Our mother loved, loved, loved The Serenity Prayer.
The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by twentieth century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.
The best-known form is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Our mother said The Serenity Prayer was all a person really needed to get them through life. Since she never was serene, my sister and I have puzzled and pondered over the significance of what exactly Mother meant. She would tell you she never worried a day in her life. She thought worrying was for those she referred to as “non-believers.” Sounds like a mentally healthy way to go through life. However, we are talking about our mother, who lived in Dysfunction Junction most of her life.
Mother took so many trips down memory lane: reliving events that had occurred decades earlier as though they were recent events. This was not the result of anything like Alzheimer’s or dementia in her “senior years.” Even when my sister and I were young girls, and Mother was only in her thirties, she would recount childhood traumas (real, perceived, and otherwise). In re-telling these stories, she would become agitated, weepy, and sometimes even hysterical.
Her visceral reactions and the degree of details and immediacy as she recounted tales from years long before made it seem as though they were recent events, at least in her mind. Were they unprocessed, unhealed traumas? We never really knew, but suspect so.
Perhaps the “reality” she had made for herself by constantly re-telling and re-living the experiences gave her little time for new worrying.
Knowing that the Serenity Prayer is used in Twelve Step Programs also made us wonder as to the significance it had in her life and where she might have first heard it. Mother was a closet drinker, an unfortunate who used alcohol, prescription pills, cigarettes, food, and who knows what else as drugs throughout her life. She never admitted the truth to anyone about her afflictions, including herself. Never one to admit powerlessness over anything or anyone, she was not a candidate to take the First Step – not in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, not to her closest friend, not to anyone.
The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member. AA’s co-founder, Bill W., and the staff liked the prayer and had it printed out in modified form and handed around.It has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since, and has also been used in other twelve-step programs. Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, identified Niebuhr as the author (January 1950, pp. 6–7), and the AA web site continues to identify Niebuhr as the author.
Where did she hear about this prayer? And why did she repeat it as her mantra? Mother was never one to accept anything in life unless she wanted to. She was an unlikely seeker of true serenity.
The plea for wisdom to be gained is also a source of confusion for my sister and me. Mother did not seem to use whatever wisdom she gained in her life journey to help her on the path to enlightenment. She did love to make smart ass comments, so maybe she misconstrued that part as an instruction to be a smart ass.
Being able to tell the difference between things you should accept and those you should change with courage seemed to escape her. She battled on a daily basis with everyone around her, and she battled powerlessly over food, booze and just about everything else that came her way. And ultimately, she was a tortured soul who seemed to constantly be engaged in battle with internal demons of some sort.
Being serene is never a word you would use to describe our mother. More likely those coming in contact with her were waiting to escape for a chance at that elusive serenity.
Brilliant in its simplicity, The Serenity Prayer is one of the key spiritual tools used by virtually all 12-step recovery support group members. For so many people in desperate situations — seeking peace, strength, and wisdom — those simple words, whispered to a “God as they understand him,” have seen them through the darkest hours. They have come to believe that those qualities can come only from a power greater than themselves. And because they believe, they find the serenity, courage and wisdom they seek from somewhere outside themselves to face another situation, another step, and another day.
While I have puzzled over Mother’s frequent references to and repeating of The Serenity Prayer, I have also come to take great strength and aid from my own contemplation and use of it. The words of The Serenity Prayer can be such a source of instruction and inspiration in so many different aspects of our lives. If only Mother had actually taken its words to heart and applied them as we each should seek to do.