The Serenity Prayer

Sometimes the beach beckons me to the serenity I find at the shore, so one winter day I went to walk the desolate beach at Smith Point to watch the tide coming in. The beach was isolated, except for me and one other man who was standing on the shore, yelling at the tide, “Come on! Bring it on! I dare you! Come one inch closer and you are going to get it, buddy! Come on! Bring it on! Just try it!”

The man was clearly disturbed and so I walked close to the dunes and as far away from the shore as I could in order to avoid him and I continued my walk. Some time later, when the tide was fully in, I walked back down the beach. The man was no longer there and the place where he had been standing was now completely covered with water.

Later that same day, I returned to the beach, longing, once again, for a sip of the serenity that the beach provides. And once again, the beach was isolated, except for me and the same man who had been there earlier that day. Once again, he was standing on the shore. But this time the tide was going out and he was yelling and taunting the tide, “Don’t go! Please don’t leave! I’ll do anything if you stay! Please, don’t leave me!”

His threats and taunts could not keep the tide from coming in; and his pitiful pleading could not keep it from going out. He was powerless over the tide, and he lacked the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, and he looked like a madman railing against the inevitable.

I had come to the seashore seeking serenity; he had come seeking change. But I did not find serenity, and he did not find change. I got into my car to return home, thinking about how the had allowed the tide to disturb his day, and I had allowed him to disturb mine.

How many times do we suffer needlessly because we lack the willingness to accept the things we cannot change? Like trees refusing to bend with the wind, we snap. Like a tide coming in and lapping against our expectations of the way we want them to be, and in our refusal to accept the changes that life brings, we lose or discard the ability to experience the serenity that acceptance affords.

Allow me to tell you another story: We have all heard stories about how, periodically, whales or other sea creatures beach themselves for some unknown reason.  Well, a man was walking the shore one day and it was littered with dead and dying starfish. Periodically, the man would stoop down and pick-up a starfish and toss it back into the ocean. Another man was watching him and shouted, “There are thousands of starfish stranded on this beach. Your efforts are well-intended, but they won’t make a difference.” The strolling man stooped and picked up another starfish, tossed it back into the ocean, and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Clearly, this man knew that he was powerless to completely reverse the dire situation; but he had the courage to change the things he can, no matter what an onlooker was shouting at him from the sidelines. Many times, when confronted with a situation over which we feel powerless, we choose to do nothing. Our goals and dreams seem like dead and dying starfish on a beach and so we walk away. We may take Jesus’ saying that “the poor will always be with you” and seize that as an opportunity to do nothing about it. And yet, we sometimes can muster the courage to rescue at least some of our goals, dreams and visions that have been beached and we place them once again into nourishing water and they live again. We support the soup kitchen at  our church ~ the Congregational Church of Patchogue ~  knowing that ~ on a world scale ~ our efforts won’t put a dent in poverty and hunger and therefore we can’t make a difference. But as we pass a single bowl of soup to a single, hungry person ~ we know that, like a starfish returned to water; it makes a difference to that one.

The “courage to change the things we can” portion of the Serenity Prayer reminds me of an old saying:  “Don’t let those who say it cannot be done stand in the way of those who are doing it.”

“The wisdom to know the difference” portion of the Serenity Prayer reminds us that wisdom is a gift from God. The prayer asks that God grant us the wisdom that we cannot attain on our own.

No wonder it is so famous and prayed so often by so many. The small and narrow Serenity Prayer was conceived in a little stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts by theologian and professor at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in New York, Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1932. The Serenity Prayer was printed on cards and distributed to the troops by the U.S.O. It had also been reprinted and distributed by the National Council of Churches. It became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member, who saw it published in a New York Herald Tribune obituary.

The popular version of the Serenity Prayer is not the entire prayer. Here it is in its entirety:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.

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