The Serenity Prayer: A Brief Analysis

Reinhold niebuhr.jpgReinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971)

The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The best-known form is:

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.

I’ve never thought deeply about the prayer—although it certainly came up in the classes I taught. However, the video below by the philosopher Luc Bovens titled “Want a Meaningful Life? Learn to Control Your Mind,” got me to thinking more about it. Bovens believes that the prayer presents a false dichotomy. He argues that there is a space between serenely accepting and courageously changing—and that space is best filled by hope. Hope lies between active change and passive acceptance.

Now consider how this applies to Bovens’ topic in the video—living a meaningful life. We cannot act so as to guarantee that life is meaningful, but we shouldn’t just accept that it is meaningful either. What we can do is act in the hope that life is meaningful while accepting that we can’t be assured that it is. So hoping involves both active and passive components. And this is an alternative to the choices offered by the prayer’s false dichotomy.

Here is Bovens explaining this.

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1 thought on “The Serenity Prayer: A Brief Analysis

  1. John, I wrote an alternative Serenity Prayer:

    God, grant me the serenity to accept that I can’t change anyone except myself,
    Courage to change myself,
    And the wisdom to remember this!

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