Submission and Autonomy in Recovery: Part 2
One of the more famous bits of recovery culture to make it into mainstream society is the Serenity Prayer - “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. Originally composed by the massively-influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (cited as an influence by political giants of all kinds from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama to John McCain), the prayer really took off when it got adopted as a cornerstone of the quasi-gospel that makes up AA’s semi-official collection of sayings and prayers.
The prayer originally led with the second verse, with the first appeal to God being for courage. “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other”. But through a cascade of revisions and alterations the version that caught on is the one where supplicants first and foremost ask for serenity, and “serenity” is the word that ultimately has come to define sobriety for the majority of people in traditional 12-step groups.
“Serenity” here refers to a foundational emotional state of peace and tranquility, found by no longer trying and failing to alter things which are beyond one’s control. “Things which are beyond one’s control” could encompass every single thing that occurs everywhere in life, as the AA saying “Life on Life’s Terms” would suggest. The good news about things being beyond your control, for the traditionally religious in AA, is that this is because God is in control, and God is good, and so everything that happens (once you stop resisting) is in accordance with the omnibenevolent divine will. What’s more, there is a supernatural and divine plane of existence where everything is perfect, all sins are forgiven, and death is nonexistent - “serenity” happens when you bring the untouchable tranquility of this spiritual plane into the material world by maintaining conscious contact with God through a regular practice of confession and prayer.
So the Serenity Prayer might as well be just one line long for a lot of people. Serenity is the goal of sobriety, the embodiment of its spiritual ideals, and also generally the most difficult and fleeting emotional state to experience. Humans are flawed and fickle and self-absorbed, and it’s easy to fall from contemplating God into another desperate spiral of self-obsession. But “courage” is also there in the prayer, and so is “wisdom”, in the second and third lines of the prayer respectively. Those virtues are right there in the prayer but get frequently overridden, due to the primacy of serenity in both the 12-step project and also in the prayer’s title. The virtues of “serenity” are also present in the 12 steps, though not in the order present in the Serenity Prayer.
The 12 steps roughly go from cultivating “acceptance” (i.e. serenity) to cultivating “wisdom” to cultivating “courage” - accepting your addiction, figuring out the patterns of thought and behavior that underlie the addiction, then changing your patterns of thought and behavior (in large part by changing your relationships, especially with the people you’ve wronged).
I assert that it’s kind of difficult to untangle these virtues in the context of a 12-step program. “Acceptance” is there from step 1, as is “wisdom” (you’re starting your journey because you know enough to open up to the experience of others), as is “courage” (you’re willing to step into the scary great unknown of a life beyond your addiction). I especially want to underline the “courage” part of the first step - speaking for myself, a lot of the reason why I clung (and can still cling) to destructive patterns of thought and behavior is because those patterns are familiar, because they are survival mechanisms that enable me to cope with some pain that I’m carrying around, because they protect what is alive in me somehow. So putting down those patterns of thought and behavior means risking re-exposure to the damage that put those patterns there in the first place, at least as far as that deep life-preserving part of me sees it. Just showing up and declaring readiness to change can take an awful lot of guts.
I further assert that this pattern is all over the place - you can’t have serenity without courage and wisdom going along with it. The image of serenity that most moves me is an image of a peace borne from a felt capacity to handle whatever it is that life throws at you, including (and especially) the things beyond your control. The traditionally religious in recovery see a spiritual life as being the ultimate guarantee of this serenity, but what I’ll be asserting further in later work is that this kind of serenity is available to everyone.