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Deacon Kyle Eller: Serenity Prayer offers needed wisdom in how we spend our energies

One of the first prayers I remember encountering outside of going to church or praying before bedtime was the short version of the Serenity Prayer. Attributed to the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it came into widespread use through Alcoholics Anonymous, especially the first few lines. The version I learned went like this: “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.” 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

It has come to my mind a lot lately, in my own life and those of people around me, observing how we spend our efforts. There is a surprising depth to its three petitions, which seem so simple on the surface. 

It’s helpful to begin with the last, which asks of God the “wisdom to know the difference” between what I can change and what I can’t. This does require wisdom — and the cardinal virtue of prudence — because it’s not always obvious. In fact, most of the time, things in our lives seem to be a mix of both. 

I’ll give a personal example. I’ve worked as a journalist most of my adult life and loved journalism longer than that, since childhood. I care about journalism. I believe in its value for society and advocate for it, especially when it’s a thankless task: when it reports uncomfortable truths and when it includes voices we find hard to hear. 

But on a daily basis now, I’m watching that kind of journalism die, being deliberately dismantled, often by people whose job is supposed to be practicing it, its sense of ethics and fairness and civility and balance ignored or even explicitly rejected. On a whole host of social issues, many news outlets no longer even pretend to care about treating the multiple perspectives within their communities fairly. Whole segments of our communities are, routinely, falsely accused of bigotry and hatred and ignorance and cast as villains, denied a chance to rebut those accusations and characterizations, denied even the most basic justice of seeing what they actually think, say, and do reported accurately. 

This breaks my heart and makes me fear for our society, where amid our polarization, journalism should be playing an urgently needed service of allowing people to encounter the best version of opposing views. It grieves me that this is lost. The injustice of it angers me. Things shouldn’t be this way. 

People who hold the view of matters like abortion and human sexuality outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church have exactly the same right to be heard and treated with fairness and respect as anyone else. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement. When it doesn’t happen, it’s wrong. 

After a particularly egregious newspaper article recently, I posted a blistering, detailed critique of it for my Facebook friends. But then I found myself recalling the Serenity Prayer and asking myself: “Is this something I can really change?” (Gulp.) 

Well, maybe I can, a tiny bit. I have the knowledge to identify and articulate what’s wrong and why in a way most people can’t, which can help others experiencing these injustices and at least let them know they’re not alone and not imagining things. I can pray. 

But the difference I can make, while perhaps needed, is so tiny that even to speak of it in those terms feels like rationalizing, justifying how upset I let myself get about it. It would be absurd hubris to imagine some criticism of mine changing things significantly even in my own small city. Reporters behaving this way generally do it deliberately. 

I see similar things so often. Probably egged on by some media outlet profiting on our perpetual outrage, we get mad at some public figure doing or saying something wrong. We can add our small voices to the din. Maybe we should. But then? Do we let it go or keep fueling that anger, as if it’s accomplishing something? 

It’s true closer to home too. We can let our hearts get overwhelmed with how some circumstance or some other person’s behavior ought to be different, but often our ability to change those things is minimal at best. Sometimes we even get overwhelmed focusing on things of the past, wasting our hearts on grudges or shame instead receiving and extending mercy to ourselves and to others. 

Discerning what we can change and what we can’t helps us refocus our energies and keep custody of our hearts. Where there is little we can do, we do the little we can. A quote often attributed to St. Thomas More is a good way to think of it: “What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.” But then we let it go, with trust in God’s providence. This is where we can find the serenity to authentically “accept the things we cannot change.” 

That frees us for the things we can change, and it’s wise to ask for courage for them, because that’s often what we’re tempted to avoid. They can be difficult and painful. 

After all, what I have the most power to change is myself: my reactions, my choices, my deeds, my words, my thoughts. I may be called to do something difficult, like repenting, forgiving, reconciling, making amends, trusting, loving, hoping, letting go of something, committing to something, persevering in hardship, beginning again, healing. 

Praying for that courage is another way of asking the grace we need from God to do these good things, because the truth is that often they are not things we can do entirely on our own. 

“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.” 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]