Thursday, November 05, 2015
Modern Stoic Meditations #4: The Serenity Prayer
You may have already encountered this saying, the Serenity Prayer, perhaps on a tablemat in a souvenir shop or as the prayer associated with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). You may have written it off either as a clichéd truism or as applicable only to alcoholics. If so, can I ask you to now reread the Serenity Prayer, now, slowly, as if you were reading it the first time? You may end up believing, like me, that far from offering trite advice it contains the essence of Stoic wisdom. You just have to look at the first sentence of Epictetus's Handbook to discover the Stoic roots of the Serenity Prayer.
Why do I like the Serenity Prayer so much? Let’s look at each of the three parts in turn.
First, have the serenity to accept what you can’t change. Think about some things that you really, really can’t change. Perhaps the fact you weren’t born a millionaire, or that the world is not always a fair place. What is the best attitude you can take to these realities? To get angry? No, you’ll only make a bad situation worse. To try to put things right? By definition, no, because these are thing that you can’t change, so it will just be wasted energy. Accepting the situation and not letting it disturb your peace of mind is the only appropriate response.
What about things that you can (and should) change? Although by definition these are things we can change, this doesn’t mean it’s easy, popular or risk-free to do so. It’s not easy to change oneself into being a more patient person (but it can be done). It is not always popular to campaign for something you believe in (but things can change as a result). We can change these things, but we need courage to do so.
Finally, and above all, we need the wisdom to tell the difference between the things we can change and the things we can’t change. We can’t change the fact that we were not born a millionaire, but we can put effort into becoming richer, or change our attitude to not being so wealthy. We can’t make the world a completely fair place, but we can make the world a fairer place. Usually there will be some aspects of a situation we can change, and some aspects we can’t. We need to distinguish which is which and then change courageously or accept serenely as appropriate
What I like most about the Serenity Prayer is how easy it is to recall and apply in difficult situations. Such a situation happened to me a while ago, a few days before I was due to go abroad to a conference I really wanted to go to. Having finished lunch in a restaurant, I checked in my trouser pocket for my wallet –only to discover that it wasn’t there. I looked next in my jacket pocket – no wallet. Neither was it in my briefcase or anywhere else. I tried to think back to when I last saw it, and recalled having it on entering a train station a few hours before. I also remembered someone bumping into me rather carelessly (or so I thought at the time) soon after. I guessed the rest. What to do? It must have been several hours ago that he stole my wallet. Thoughts began to race through my mind. What else did I have in my wallet? Had he already bankrupted me by using my credit cards? If only I’d taken a different journey…. If only I’d checked my pocket after he’d bumped into me… Maybe I’d have to cancel my conference trip …
Luckily, before these thoughts got completely out of control, I remembered the Serenity Prayer. I had to accept with serenity what I could not change. Well, I could not change the fact that my wallet had been stolen. There was no point beating myself up or fretting about these unchangeables – that would cause me to be even more upset and also stop me thinking about what I could change. So, what could I change? Well, obviously I could limit my liability – first thing was to phone the bank. Then I could arrange for the credit card company to see if they could send me new cards before my travel – there was just sufficient time for them to do so. In future, I resolved, I would be more alert to people bumping into me. Using the Serenity Prayer helped me deal constructively with this mini-crisis, and it has helped me many times since. Forget the table mat image and AA associations and focus on the underlying Stoic message and it can be of great assistance to you too.