Full disclosure: Eileen Flanagan and I are acquainted through Quaker circles.
Flanagan’s subject here is a prayer that is spoken during the tens of thousands of recovery meetings that take place around the world every day.
We recite so frequently that we may no longer even think about the words. Do we grasp their power to help us discern who we are and what God/higher power/Spirit/Universe means us to be doing with the gifts and resources we’ve been given?
Flanagan has interviewed nearly 30 people who have grappled with these questions, and she uses the Serenity Prayer to illuminate their stories.
One of my favorites among her subjects is Park Dong-Sun, a Korean who immigrated to U.S. 25 years ago, at 40. Dong-Sun soon experienced a bunch of business failures and started drinking alcoholically. He joined AA; since he had studied Zen Buddhism in Korea, he brought this to bear on his experience of the 12 steps. Eventually he became a monk. Flanagan writes that one of Dong-Sun’s central questions that the Serenity Prayer helps illuminate is, “Change from what to what?” In other words, as she writes,
Millions of self-help books are sold every year to people hoping to change, but we have to ask ourselves, change in what way, for what purpose? Are we hoping to put on a new False Self, one that will make us more successful or popular? Or do we seek a deeper change, one that realigns our priorities and helps us to live more authentically? This is where listening within and knowing ourselves is crucial. It takes discernment to know what you should accept in yourself and what you should try to change.
Discernment is a major Quaker practice—one that has been central to my own recovery, and one with which Flanagan spends a lot of time in this book. She starts by giving us the original edition of the Serenity Prayer as credited to Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, give us grace
To accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
That last line is all about discernment. Discernment is both a listening for and a testing of leadings, and can be compared to the activity we undertake when we engage in Step 11: how do we know what Higher Power’s will is for us? How do we carry that out? … For those who have tried 12-step meetings and have difficulty with “the God-thing,” Flanagan’s explorations of discernment and “seeking divine guidance” are well worth a read.
Woven throughout the book is an exploration of the concept and practice of accepting what we cannot change, including—unexpectedly, and perhaps with comfort for those who were raised in overly critical alcoholic families—the greatness instilled in us by our creators. This is a superbly powerful notion: that one of the things I cannot change is my own essential nature … Who I Be. The more I accept my inherent gifts and resources, Flanagan and her subjects’ stories reveal, the greater the likelihood I can use those to serve the good of society and create positive change in the world. My beloved AlAnon sponsor would agree.