Navigating life’s ups and downs: The serenity prayer as a rule of thumb
This article explores the serenity prayer as a rule of thumb for approaching life's ups and downs.
“Suffering is a form of knowledge...”
- David Smail
Life is tough. Well, sometimes. We are born into a world that none of us chooses (as far as I can tell) into situations which despite talk of us all being "equal" demonstrate that in reality that is far from the case. One thing that we can be certain of, is that as part of this existence we will experience ups and downs in life. Whether small or major, we all experience ups such as having a child, winning something, bossing a job interview, meeting someone new etc. We also all experience lows such as being hurt or, disappointed by others, losing people we love, or being afflicted by sickness or injury. For some of us, we might experience discrimination or be othered on the basis of our ethnicity, culture, sexuality, age, gender or another aspect of our identity. How we respond to the distress or pleasure of such situations can determine whether they become the beginning of more challenging and ingrained patterns of avoidance or addiction.
The Serenity Prayer
The serenity prayer as it has come to be known was made widely popular by Marsha Linehan in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It is often used as a way of paraphrasing the idea of radical acceptance. Which basically encourages us to take a stance of accepting how we feel now or what has happened in the past (i.e. not fighting or avoiding it) and then using our energy to do what we can about the aspects of what has happened that we can influence (i.e. taking steps towards what we want). Before then it was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1940s as the “AA prayer”. It is suggested the original prayer was written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s. It is the final part of the prayer that is often quoted. It reads something like this:
“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”
While in principle the serenity prayer is clear enough, in practice this is easier said than done! Being able to accept the unpleasant things that have happened to us (regardless of how distant) can be a hard pill to swallow and is one of the main critiques of the serenity prayer. However, accepting what has happened or the way things are is not the same as agreeing with bad things that have happened to us or being complicit in situations which are unhelpful or toxic.
A rule of thumb (heuristic)
A rule of thumb is an idea that we can apply to situations when we are unsure or are lacking enough information to make a decision. Sometimes this might be to do with time limitations or might be to do with being in a position which we have never been in before. We apply these rules of thumb to our lives all the time, we often just don’t realise we are doing it (What am I thinking 1), and they are often grounded in our earlier experiences and perspective on the world and others.
Applying the principle of the serenity prayer as a heuristic is not going to solve all of life’s ups and downs but it might provide you with a healthy(ish) way of coping with the unpleasant and unexpected. Essentially adopting this as a heuristic invites us to step back from what is happening and ask ourselves some questions which will help guide into what we put our energy into rather than react as we would usually based on current habits of our mind. The first question is “is there anything I can do to change this situation/feeling?” from here the answer will be yes to a degree or no to a degree. It might be helpful to speak with others if you are unsure or find other people who are in, or have overcome a similar situation and seek their advice - because “nothing is new under the sun”.
If your answer is yes, then acknowledging you don’t like what is happening and knowing there is something you can do about it means you can put your efforts into focusing on doing what you can to move things in a direction that you would prefer.
If the answer is no, then acknowledging that you don’t like what is happening and knowing that there is nothing (at the moment) you can do about it means you can put your efforts into attending to your hurt or focusing on things that help you feel better.
So in conclusion the serenity prayer is in no way saying that we just accept when bad things happen to us and feel there is nothing we can do about it. Instead, it encourages us to pause, ask ourselves if this is really true, and if it is to focus on what is within our power to influence, and then kindly and intelligently put our efforts into those areas instead. Begining to use this rule of thumb will hopefully free us from cycles of psychological pain which can arise as a consequence of being human.