Eisenbud's Odyssey: On the ‘Serenity Prayer’

In a world riddled with profound, seemingly unsolvable problems, there’s an almost Darwinian empowerment in understanding the distinction between what we can change, what we can’t, and making peace with it.

Reinhold Niebuhr 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Reinhold Niebuhr 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As the world increasingly mirrors Dante’s Inferno, and continues to produce endless circles of unnecessary suffering that the 14th-century poet couldn’t possibly have imagined, I can’t help but think of the genius of Reinhold Niebuhr.
You may not know him by name, but it’s likely that you’ve heard at least some variation of his famous “Serenity Prayer.”
It’s a relatively simple and short sentence, that belies its profound power and brilliance:
“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.”What makes the "Serenity Prayer" so exceptional are the three disparate, yet equally vital ideas it imparts: Acceptance, courage and sound judgment – which, when combined, can result in uncommon inner peace.
Indeed, it has aided countless men and women battling addiction, disease, depression, tragedy, personal demons, or simply attempting to let go of their pain.
That said, when heeded as a mantra, the Serenity Prayer can be an invaluable life-vest if one is to stay afloat in the sea of life’s many perfect storms.
Therefore, it warrants thoughtful analysis.
LET’S BEGIN with the first element of the sentence: Acceptance of things we can’t change.
There are few things more maddening – or counterintuitive – in life than accepting a reality that is antithetical to what we represent, believe in, or can tolerate. Situations that we’re acutely aware desecrate our personal and collective human condition.
How does one accept existential, moral and spiritual threats like those who kill and maim in God’s name, a parent who abuses his child with impunity, or the fact that one of the finest people we know is riddled with a debilitating, terminal disease?
In short, how does one “accept” immorality or evil? Of course, none of us can accept that which unnecessarily devastates lives, in the sense that we condone it.
However, there’s an important distinction to be made between condoning that which we can’t change and understanding the futility of trying to right wrongs that are simply beyond our limited control.
As Niebuhr asserts, acceptance of this distinction can result in an inner peace from an otherwise potentially endlessly chaotic state.
For example, I will never accept that millions of children around the world are starving to death, that men get away with murder and genocide, or that people recklessly inflict any form of cruelty just for the sake of it.
However, I have also forced myself to become aware that I can’t single-handedly do much to save all the children who lack sustenance, stop people like Hitler or Assad from destroying an entire people, or a madman from harming a loved one.
The alternative is emotionally untenable, and unsustainable.
Therefore, it’s paramount that we reframe such existential dilemmas in realistic terms.
I may not be able to save all the starving children in Somalia, but I can certainly attempt to save a few of them by sending much-needed financial aid.
I may not be able to stop ethnic cleansing in Syria, or anti-Semitism, but I can strongly protest Assad’s barbarity, or put at least a small dent in anti-Semitism by supporting important Jewish causes.
I may not be able to single-handedly stop people from senselessly shooting kindergarteners in America, but I can do everything possible to support stronger gun legislation.
The list goes on.
THIS BRINGS us to the second element of Niebuhr’s equation: Courage to change the things I can.
As the descendant of a family murdered during World War II for being Jewish – and as a former police and criminal courts newspaper reporter who witnessed gruesome murder scenes, homicide, assault and rape trials – I have long been acutely aware of the inherent dangers of ambivalence when wrongs are committed within the realm of what we can control.
Indeed, I have come to believe that not intervening, in large or small ways, when obvious sins are committed, is the equivalent of being an accomplice to – if not an enabler of – the crime.
At best, it’s a sign of cowardice, at worst, a moral failure.
Much like the millions of Germans and Poles who remained silent while their Jewish counterparts were being slaughtered like animals,  not taking a stand when members of our community are immorally harmed is tantamount to a crime in and of itself.
Of course, exposing ourselves to risk to right a wrong can be frightening. But I would argue that not taking a stand in a scenario where we can constructively intervene – without recklessly compromising our lives – is a far worse fate.
On a micro level, inaction results in the deterioration of institutions and communities; on a macro level, in tyranny and genocide.
DESPITE ITS seeming simplicity, I believe that the third variable of Niebuhr’s equation is the most difficult to observe: Wisdom to know the difference.
Mastery of this aspect of his prayer requires years of Darwinian – and frequently painful – life experiences. Only a PhD from the school of hard knocks can teach us this otherwise elusive lesson.
For example, when I was younger, someone could have warned me until they were blue in the face that attempting to change people set in their ways was akin to changing the spots on a leopard, but it was only after a number of heartbreaks in my life that I finally learned – and internalized – the lesson.
Still, I believe it’s important not to take the easy way out of any given crisis, by falsely – and easily – rationalizing the futility of intervening. This is nothing short of a copout.
Whether it’s understanding and accepting the complexities of the Middle East, and what can and cannot be immediately changed, or interpersonal relationships, ultimately, the distinction between that which we can change and that which is beyond our control is invaluable if we are to remain sane.
IN THIS part of the world, where men conspire to murder children and people who pray to a different God – and generally lower the moral bar to the depths of hell – the "Serenity Prayer" comes in awfully handy.
But you certainly don’t need to live here to apply its far-reaching principles to your own distinct milieu.
To be sure, the prayer’s applications, and its powers, are limitless – whether it’s comprehending the genocide taking place in Syria, coming to terms with a failed or abusive relationship, or simply knowing when to stop giving a damn.
In the end, abiding by this simple sentence will likely make the difference between sinking and swimming.
As Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Life breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
This is all we can hope for when coming to terms with a reality that unsettles us, but cannot be changed.
It’s my hope that Niebuhr’s words will provide a degree of shelter when you feel lost at sea while navigating life’s occasional perfect storm.
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