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.
The Serenity Prayer is familiar to anyone who’s been through a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t know if it helps with addiction, but I do know it helps me get through a hard day at work. There are times when you feel like the challenges are insurmountable and management wants you to fail. That’s when I reach for a dose of serenity and see if I have the wisdom to navigate the mind-fields that are placed in my path.
The one thing I don’t like about this prayer is that it starts with serenity rather than courage. The Serenity Prayer can be read as an invitation to complacency, but I read it as an invitation for deeper thinking of what you can change. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Whenever you see things that need to change, you should start with the assumption that you can change it, and the only question is what’s the best way to do that. You have a responsibility to do something. What that something is might not be obvious, but often it will require courage to start.
For example, in 2001 my concern about climate change drove me to action. I knew I wasn’t going to change federal policy, so I worked with local groups to identify ways we could improve things at a state level. Our activism led to several laws being enacted that have significantly reduced emissions from power plants and prevented the construction of a new coal power plant that would have belched carbon dioxide for decades. Making big change is a relay race and others continued with the work: this year Washington State passed a law requiring 100-percent clean energy by 2045.
With my climate activism, I had to have serenity about the horror of federal policy at that time and focus on the state level. If I spent time and energy concerned about the lack of action on a federal level, I would have become depressed and unmotivated, accomplishing nothing. Rather I focused on our success at the state level, which was empowering, encouraging further activism. Serenity is about not spending energy fretting about things that don’t drive you to fruitful action.
I once worked at a small company with a complete and utter lack of process. Different departments didn’t communicate. Products were designed with no input other than the head of the research and development department saying, “Do it this way.” I found this environment frustrating and was constantly trying to fix everything. My only accomplishment was annoying management. My older (and wiser) self would like to go back in time and tell my younger self to have a bit of serenity about what I couldn’t change.
This is the hardest of all three. We see homeless people living in tents, children being shot in our schools, communities being inundated by rising seas. Is it serenity to do nothing because the problems are too big? Is serenity even an option when faced with such challenges? Is it courageous to struggle for years to try and improve things, with no guarantee of success? As I said, wisdom is the hardest.
Once when I was phone banking about climate action, I spoke with someone who was receptive but said he was focusing on health care. I sincerely thanked him for his action on an issue that motivated him. He was fighting the good fight; he had just chosen a different battle. He had the wisdom to treat other issues with serenity so he could focus on his issue, just as I focused on my issue, even though both issues were our issues.
When faced with a big challenge (or even a small one), take a deep breath, say a little prayer, and challenge yourself to be courageous and wise.