What does the serenity prayer mean?

There are three parts to the serenity prayer. We break it down in terms that you can understand and let you know how a request for serenity, courage, and wisdom can change your life.

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The serenity prayer & AA

Most people who know even just a little bit about addiction and alcoholism know about “those meetings” where people get together and all say the Serenity Prayer together and then say, “Hi, my name is ____ and I’m a ____.”

Original serenity prayer

The truth is that the Serenity prayer did not originate with the 12-Step movement.  Its most well-known version is attributed to the 20th century theologian and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr, but many — Niebuhr included — concede that the prayer has been around in various forms for centuries.  Interestingly, the prayer is not part of any religion’s liturgy and, as such, is truly a non-sectarian prayer.

Enough background.  What does the prayer mean?

What does the serenity prayer mean?

There are three parts to the Serenity Prayer.  The first asks for “the serenity to accept the things that can’t be changed;” the second asks for “the courage to change the things that can” be changed; and the third asks for “the wisdom to know the difference” between the things that can and cannot be changed.

In other words, we’re asking G-d for three things — serenity, courage, and wisdom.  Serenity has its time and place; courage has its time and place; and wisdom is the ability to know whether it’s a time and place for serenity or a time and place for courage.

For instance, being resigned to a situation that can and should be changed is not really serenity so much as complacency, while trying to change something that is just a fact of reality isn’t really courage so much as foolishness. Therefore, we don’t want to use serenity to deal with situations that really call for courage and we don’t want to use courage to deal with situations that really call for serenity.

Serenity or courage?

The problem is that self-deception, denial and our inherent prejudices make it hard for us to to tell these two kinds of situations apart.  Sometimes we trick ourselves into just accepting something that really is our responsibility to take care of because we are afraid of dealing with it. In that case, what we really need is courage — not serenity.  Other times, we are convinced that if we would just try harder, come one stronger, give things another chance, then we will be able to alter some aspect of the truth to be more to our liking.  We do this because in our perfectionist drive to control people, places and things, we believe that reality ought to be different than it is and therefore, we are sure, we just need more grit and gumption to see things through.  But what we really need is the ability to let go and let G-d.  We don’t need courage in that situation, but serenity.

So, we pray to our Higher Power to guide us in honestly assessing all situations so that we will come to the proper decision — serenity or courage.

Serenity prayer exercises

One general guideline that I have personally found helpful is the “me-you principle.”  If something needs to change, it needs to change in me, while if something about you seems to be my problem, then what I really need to do is realize that you are who you are right now and accept that truth.  It’s funny how it works out.  When I don’t waste my energy trying to change you, I seem to have a lot more energy left over to change myself and when I work on changing myself, I seem to have a lot less problems with you.

About the author
Rabbi Shais Taub is one of today's most respected young scholars of Jewish spirituality and practice. National Public Radio called him "an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Twelve Steps." He is the author of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction.
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