Serenity, Courage and Wisdom.

May 5, 2011

Shhhhhh. Don't ruin it.

     These words are spoken at the end of nearly every AA meeting, and comprise the Serenity Prayer, first penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934. The prayer was co-opted by AA and other 12-step groups in 1941 and has been a part of the AA literature and the AA experience ever since. It’s not difficult to see why. One of the fundamental tenants of AA is that the alcoholic’s life has become unmanageable with alcohol. And the process of making life manageable again happens piece-meal. It doesn’t happen all at once. 

    The dichotomy inherent in the statement that life has become unmanageable is that the alcoholic often drinks because their life is unmanageable in the first place. We are generally running to the bottle from things or persons or places. That is certainly the case for me. That may not have always been the case; I started drinking and doing drugs in order to feel good. But at some point, I drank to cope. And, as is evident in these pages, I had a lot to cope with. Doesn’t really make a difference that a lot of it was self-inflicted.          

    So I have a dilemma.

    I don’t have any less to cope with, just because I stopped drinking and taking drugs. I haven’t gotten my job back, or figured out what to do about my family, or gotten my house back, or paid any bills, or gotten my friends back, or earned my family’s trust back, or made up for lost time with my kids. Yet. Some of those things will come. Some won’t.

    So how do I cope? The Serenity Prayer is a start. Everything I named in the paragraph above is past. It’s prologue. I can’t change a bit of it. So I pray for serenity. And for the things that I can change – some of which are hard things to do, I ask for courage. It takes courage to tell another human being about the terrible shit I’ve done (Step 5). It takes even more courage to make amends to the people I have wronged (Steps 8 and 9). I’ll talk about the steps in more detail later, by the way. They’re like good voodoo.

    Finally, wisdom. This is last for a reason: it’s probably the hardest one to learn. It’s the hardest one to learn because an addict’s programming strains against wisdom. Rationalization cannot coexist with wisdom. Same goes for prejudice. And pride. And fear. And until we are honest with ourselves about which “things” we can change, and which ones we can’t, we don’t have wisdom. Rationalization, to use one example, fools us about which things we can change. Rationalization favors inertia. Inertia yields the status quo. And since I believe that human beings are dynamic creatures by nature, the failure to change move forward is tantamount to moving backwards. So the Serenity Prayer is one of those things in life that is real easy to understand but is all but impossible to attain complete adherence to (/hangs head in shame for ending sentence with a preposition, then reminds self that if it was okay with Churchill, it’s okay with this author). 

    The simplicity of the Serenity Prayer belies the intellect of its author. Reinhold Niebuhr was an interesting case. His theological and political thought contributed heavily – albeit somewhat indirectly – to American foreign policy in the 2oth century.

    Great 20th century thinkers, great politicians and, um…regular politicians all cited him as an influence. People such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, John McCain, Jimmy Cah-dah and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr all cited him as an influence in their own personal philosophies. His teaching bridged the isle because World War II and the steady march of communism caused him to take a somewhat triangulated position between the leftist theologians of the day and religious conservatives.

    He helped shape our modern concept of what exactly is a just war, by shifting from concepts of idealism to realism as an appropriate justification for war. The “real politik” and “detente” policies of the latter half of the 20th century were natural extensions of his beliefs. So the intellect that gave us the simple, little ol’ Serenity Prayer was one the most powerful thinkers of the day.

Helped avoid this, AND gave us the Serenity Prayer. Well done, sir.

One Response to “Serenity, Courage and Wisdom.”

  1. JerriR said

    I commented your 4/28 post and have kept up with you since. Your story will surely help many others you may never know! Keep writing and believing!

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