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.
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 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.
- 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. ↩
- D&C 28:6 ↩
- 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/ ↩