The courage to change
Besides the Lord’s Prayer itself, this might well be the most well-known of prayers:
“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 ...”
Based on a text by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the “Serenity Prayer” has become a fundamental part of 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
I implied in my previous column that American society under Donald Trump has a few things in common with alcoholics and other addicts. In fact, I wrote, “We are about to hit bottom. The good news is this: hitting bottom is the moment when the possibility for change becomes real, and the necessity for change becomes obvious. Because at that point, to refuse to change is to die.”
So what does it take to change? The Serenity Prayer asks for one thing in this regard: courage. And this is clearly correct; courage is essential to such a process—not just the courage to move into an uncertain future, or to try new ways of dealing with the world, but the courage to look unflinchingly and honestly at one’s past and at one’s present condition.
But courage by itself is not enough. When I pray this prayer, I make some additional requests, because at least three other things are needed: tools, opportunities and vision.
We need vision, first, to see that change is even possible. Margaret Thatcher was fond of declaring, “There is no alternative” to the present arrangements of power and wealth. Sarah Palin famously baited progressives with the snarky question, “How’s that hopey-changey thing working for ya?” Addiction tries to destroy hope, to eliminate alternatives, to hold its victims in a prison of despair and resignation. We must insist otherwise.
Then we also need vision to imagine a better way of living, to understand what it is that we want to become, what values we should strive to embody and what goals we wish to achieve.
We also need tools, tools to aid examination and analysis, to interpret data and to facilitate productive communication and discussion. We need techniques that help us pinpoint problems and generate solutions.
And we need opportunities for change—or rather, the ability to recognize or create them. At first, perhaps, we can seek out the “low-hanging fruit,” those situations where small changes can be made successfully. These small successes can then build our confidence and help us prepare to make the larger changes still ahead.
Or we might go farther, and recognize that the situation is more dire than we thought, that the time for gradual change is actually past and the opportunity for more far-reaching and effective change is at hand.
And here we get back to courage, the courage to see where we really are and what we really can be instead.
Let’s not settle for simply regaining what has been lost, or repairing what has been broken. Let’s not settle for a restoration of the status quo ante, the way things were before.
Let’s not just recover. Let’s not merely revolt. Let’s regenerate.