Courage Prayer

“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.”

We have come to know these words as the “serenity prayer,” used widely by people in recovery as a guide and touchstone.

The serenity prayer is believed to be the rephrasing of a prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian: 

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

I find it fascinating that Niebuhr’s original prayer starts with courage, not serenity. We could call it the “courage prayer.”  It also focuses on “us” rather than “me.”

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book in 1932, Moral Man and Immoral Society, A Study in Ethics and Politics. The premise of the book is that as individuals, humans have the capacity to be moral, compassionate and caring. However, when humans form themselves into societies and groups, natural moral impulses get lost in collective egoism, power and domination. 

Niebuhr writes, “man’s group behavior…symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit:  its inability to conform its collective life to individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”  

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society in the midst of the Great Depression, not long after the Great War, women’s suffrage, less than 70 years after the Civil War ended legal slavery, and a year before Nazis took control of the German government. He was unaware of the “tragedies of the human spirit” we have known in the 90 years since.   

Though I do not have as grim a view of human groups as Niebuhr (he would call me a progressive romantic), I agree that participating in groups can sometimes allow, encourage or even require that we behave in ways we never would as moral individuals. Social psychologists call this “group think,” which we associate with mobs, cults and groups that view outsiders as inferior, unenlightened or less human than “us.” 

In more subtle ways, we all feel the tension when our participation in collective endeavors pulls us away from our individual convictions that we “ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other.” I found this to be true for me in my role as a “manager.” I felt pressure to behave toward the people who reported to me in ways that did not feel consistent with my values. This tension compelled me to write, Management Culture, which focuses on the cultural expectation placed on managers, which sometimes are not affirming, kind, healthy or even productive. 

Beyond our roles, as member of society, consumers, citizens and even participants on social media platforms (which I used to think of as benign), we participate in institutions that don’t necessarily “love and serve” and “establish justice” between people. Sometimes we are unaware of the immorality of our collective endeavors. And, even when we become aware, we often feel powerless to change the human machines of which we are a part. What are we to do? Stop participating in groups that don’t reflect our individual values? Or fight from within the institutions to shape them in ways that are more moral and loving? Yes, and yes. Which brings us back to Niebuhr’s “courage prayer” and its derivative, the “serenity prayer.” 

Perhaps, we should not view these as two versions of the same prayer but as one prayer that addresses both levels of human experience identified by Niebuhr. The serenity prayer keeps us grounded in our morality so that as members of groups we have the courage to “change what must be altered” in society.    

“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.”

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

Amen.

About Denise Moreland

The dynamics between employees and managers are fascinating, and often dysfunctional. I have spent my career trying to create healthy and engaging relationships. My book, Management Culture (Two Harbors Press, 2012), identifies outdated rules and patterns, and offers fresh ideas on how we can all improve our work places. Learn more and purchase Management Culture at mgmtculture.com. Through my business, LifeGuides, I provide life coaching, facilitation and public speaking services. Please follow me on: Facebook Linkedin Twitter
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