The Serenity Prayer of Social Impact

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This is the Serenity Prayer, which Alcoholics Anonymous uses as a touchstone for overcoming addiction.

And I see it as powerful when applied to social change, too.

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change

To struggle painfully against a reality that is both unchangeable and unacceptable is to be human. It can be excruciating just to see.

To see the Syrian children who have died in the water, hungry and cold. To see the tears of mothers and fathers who lost their babies to gun violence. To see one police officer after another take an innocent life, then be acquitted. To see the damage we’ve done to our earth.

And if you are working to change the system that produces those tragic injustices, then you know that they will continue to happen until something fundamental shifts.

And that fundamental, systemic change is long haul work. It takes patience and resilience. It takes seeing the reality of the present moment.

And yes, it takes acceptance of that reality. Which, if you are working for change, sounds like a paradox.

But acceptance of the present moment is not the same as resignation.

It’s not becoming resigned to a future that is as hard to accept as the present. It is saying, “there are some things that right this moment, I cannot change.”

And when we can let go into that, it frees up our attention and energy to focus on what we can change. It clarifies our sense of purpose.

But to hold on too tightly to things that are beyond us is like shouting at the ocean.

The roar of the waves will drown out your voice. And for a time, that might feel good. For a time, it might feel like therapy.

But you will wear yourself out. If you spend your life arguing with eternity, eventually you will lose. 

We may need to dress our wounds. We may need to grieve what’s been lost. But once we can accept and really see where we are, we are ready to take that next step forward.

The courage to change the things I can

And so when we let go of the impossible, we are freed up to bring everything we have to bear on the possible.

Every word, every action, every intention, every song, every beat.

And that kind of all-in focus and commitment takes courage. Because, what if?

What if I’m wrong? What if this fails? What if it’s not big enough? What if I let my people down?

And what if I’m right? What if this works? What if people start to see me as a leader who is responsible -- in a bigger way -- to this movement?

The heart of that kind of courage is love.

Unconditional self-love gives us the space we need to try things out, and make mistakes. Love for our people motivates us to show up bigger and with more clarity than we might if we were just in it for ourselves. And love for our vision of a better future commits us to the long haul.

The wisdom to know the difference

We live inside a cultural delusion of heroism and ultimate empowerment.

We celebrate invincibility and immortality. Our heroes never die, and always save the day. TV doctors always find the cure and beat death. Beautiful teenagers, who happen to be vampires, stay forever young.

So it’s no wonder we get mixed up.

The good news is we can all become wiser if we practice discernment.

You might try it now.

Ask yourself:

  1. What do I hold myself responsible for, that I have little to no control over?

  2. What is outside of my realm of influence, that is hard for me to accept?

  3. What is within my influence, that I tend to overlook?

  4. What keeps me focused on what is out of my realm of influence?

  5. What causes me to overlook what is within my ability to influence?

  6. What would happen if I stopped focusing on what is beyond my influence, and only focused on what I can influence?

Do you see the serenity prayer as relevant in your life and work?

If so, I’d love to hear how in the comments.