The Serenity Prayer (original form):
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), 1926
The “Serenity Prayer” is, in my way of thinking, as beautiful and simple a way of encapsulating mental health as has ever been spoken or written. As you may know, Alcoholics Anonymous and most other 12-Step recovery groups have long recited the first two verses of this prayer at the opening and/or closing of their meetings, and many, many a recovering addict of various kinds has found solace, courage, and peace through praying the prayer, and meditating on the concepts it describes.
The version most people know is an abridged version of Niebuhr’s original: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Albeit longer and more difficult to memorize, I prefer the original form, mainly because of the one line, “courage to change the things which should be changed”, but also because I like the thought of using an author’s actual original words. After all, if you’re going to plagiarize, might as well get it right, right?!?
I’d like to walk through this wonderful prayer with you, and see if I can explain what I mean when I call it an excellent description of a mentally healthy lifestyle. Again, if you’ll recall back to my last post, I talked about how I like to think of mental health as a ‘way of living‘, as the mind’s way of ‘doing life’. If you look at it in this way, then it prevents mental health from being defined as “the absence of mental illness“, which I don’t really find useful for most of us.
The very first word of the prayer is “God”. In my experience, we often overlook this word as we pray and think about the prayer, but in my mind it is THE most important part of the entire prayer. The prayer for Niebuhr begins with a call to God. Mental health, to me, begins with a call to God. Must this be the Judeo-Christian God? Perhaps, perhaps not. Niebuhr, a Lutheran minister, certainly saw God as such. But who am I to limit God or other people’s views? I do believe that mental health MUST begin with an acknowledgement that I as a frail, limited, fallible, and flawed human being, am in complete need of reliance on some power greater than my own in order to navigate life, to discern truth from falsehood, and to find serenity, courage, and wisdom. “God”. Some say that all of life, in the final analysis, “is a God thing”. I do believe that simple faith or trust, even if it’s only a very small seed of hope, in some concept of a personal God, a God who is both able and willing to give gifts to us, God’s created children, is the basic cornerstone of living a mentally healthy life.
What if someone out there does not believe in a God-being? What if that person or another would like to open him or herself up to the possibility of an infinite and good Creator being there, but is simply not yet ready? Can these persons find or “possess” mental health? In my view, yes, but it still requires trust in some kind of force or power that one does not possess internally. But I also think that such persons would find even more joy and fulfillment in life were they to let their guard down and take a small leap into faith in a God-person. I know that my life went from Eastman to Kodachrome when I fell through faith, by God’s grace, into my Creator’s arms. I know that my relationship with my Creator, my Power greater than myself, makes my life an adventure, rather than just a way to pass the time en route to my body’s demise. Yes, that adventure is often rough-and-tumble, and how many times have I shoved God out of the way so I could stubbornly retake command of my own ship, or wandered away from The Shepherd’s side to pursue tasty-looking wild berries over in the thorny woods, only to have to be rescued from the brambles, and carried back to the path torn and bleeding!!! But I would not ever go back to a life without faith, not when I’m in a healthier state. It is humility, not shame; contrition and healthy dependence on God, not a crutch; this is what I’m describing here, and what the Serenity Prayer is illustrating for us.
Starting from the view of humble, upward-looking, expectant trust in one’s Higher Power, the entire prayer thus becomes a series of traits one asks for, hopes for, and acknowledges that we cannot give ourselves. Knowing this, keeping this in mind, we can still benefit by going through these characteristics, these “mind traits”, and reflecting on them. How so? Well, even though we admit they must come from God, or at the least from outside ourselves, as we look at them and meditate on them, our mind “inclines itself” toward these traits. We lean toward them, as we face choices moment by moment in how we’ll respond to things we encounter, events we experience, things others do and say around or to us. And as we incline toward these mind-sets, it becomes, in my view, much easier for God’s Spirit to create them within us; in our day by day beliefs, attitudes, reactions.
What is the first thing for which the pray-er of this prayer asks God? “Give us grace.” Grace? What happened to serenity, courage, wisdom? Yes, they’re coming. But, we first need grace. So, what is grace? I’ve seen a lot of definitions of the word, many of them confusing and in some cases contradictory. But, there are a few consistent themes that run through most definitions of grace, and so here is my distillation: to me, grace is a state of being, compassionately and freely given by God, in which one has the ability to live according to the highest principles of purity, peace, love, and justice. I believe that we can have more of grace at times, less at others, depending on the current state of our mind and our heart (or, soul). Regardless, though, it is all founded on the basis of God as the giver. So, when we pray, “God, give us grace …”, we are humbly asking God to grant us the abilities to do the things that are laid out in the rest of the prayer. My own personal belief is that, while God has always given gifts to us humans through history – rain, sun, food, air, water, the ability to communicate, the strength to do work, the reasoning powers to invent and to find better ways to do things, etc., true grace, meaning the ability to be in a vibrant relationship with our Creator, and to live in a way fully pleasing to that Creator, entered into the world and into history through the life of Jesus Christ. Others may disagree, but that is my stance, and I believe there is good evidence to support it.
That said, if I have not lost you yet, we’ll continue digging into the rest of the prayer and the model of real mental health it represents, next time.
Craig Meek, M.D.