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Change and the Serenity Prayer

The momentum of New Year’s resolutions is often short-lived. For most of us, intended and even initiated changes in life far outnumber sustained changes in life. Mark Twain's quote nails it: "Quitting smoking’s easy; I've done it hundreds of times."

Even though the Serenity Prayer offers three critical distinctions for more efficient use of our life’s energy- serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference, its most popular version doesn't reference what I feel is the key element for a transformed life.

On page 62 in the textbook Alcoholics Anonymous, the third dimension of addictions’ verdict of inevitable annihilation is made clear. Beyond the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body that got our attention in active addiction, is the wisdom of step Three- over-reliance on self, blocks us from the spiritual solution: "…[the alcoholic] is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though they usually don't think so." We also learn that "Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much, by wishing or trying on our own power," further down the same page.

Whew! We have bodies that can't handle what our minds can't leave alone AND we have a spiritual blockage that disallows us from doing anything about it on our own. This makes it clearer to me why so many people die from this disease.

Application of the serenity prayer to all three conditions of addiction's lethal trifecta would emphasize the need for serenity and acceptance, because we can't use, can’t stay quit and on our own, can’t get unblocked from the only solution. By page 66, we've learned that the emotions generated by this immutable imbalance of humanness are what shut us “off from the Sunlight of the Spirit”. Since self can't change itself for the same reason a hammer can't hit itself or a foot can't kick itself, neither serenity nor courage, nor the wisdom to know the difference will get us unblocked.

So, what's implicit in the Serenity Prayer, but missing from its text, is to do the things we can, that will bring about the changes we can't. One of the subtle but frequent clues to this critical practice is on page 64 in the sentence, "Though our decision (in Step Three) was a vital and crucial step, it could have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face (in Step Four), and be rid of (in Steps Five through Nine) the things in ourselves that had been blocking us." See also page 567.

Here we’re instructed clearly to face what's been blocking us in Step Four (endorsed by the courage [read fearless] to change the things we can segment of the Serenity Prayer). However, the text doesn't say "and get rid of the things in ourselves which had been blocking us," it says, "and be rid of the things in ourselves which had been blocking us." Thus the practice of Steps Five through Nine is following the directions for doing the things we can which will bring about the changes we can't. And thus we’re delivered through this action to the remarkable and unexpected list of promises (describing the changes we couldn’t bring about on our own) on pages 83 and 84, “before we’re half-way through” (making amends in step Nine).

I am not suggesting that we change the Serenity Prayer. I am suggesting that we be mindful each time we say it that the miracle of sustained change is the byproduct of spiritual practice, much of which lies somewhere far beyond the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can.


Fred Holmquist has served the field of addiction services for more than thirty-three years, twenty-nine of which since 1978 have been with the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota and New York City.

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