The Serenity Prayer and Hope

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 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 below—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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2 thoughts on “The Serenity Prayer and Hope

  1. I think the illusion of control is quite prevalent. Especially when we look at the building blocks of civilization. We impose rules with the idea that everyone will follow them, we created marriage to weigh up for our fear of loss and the lack of control we may feel over someone else. Our forefathers seemed quite insecure, like all the rules made up were made to satisfy their anxieties and fears. It seems that society is built on distrust and our desire for control. Which we can see in our traditions. The same goes for religion. We create all these systems of thinking that gives us the feeling that we have control. Because if we do not have control, our anxiety level goes up and fear sets in.

    Meaning is something that has become a commodity. We are “meaning machines”. Our ability to make things up is quite astonishing. There is so much “meaning”, that we are in the challenging position of having to choose. While some people make up their meaning, that induces the right amount of control and feelings of safety for them to deal with life.

    Anxiety is the basis of life and everyone has it to some degree. That is why many of our creations are things that helps us feel like we are in charge even though life is more or less chaos and quite absurd in the end.

  2. I add:

    God grant me the serenity to accept that I cannot change others
    Courage to change myself
    And the wisdom to remember this

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