|Reinhold Niebuhr penned "The Serenity Prayer"|
In conversations with my friends and colleagues, with my students and family and (to the concern of my daughter) with the radio, I stumbled to find some solace amidst the storm of stupidity that seemed to defy politics and logic. And when I stumble I usually look to Reinhold Niebuhr. In our recent times of war, Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952) struck me as a necessary antidote to hubris and unjustified violence. In our recent time of stupidity, I found Niebuhr’s prayer for humility—also know as the Serenity Prayer—quite helpful: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
This simple prayer has been made popular through its adoption by 12-step programs, especially Alcoholics Anonymous. But Niebuhr originally wrote it to reflect upon the Great Depression and the Second World War. While there has been some contention over the origins of the prayer, it seems fairly clear now that Niebuhr is its author.
Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton writes about his sentiments in her book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in a Time of War and Peace. “It reminds us of the virtues we must call upon in our private lives,” she observes, “and it also concerns the qualities needed to act in the intricate social networks that connect us to each other.” Thankfully, we are not stricken with the cataclysms of Niebuhr’s time, but surely this prayer offers perspective on both the inability of our national leaders to act like leaders and the capacity of the country—meaning the rest of us—to continue despite such an impasse.
The image of Niebuhr being calm and resolute in the face of tragedy is popular but somewhat simplistic. Recently, I’ve found new meaning in Niebuhr’s relationship to the spirit of that prayer as I’ve learned to see that relationship with some irony—a notion Niebuhr would surely appreciate.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."