The Serenity Prayer

Serenity Prayer Medallion, photo by Jerry “Woody”

On the All Hallows Eve of 1932, Winnifred Wygal’s 1 diary contained the first record describing the Serenity Prayer:

R.N. [Reinhold Niebuhr] says that ‘moral will plus imagination are the two elements of which faith is compounded.’ ‘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.’

Wygal, October 31, 1932

That Which We Cannot Change

Many things can be changed, but the wisdom is determining if you are the one able to make the thing change.

Some of the most tragic episodes involve people trying desperately to change something they do not have the power to change.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio. Thereafter he was unable to walk. But for a period of time shortly after his disability, his loved ones tried to help him regain his lost abilities. The hopeful treatments involved excruciating massage and constant anger and disappointment. Eventually the doctors were able to convince loved ones that there was nothing that could bring back FDR’s ability to walk. The pain and anger ceased, and constructive means of overcoming the limitations of the disability were developed.

Similarly, there was a time when people earnestly believed it was possible to change an individual’s sexual orientation. The hopeful treatments involved excruciating pain and constant anger and disappointment. Eventually doctors and others accepted that some conditions cannot be changed. The membership of the Church, for instance, is in the midst of shifting to a place where pain and anger can cease, where we as a people can develop constructive means to minister to those few dealing with this issue in their own lives.

Kate Kelly earnestly believed that God wished to immediately transform the Church into an organization where every position and privilege was open to individuals of any gender. She poured her soul into shaming the Church into asking God. But this change was not something Kate, of herself, could make. Like individuals from the 1830s, she presumed she could “command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church.” 2

The Courage the Change What We Can [for good]

I remember pouring out my soul to God on behalf of my son, who had a serious heart defect. But ultimately my son died. At that point the healing I had so desired on his behalf was no longer possible. What was required was the courage to embrace a life without my son.

Unfortunately, my extended family had lived through what can happen when an infant dies suddenly. Knowing the bad that can happen, they rallied around me with love, ensuring that I got the rest I needed in those early days after my son’s passing. Where the family member who suffered a child’s death had gone through excruciating months of despair, I was able to rally relatively quickly. In the weeks after the child’s death, my family member had been in the hospital under heavy medication. I, on the other hand, was back at work.

In 1939 the British government knew that Britons would be faced with horrific realities arising from war with Germany. While America rationed and sent many of her children into war zones, British citizens faced bombing and blockades. In the face of these horrors, Britons were encouraged to remain courageous. Three posters were designed to hearten Britons in the face of these terrors. They said:

Freedom is in Peril. Defend It with All Your Might.

Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory.

and most familiar to modern ears,

Keep Calm and Carry On.

1939-era Ministry of Information poster discovered at Barter Books in 2000

At the time the posters were perceived to be patronizing and a waste of valuable resources. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster in particular was not to be displayed until a time of intense crisis. By the time the crises came, the posters seemed impolitic. In 1940 the posters were pulped as part of the Paper Salvage aspect of the wartime recycling effort. 3

Sometimes the change we must courageously effect is to bring calm, to comfort those in need of comfort. Sometimes courage consists of shushing the panic that makes you want to curl into a ball and instead make plans and take action to deal with reality as it stands.

Wisdom

Wisdom is defined as “experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Sometimes we can acquire experience by watching others err. Sometimes we learn at the feet of mentors how to avoid perils we have never faced.

But too often life will present us with situations that require understanding beyond anything we have learned at home or in school, understanding beyond that which we have managed to acquire to that point.

In those moments, may we cry out to our God to grant us the wisdom we do not yet have, that we may know whether it is our lot to be serene in the face of unchangeable fact or to courageously act to effect necessary change.

May we eventually stand before God, able to hold our heads high, knowing that God approves of our mortal efforts. May we find that through God’s inspiration, we have chosen well when and how to act, and when and how to accept.

Notes:

  1. Ms. Wygal’s obituary characterized her as “retired secretary for religious resources of the community division of the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association.” Wygal had done postgraduate work under the guidance of noted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr while at Harvard.
  2. D&C 28:6
  3. Dr. Henry Irving, “Keep Calm and Carry On – The Compromise Behind the Slogan,” History of Government Blog, 27 June 2014, online at https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/06/27/keep-calm-and-carry-on-the-compromise-behind-the-slogan/
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

7 thoughts on “The Serenity Prayer

  1. I find that identifying areas of responsibility or stewardship is useful in determining the difference. Sometimes we would really like to change something that someone else is doing, but usually it is out of our control. Most of us do well to keep our own life in balance. However it can be tempting to make no effort to make a difference even when there is a chance that we could do something effective even if it isn’t all we would like to do. This is one of the many areas where relying on the Spirit can be helpful.

  2. Timely discussion. The serenity prayer is closely associated with 12 Step Recovery, and Colleen Harrison’s He Did Deliver Me from Bondage demonstrated that the Book of Mormon contains the 12 steps as a pattern we should all follow. In considering what is and is not possible to change, we should also consider that much of what we see and how we assess is a function of the examples we take as paradigmatic. Sometimes the stories we tell control what we see and what we can imagine. A different approach can sometimes open up possibilities for change that would not otherwise consider.

