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The Serenity Prayer and Me

The Serenity Prayer and Me

Audio Version  

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.

Our Fellowship's Serenity Prayer can be recited either in the first (I, me) or third (us, we) person. When we recite it together at the end of a meeting, it seems to me to have even greater power than when I say it alone, often in the dark, often when I am most afraid. Either way, when I really need it and mean it, it never lets me down. I have chosen to write it out here in the first person, as a reminder to myself that I am by nature a selfish person. I am instinctively, "resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid" (BB p86). I am also, when left to my own devices, "restless, irritable and discontented" (BB p. xxviii). These things are not, in my experience, unrelated; self centred fear is at the root of my restlessness and irritability. The fear, the restlessness, the discontent, I used to treat with alcohol; and the treatment, the medicine (booze), very nearly killed the patient, me.

I can only assume I first came across this life saving prayer when I attended my first meeting; my memory of those times is a bit hazy. At some point early in my journey to recovery, it did begin to penetrate. In particular, the first line did. For a very long time in AA, I clung to the first line of the prayer "with all the fervour with which the drowning seize life preservers" (12&12 p.23). It wasn't hard for me to pray for serenity, because serenity was what I had been looking for from a bottle and a glass, a pill, or whatever else seemed to offer me a momentary escape from my own often tormented head. I may not have been able to describe serenity back then - after all, I had'tt experienced much of it, except in its artificially induced, chemical form; but gradually the promises, "We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace" (BB p. 83) began to come true for me. As I experienced some serenity in my life, being an alcoholic I naturally wanted more. So in times of stress, which were many, I prayed for it. I prayed for enough serenity to get me through each day, without a drink and without succumbing completely to anxiety. And guess what? It worked, it really did.

For an equally long time, I glossed over the other two lines in the prayer, because I didn't really understand them. I'm not sure I knew what courage was. Through working the Steps with a sponsor, I came to know, that all my life I was beset by paralysing fears, fears that my pride wouldn't even let me acknowledge. But courage, what was that? Dutch courage I had plenty of, enough to numb my fears and allow me, for a while anyway, to bluff my way through life. So what is courage? My dictionary defines it as 'The ability to face danger without fear.' But I am not happy with that definition. AA experience has taught me that, through the programme of recovery we can, "commence to outgrow fear" (BB p. 68), but it takes a long time before, "an evil and corroding thread" with which "the fabric of our existence was shot through" (BB p. 67) can be completely removed. So courage is not the complete absence of fear; rather, it is the ability to overcome fear, and to keep moving forward, in the Twelve Step recovery programme, and in life. For this alcoholic to face his fears, to grow in sobriety, and to move forward, it was necessary to pray for courage. Just as my defence against the first drink had to come from a power greater than myself, so did the courage I needed to live a sober life, one day at a time. And there, buried in the middle of our Serenity prayer, is a request to that higher power, to give me the courage I needed, and previously lacked.

Now we come to the third line of this miraculous prayer (miraculous because it works), "The wisdom to know the difference". If I have struggled to define or understand serenity and courage, what chance did I have with wisdom? I thought I was pretty smart when I first staggered into AA - an undiscovered genius, was how I sometimes saw myself - but all the evidence said different. If I had acquired any wisdom at all in the 41 years before, on my knees, I picked up the phone to AA, it hadn't done me much good. I arrived smashed to bits, broken and bewildered, completely lost. Not much evidence of wisdom in action, not up to that point anyway.

Now with hindsight, and with what I have learned from listening to and identifying with other alcoholics in recovery, I can recognise that the beginnings of wisdom, for me, came when I admitted complete defeat. Only when I conceded that I knew absolutely nothing, could I begin to learn. The search for wisdom could begin only when I conceded I had none. And it's been a long search, but wisdom, I have discovered, is available when I am willing to ask and to look for it. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is packed with wisdom, the wisdom that comes with experience; wisdom too, I think, that has come from reliance on the same Higher Power which grants us Serenity and courage when we need it most, and when we humble ourselves sufficiently to ask for help.

Personally, I am in no doubt that when those early AAs in Ohio and New York sat down to record their experiences in a book, countless copies of which have now been printed and reprinted, an unseen hand held the hand that moved the pen. That is my belief, but I have no wish to be controversial or to impose that belief on others. So I'll finish with the hope that anyone who has read this far will join me in saying...

God, grant us the Serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
The Courage to change the things we can
And the Wisdom to know the difference

TONY, London