"God, grant me the serenity to change the things I can, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
This is the prayer spoken within every 12-step recovery meeting in America.
Aside from the fact that it comes from a 1930's church sermon, the problem with the Serenity Prayer is that it keeps an addict within, or creates an either/or, black-and-white,
all or nothing frame of mind--as if all of the situations and challenges that a person in recovery is confronted with can be placed in neat little piles.
Of course it makes sense to accept the things that we cannot change--but how do we know if a situation is truly unchangeable?
Within our convoluted world and the complexity of human relationships, does it really make sense for people in early (or even in late) recovery to be encouraged to make such decisions?
I mean, the old-timers with 20+ years clean can't even determine if they're still alcoholics or not.
As George Bernard Shaw stated, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
All innovations and inventions are the result of somebody looking at a situation that others define as something that "cannot change" and saying "Well, maybe I can change it."
What one can't see living in this mindset are the hidden colors between the black-and-white thinking that can come from a strict adherence to the Serenity Prayer.
There are a multitude of options besides "yes" or "no.”
There are many aspects of the world that are beyond our ability to change, and when you find yourself in a situation as such, sometimes the best course of action is to go with it.
However, if there's something you can change, I believe you should try to change it, or at least consider the possibility.
When we apply this strategy to ourselves, the potential for significant change is massive.
For example, when a patient says to his therapist something like "It's impossible for me to be in the same room as my father without exploding," this is clearly false. Of course it is possible.
But the first thing that must be done is for the patient to see the ways they've acted in the past can in fact change, and then seeing how.
The ways that we think and act in the world can always be gradually modified or adapted; to purposely or naively approach something as either black or white sets the stage up for failure and/or important missed opportunities.
Another example is if you're in a bad marriage or a terrible job--or a fusion of both--believing and saying "I can't change this" leads you down a road of self-destruction.
We can modify mostly everything to some degree and it is crucial that one doesn't simply throw hands in the air and say "I'm powerless."
If the reality is that you are only able to change something to a degree, it is not helpful to one's recovery to minimize incremental growth and change.
Recovery is a process of incremental change. As we change, things that may have previously seemed impossible to change can and should be re-examined with fresh eyes.
The Serenity Prayer is the core,
principal reminder that is recited or whispered in AA rooms throughout the world; it is a cornerstone of the acceptance and practice of lifelong abstinence which, according to AA,
leads to a long, healthy and effective recovery. Yet, this still falls inline with the belief that you cannot change yourself--you will always and forever be an addict.
Without delving into the deeper psychology of why one uses drugs and alcohol,
the connection between the Serenity Prayer and the notion that all drugs and alcohol are categorically in the "cannot change" realm strips people of their personal freedom.
Like a parent taking away candy from their crying child without explanation, it only causes further outcry.
But if the parent provides an explanation of why the child shouldn't have any more candy for the day, the child will understand, even if they don't like it.
Yes, there are things that cannot be changed, such as what time the sun comes up or the law of gravity.
But the vast majority of situations--especially when you're dealing with yourself or another human being--can be modified.
You should not throw your hands up and say "It can't be changed," and give up or stop trying. The truth is, you can modify your behavior enormously without changing it a hundred percent.
Life is all about these incremental modifications--without moving step by step you are missing a vast array of options that may be present beneath the surface.
It is nonsense to tell someone they can't improve upon and influence their behaviors. We should not feel stuck, but know we can modify most of our behaviors to a certain degree.
If you are told that you cannot change something, you can blame them for the depression, opposition, and feelings of hopelessness.
It is horrible that the Prayer continues to dominate the recovery community because it's a lie. It relieves you of responsibility.
If you simply throw up your hands instead of gauging the nuances of a situation, life will inevitably become diminished.
Research supports the idea that at college age, many Americans could be considered alcoholics. Yet most simply grow out of it.
If you tell someone that they are powerless, you leave them with no options and guidance to develop. It is destructive.
Therapy is built on a person's capacity for gradual change as opposed to all-or-nothing, immediate change.
We as a society have to move away from the Serenity Prayer that was developed thousands of years ago.
In Western and Eastern societies, a young man or woman battling substance abuse is automatically shamed as an "addict,”
a very bold word that showers countless preconceptions onto whomever it latches itself onto.
This young man or woman has accepted the things they cannot change, that they are an "addict"--thus damaging their self-esteem, inhibiting achievement, and possibly crushing their life's pursuit.
The black-and-white mentality within the Serenity Prayer leaves no room for modification, experimentation, or refinement. Life isn't that way.
It is about discovering and understanding the many hidden colors between the black and the white--the array of options that can lead us to creative progress, empowerment, and self-discovery.