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.

Such wise and lovely words of strength and inspiration. Throughout the years, millions have muttered this mantra during times of duress (certainly I do and, not being that singular, I assume that others do as well). Seemingly simple words…and yet, perhaps, not.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” How many of us can actually do that on a regular basis? Certainly we accept that we cannot change the immutable and untouchable past, for example, but do we really make peace with it?

I know those who clutch yesterday’s sorrows, slights and disappointments to their chests like a comforter on a cold night. They use their ever-lasting umbrage as both a shield and a weapon and nurture it with caresses and lingering thoughts. These are the people who blame their chronic unhappiness on events of the past and allow it to poison the present and future. Why? What went before can no more be altered than the course of the stars: it can only be used to increase knowledge (and hopefully the depth of compassion) and viewed as the price of being human. But accepting the past? That challenge defeats many.

There is much that lies beyond our ability to influence it and yet still we rail against, and curse,  the inevitable. We age and spend our fortunes building false buttresses against the ravages of time – denial, Botox, plastic surgery, a small nation’s GNP on potions and emollients – and for what reason? If we are very lucky we will become old. As Mark Twain suggested, “Consider the alternative.”

The feelings and reactions of others lie beyond us to a great extent. No, I cannot change how you react to anything. I can only adjust my own reaction to your response. If what I say or do causes you anger or pain, I can feel regret (or mystification) and can choose to apologize, explain or ignore your feelings. But unless I am to spend my life absorbed in second-guessing the effects of my existence upon others (an impossible and useless task) then I must accept that, most often, I cannot change the internal worlds of others.

Courage to change the things I can…” This one is somewhat easier but should come with a caveat (see above “feelings and reactions of others”). There are those who fight to change humanity’s ills: poverty, diseases, cruelty, environmental insensitivity, war-like tendencies and so forth. They will, in turn, be fought every step of the way (again, see above).

There are also those who promote suffering: the drug-lords, war-lords, money-lords and power-lords. Apparently “change” is in the eye of the beholder and we can only hope that the “forces of good” exceed the “forces of evil.” (Again, in eye of the beholder).

“And the wisdom to know the difference.” We can (if we are determined and strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows of other’s protestations or anger – and accepting enough to accept their support if that be the case) change the course of our lives, the state of our world and, often, the health of our bodies and minds. We can also choose to tilt at windmills (a pastime that I myself engage in from time to time and can highly recommend).

We can choose to do our utmost to live a life that causes no harm but if, throughout the unfolding of the years, we must make decisions that wound others then we must embrace that sad fact and go on. A divorce, for example, inflicts vast pain upon those involved: the husband and wife, children, family and friends. Sometimes, however, more damage is caused by staying the course and one must summon the courage to “change the things I can.”

(What I do find annoying are those who bemoan the state of the world, prop up the bar as they rant and rave about politics/religion/finances/etc., criticise those who strive to affect positive change…and do nothing beyond releasing far too much CO2 into the atmosphere. There’s that “accept the things I cannot change” thing though so I ignore their grumblings to the best of my abilities).

Serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom: the Holy Grails of human existence. All are required to create change and all are tested during times of change. I’m fairly sure that (in my own experience) these things are not “granted” by God but are hard-won prizes that will be snatched away at the next turning of the tide – and must be fought for again and again.

Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.

  1. Mark Dohle

    Thank you very much for sharing you insights, this essay has much to ponder.


  2. Bill Phillips

    This is a wonderful explanation of a short prayer that I have repeated hundreds of times myself. It is often followed by a reading of the 12-steps which are a great set of rules for living whether or not one has classic addictive symptoms.

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