The Serenity Prayer, it turns out, has multiple versions. On the Alcoholics Anonymous website you’ll find the version I quoted before, though the site adds that the first person is often pluralized, “I” to “we”:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
However, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her memoir gives us a different version. She says that Niebuhr’s original version of the prayer was composed in 1943, was first preached by him in a Sunday sermon that year in Heath, Massachusetts, and looked like this:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
As Sifton notes on pp292-3, there are at least two major differences between these two versions. The first refers to grace and the second does not; the first refers to changing what I or we can change, the second to what should be changed. Sifton prefers the second; she says that AA “simplified” the text and her father “minded” the change but did not object.
But matters are not so simple. Sifton notes plainly that she was four in 1943; she does not remember her father composing or preaching the prayer. And as it turns out, the prayer had already appeared in public before the Heath sermon – indeed before Sifton was born. In 2008, Fred Shapiro – editor of the Yale Book of Quotations – noted some such earlier appearances and thought that Niebuhr had not actually been the prayer’s author. Sifton contested this, and Shapiro eventually conceded that Sifton was right on that point: the prayer was indeed Niebuhr’s work. But – its first appearance was not at the Heath church, and more importantly, it did not take the form that Sifton remembers.
Sifton notes that before AA used the prayer, it was adopted in the 1944 Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces. But the version quoted in the Book of Prayers and Services looks much more like AA’s! It says:
Give me the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
Give me the courage to change what can be changed—
The wisdom to know one from the other.
That is not to say that this version is the original either. Shapiro documents several versions from before Sifton’s birth, mostly written down by Niebuhr’s student Winnifred Crane Wygal. The oldest of these, written down in Wygal’s diary in 1932, is quite a different formulation, not even mentioning wisdom: “The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered.” Other pre-1943 versions have their own differences. As for Sifton’s preferred version, Shapiro notes of the “grace” language that “I have been unable to find that language recorded anywhere before 1951.”
Why does all this textual history matter? Only because the content of the different versions matters. Sifton disparages the AA version as a “dumbing down of the prayer” (293) from her presumed original, which it is not. To my mind, the AA version (and even the Book of Prayers and Services version) is far superior to the version Sifton prefers, on both of the points of difference that she identifies. And neither of them has originality on its side. (Sifton claims the version preferred by her was also preferred by her father; I think there’s good reason to believe her right on that point, but if she is, I must respectfully disagree with both of their preferences.) I think there is a good reason why the AA version, and not Sifton’s preferred one, became the most popular of the prayer’s multiple variations – and the reason is in those two differences discussed above.
The “grace” language is more specifically Christian; while the AA version remains theistic, it is of a form that feels more natural to Jews or Muslims or Śaivites. To a committed Christian like Sifton, that greater openness might still be more of a bug than a feature, a watering down of what is valuable in Christanity. But Sifton and I would agree that the more important difference is the second one, the modal verb attached to change.
Of the language of “can change”, Sifton says:
Goodness me, just because something can be changed doesn’t mean that it must be! More important, this way of putting it reduces the scope of the imperative. It speaks merely of what we think we might manage to alter at a given moment, to change what we can change. But there are circumstances that should be changed yet may seem beyond our powers to alter, and these are the circumstances under which the prayer is most needed. The shift in the text reduces a difficult, strong idea to a banal, weak one, and I suspect that this dumbing down of the prayer has contributed to its enormous popularity. (293, emphases Sifton’s)
Now Sifton is of course right about one thing: not everything that can be changed should be. But just so – and this is crucial – not everything that should be changed can be! Indeed, the vast, vast, majority of it cannot. The world is full of bad things that cannot be changed, and always will be. Aśvaghoṣa‘s Buddha points to the brutal reality of the fact. He will accept the power of his father the king as valuable only if it can change the harshest realities of old age, illness, and death; this is a rhetorical flourish to underscore the fact that of course it cannot. So too we cannot change the past; we each cannot change the unpleasant qualities of most of the people we work with; for the vast majority of us, the decisions of governments are far beyond our control; even when we can change something, it typically changes more slowly than it should.
I think few if any people recite the AA version praying to make all the things they can, including the bad ones. We are not asking for courage to change things that we can change but shouldn’t – to change things for the worse. The assumption, rather, is that all the changes we are talking about are changes we want to make, changes for the better – things that should be changed.
But those changes, good changes, fall into two categories! There are things that can and should be changed, and for those, of course, we need courage. But crucially, there are also things that should change but cannot. The majority of things, it seems to me, fall into this category. We need the serenity to accept those things, the many unchangeable yet bad things of the world. And crucially, one of the great barriers to that serenity is when we erroneously believe we can change them! When that happens, we continually experience the unnecessary frustration of bumping up into those barriers – a frustration (daurmanasya) that Śāntideva urges us to guard against, as the key source of hostility (dveṣa). The difference we need to know is not the difference between what cannot be changed and what should be changed – as if those were somehow mutually exclusive categories! Rather, it is the difference within what should be changed, between what we can change and what we can’t. And yes, as Sifton says, we can and should change some things that seem beyond our power to alter – but that is the gap between appearance and reality, to be fixed by a discerning wisdom. We should not aim to change things we actually cannot change.
The AA version makes an improvement even on the published 1944 version. For it gets rid of that notorious scourge of accountability: the passive voice. It matters not what “can be changed” if the ones capable of changing it are Donald Trump or Xi Jinping. Nothing we can do will change their minds. What really matters is not what “can be changed”, what we, or each I, can change.
None of this is a dumbing down. Quite the contrary, it is at the heart of the prayer’s vast power to change lives for the better. The prayer in the AA version makes exactly the distinction that is most important, between what we can control and what we can’t. That distinction is all too easy to lose sight of, and when we do, we lose wisdom in a way that destroys our serenity.
I am lucky to now be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and as a result my schedule has rapidly become fully packed. For that reason, after this post, I will cease the weekly posting schedule I’ve followed for the past year and return to the fortnightly (biweekly) schedule that I’ve followed for most of LoAW’s twelve years: every other Sunday rather than every Sunday. So you’ll see the next post two weeks from today.