motto: first, do no harm. I used to think this was such a diminished standard, to do no harm. Certainly the healer aspires to more than that. Now I realize that to do no harm is a decent standard, that the soft interior of a human being is sacred and inviolable and the way is difficult and often the best we can do is not to mess with that, the softness of the interior world, the vulnerability we all have in the deepest recesses where our growth plates are.

At the meeting, someone said: it’s difficult enough being me, to know what’s right for someone else is way above my pay grade. On the other hand, what a great teacher I might be by walking in the world in such and such a way. By being. To have something to offer. Yes, said the person sitting on the other side of the table, if somebody wants it. You can’t give anything to someone who doesn’t want what you might have to offer.

The wisdom to know it’s me, somebody repeated that line and a half a dozen heads bobbed up and down in agreement, sympathy, understanding. That’s a tall order.

james stone goodman