There are probably few people in the English-speaking world unfamiliar with the Serenity Prayer. In its best-known form this prayer asks: “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.” The prayer was created by Reinhold Niebuhr, a mid-20th-century American Christian theologian who was possibly the biggest influence on Martin Luther King. It has spread into widespread usage through its adoption by twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Because of its ubiquity, I think, it is sometimes regarded as a sort of vacuous and vapid New Age pablum. I do not think that it should be.
One of the major challenges we face in trying to live a good, virtuous, happy, flourishing life is the paradox that at some point trying to be better can get in the way of being better. When one desires happiness too intently one is less happy; when one tries hard to get to sleep one cannot sleep; when one strives to exemplify humility one is not humble. As Edward Slingerland puts it, in some cases one must try not to try. So too, a good life must be in some respect lived for the present moment and not the future since at some point eventually there will be no future. To my mind, these sorts of paradoxes are the most important insight underyling sudden-liberation traditions like Daoism and Chan/Zen, which tell us that in some sense there is no path to liberation, there is only liberation in the moment.
Essential to any such liberation in the moment, it seems to me, is an acceptance of things as they are – including the things and aspects that are bad or unpleasant or irrational or harmful or vicious. I see this acceptance as crucial to Daoism. The Zhuangzi recommends the virtue of xu 虛, receptivity: it tells us to have a heart like a mirror, to “dwell within the flow”. We should not let ourselves feel strong emotional effects from “the inevitable”, bu de yi 不得已: “know what you can’t do anything about and be at ease with it as with fate.” Relatedly Laozi reminds us that the Dao is in the piss and shit: there will always be bad, evil, disgusting things in the world. One has to embrace the world and oneself as they are, in the present, without dwelling on those things one can change in the future – or worse, those things one can’t change in the future. That Daoist view directly influenced the Zen Buddhism that informed Leonard Cohen, and his embrace of the beauty in the world’s darkness.
But something immediately seems wrong with accepting that badness, in the world and in ourselves. I’ve often found myself very suspicious of Daoism for this reason: its approach can seem to imply that we will not try to improve anything, about ourselves or the world. Are we just to live with ourselves always getting angry over trivia? Or, as the Disengaged Buddhists are so often criticized for, are we just to let mass murders happen or let a changing climate ruin civilization?
It is in response to those questions that I find Serenity Prayer essential – including for those of us who do not believe in its God. The prayer is of course not a whole answer, only the beginning of an answer – but what more could one expect from a single sentence? What that sentence does do is give us a pithy, easily learned, easily remembered summary of the advice we need – a sūtra, on which the details of our situations are commentary. It does not tell us any of the content of the wisdom it prays for – what we can indeed change and what we can’t. But that is just the next question it invites us to ask. Wisdom doesn’t come easily, and the question of what can be changed and what can’t is no exception. We still need to figure it out as best we can.
What the Serenity Prayer then reminds us is that if we have determined, to the best of our ability, that we cannot change something, then we must accept it – whether that is our own impending death, or our country being ruled by an evil and stupid man. As I said to myself fifteen years ago, “My parents will die, I will get old and feeble if I don’t die first, academics work long hours and get little control over where they live, and George W. Bush is president of the United States. Nothing I do will change any of these facts.” I added then that “That doesn’t mean I have to like them”, and that is true. I don’t even have to accept them, and indeed it is very easy not to accept them – but if I don’t accept them, all it does is leave me in misery and futile fury. To rage against an inevitability does us no favours. To mourn, on the other hand, is to recognize and accept both the badness and the unchangeability of a bad and unchangeable event – of which the death of a loved one is the paradigm. And the world is full of such bad things and it always will be – even if we somehow make it to a classless utopia.
This acceptance is needed not only for deaths, political situations, or other phenomena external to us. Possibly the hardest thing to accept is those things we can’t change about ourselves. Augustine’s wise lesson is that our minds are disturbingly resistant to improvement. That isn’t a reason to give up on trying to improve ourselves – but it is a reason we must live with ourselves in the meantime. Perhaps with a lifetime of effort I could give myself the patient endurance of Thich Quang Duc, but there’s no possible way I could be like him tomorrow. I know Quang Duc would not feel upset about getting a minor burn, but as much as I might like to emulate him, if I do get upset by a minor burn today it does me no favours if I mentally flagellate myself for it. In myself as in the world, there are things I need the courage to change, and things I need the serenity to accept. My self has more of the former and the world has more of the latter, but they are both present in each. Neither the courage nor the serenity nor the wisdom are dispensable.