    From an essay I have in Spring 2016 Square Two:
    “In my current view, the main issue is not the direction of a person’s sexuality, but whether the overall pattern of behavior demonstrates sex addiction. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals can suffer from sex addiction, and that condition affects behavior via cravings combined with impaired judgment. Consider, for instance, whether sex addiction would be a reasonable diagnosis if the behavior was strictly heterosexual. For example, suppose that Steven had admitted to Emily that he’d had sex with at least twenty women during a six month binge, with some repeats, some just “fooling around,” and that “none of it meant anything” since he wasn’t in love. Suppose the post-divorce Gerald had his apartment filled with hardcore heterosexual pornography for Emily to view, and that on visits back home he brought an endless string of female lovers to introduce to the family? Would anyone be quick to dismiss the possibility of sex addiction in these cases?”

    http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleChristensenRashomon.html

    FWIW

    Kevin Christensen
    Canonsburg, PA

  3. Pat, I agree that there are times when we can do something, even though we are not the one fully empowered to effect the change. A missionary letter I got this week talked about envisioning our individual efforts like drops of water, referencing those fun water park features where the bucket dumps when it is full.

    I think the soul-cankering anger occurs when one presumes one is unilaterally able to effect change without accepting that some things are outside of one’s control.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for that snippet from your 2016 article on Square Two. On the other hand, not everyone that identifies as lesbian or gay engages in behavior that would be inappropriate for a heterosexual individual.

    An under-discussed matter is how past trauma can inform our sexual reality. My first husband definitely had an impact on me (literally and figuratively) which has affected my relationship with my current husband.

    In another case with which I am familiar, a woman suffered sexual abuse as a child. After that she could not bear to be touched sexually, though she endured a handful of encounters for the express purpose of becoming a mother. The woman’s husband told me how corrosive the associated rejection was.

    In the case of several women I met as a young person, they had been “normal,” but after being raped were unwilling to risk intimacy with men. As they were unwilling to renounce human closeness, they turned to lesbianism as an acceptable surrogate.

    I think one of the areas where we can be courageous is to seek to truly understand those around us and to extend love that can appropriately be shared with any child of God. Of course, that includes understanding and loving ourselves (for example, those times when the greatest good (i.e., sacrifice) I can effect is to take a nap).

  5. The Serenity prayer also illustrates Stoicism as explained by Epictetus.

    Two different translations of his “Enchiridion” are online free at http://www.gutenberg.org/ , one by Thomas Higginson, and one by George Long.

    I don’t think Epictetus was a Christian, but I do think he was sort of a “proto-Christian.” Not everything in his teachings is compatible with the gospel, but for the parts that do comport, he has a flair for explanation and analysis that is amazing.

  6. Hi Meg,

    I know lots of stories of sexual trauma akin to these. One sees and hears a lot over many years in various addiction recovery groups, in recovery literature, and in listening to the various others lives in range of my own. I don’t think in terms of a “one size fits all” approach. (For instance, a friend many years ago began having memories of abuse by her father (and confirmed in a detailed letter written by the father), and subsequently left her husband for a series lesbian relationships, the final one lasting over a decade, and then, choosing to leave that lifestyle and eventually enter a temple marriage for the past decade or so. Another friend left her husband around the same time, but continues in the lifestyle across a series of partners. Different roots. Different long term path, despite years in a parallel track.) But my concern (not just as one who has done recovery but who has also been serving in LDS ARP for years and seen the process in many people over many years) is for those for whom the addiction model turns out to be a good fit, a valid and relevant diagnosis, since that brings with it a well-understood path to recovery and healing. And this is true for those affected as well as those afflicted. (My essay quotes key literature applying to both, including Patrick Carnes and Marsha Means, among others). It takes some awareness and research to acquire the relevant wisdom to recognize when this approach brings into focus some things that can be changed for the better by taking this path. The worst advice an addict (regardless of orientation) can recieve is an assurance that this is “just the way you are” and those around should just accept that nothing can or should change. A key diagnostic belief in addicts is a conviction that “sex is my most important need.” Those who work recovery discover that they can do without, not through gritting their teeth and denying themselves, but through healing the increased craving and impeded judgement that characterizes addiction. I’ve known several men who don’t do recovery to change their orientation, or deny or punish themselves, but rather, to have the option and capacity to live as though sex is not their most important need. As though family and faith can come first. And it happens that every person that I have seen embrace recovery reports improved intimacy and relationships and happiness. A reading of the relevant literature also can prevent misdiagnosis. That is part of the “wisdom to know the difference.”

  7. Hi Kevin,

    I appreciate the additional discussion.

    For those of us baffled by the “sex is my most important need!” mantra, it is useful to know that this very point is suggestive of an addiction diagnosis.

    Good to know!

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