Serenity, courage & wisdom
I strive for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The following audio is a draft of the commentary on Step Twelve for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. Please help improve it by sharing your comments.
See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
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Transcript (edited for clarity):
This wording is an adaptation of what is known as the Serenity Prayer. A theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, initially wrote it. So it was very much intended as a prayer. However, thinking about it as a prayer distracts you from the way that it works.
If you just think of it as a prayer, you believe that these qualities of serenity, courage, and wisdom are going to be given to you by God. To push the logic to its extreme, you have to do nothing at all about it, but simply pray for it, and one day you will be changed. It will happen to you.
Now, that is not at all the spirit in which Reinhold Niebuhr wrote this. And it's not the spirit in which even the traditional Twelve Steps think of it. Keep in mind that most of the steps are bout ways to change attitude and behavior. The "prayer" part emphasizes to religious people how important it is: so important that they're asking God's help. If you don't believe in God, then you have to find a way to do it for yourself. And people who believe in God also believe in making an effort to help God help them. So the difference is not as big as it might seem at first.
So let's sidestep the notion of prayer and go into why these qualities are essential, and how they are at the heart of what the Twelve-step process is. It's right there from the very beginning. Remember that Step One of the Proactive 12 Steps is that "there is a big difference between who I want to be and what I do. I am stuck in what I do." So from the first step on, you are confronting the issue of what it is that you can change and what it is that you cannot change.
At the very beginning, in Step One, you are at least dimly aware that there is some difficulty in changing at all. Then you engage in this process to find out what it is that you can change, and what it is that you cannot change.
So what about serenity? Well, as you have discovered through this process, the change does not happen by forcing yourself to be somebody you're not. And it certainly does not occur by blaming yourself for the things you're not doing. Progress comes from deciding to understand what it is that is happening. So you're not forcing change from the very beginning. You have a sense of acceptance of what is.
"Acceptance of what is" is another way of stating: "accepting what you cannot change." Accepting means finding some degree of serenity with it. If you cannot change it, you're not going to keep banging your head against a wall. You're going to simply notice that this cannot be changed and figure out what it is that can be changed.
Finding serenity and acceptance does not mean that you are abandoning any hope of change. You are merely figuring out where you have a grip, some possibility of changing, and where you don't. You are orienting your efforts where there is a possibility.
Now, what about courage? Through this process, you have been figuring out that courage does not mean pushing yourself to do silly things. Courage does not mean jumping out of a tenth-floor window because you dare yourself to do that. If it doesn't work, if it's going to doom, it's not courage. It may be lore like stupidity.
What you have been figuring out is that courage lies in confronting your vulnerabilities, accepting them, and staying with them. Doing this is very different from bluster. It is much softer, but also much more intense, much more difficult. You're not avoiding feeling the difficulty, but you're learning to stay with it. You are giving yourself a chance to learn that you can stay with it. You allow yourself to learn that it will eventually get better as you stay with it.
What we are talking about here is the courage to remain emotionally present as you face your vulnerabilities, to learn from the discomfort, to grow from it. Not to close your eyes and ears and nose and force yourself to do something so unpleasant that you can only do it by avoiding being emotionally present.
And so now, what about wisdom? Well, this is wisdom that comes from experience, that is trial and error. Sometimes it might be possible to know what it is that you can change and you can't, but more often than not. It's not that easy to figure it out ahead of time. In some cases, it might be possible to see it as an outside observer, but it's difficult to grasp in a gut-level way, in a way that you can apply.
As you've been going through the 12 Steps, you have been giving yourself the chance to learn from experience. So the wisdom to know the difference is the wisdom that you gained from experience.
To gain wisdom, it has taken you the courage to confront tough situations. It has also taken the serenity to realize that there is no value in keeping banging your head against a wall. Time and again, you learned to redirect your efforts toward where there is more of a possibility of change.
As you gain experience with this process, you can better name its different aspects. Calling them serenity, courage, and wisdom helps you pinpoint what it is that you've been doing throughout this process. And it enables you to continue doing it as you go on with your life.