The prayer 12-step meetings open and close with is widely known as 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.
The Serenity Prayer can be the gate to dealing with addiction; it allows the neophyte to admit that she depends on alcohol/cocaine/sugar/pornography to get her through the day but that history does not have to dictate her present or her future. It’s also a terrific prayer/mantra/reminder for a zillion situations, ranging from being stuck in traffic to getting a diagnosis of periodontal disease, boiling down most often to the fact that the only changeable thing is one’s attitude.
And yet I think it is one of the most dangerous personal philosophies ever put into a single sentence.
Addicts are long practitioners of acceptance. We’ll accept anything if there is a bottle or box waiting for us. We might get impatient when stuff gets in the way of our substance but we will suffer any abuse, endure any pain, live in any condition of self-loathing, if we know we can get stoned. We are professional sufferers—or sufferancers.
What the Serenity Prayer does not address is that, aside from the attitude of the moment, we addicts need to change our selves, that interior mechanism that emotionally, psychologically and physically depends on or craves escape from a world and a self-regard we can’t accept. And rather more often than the Serenity Prayer teaches us, changing means acknowledging authentic needs and satisfying triumphs as well as getting over a sour or hyper-critical mood. Also rather more often than 12-step selflessness teaches, the needs of the self mean waking somebody else up to them.
Yesterday, a friend told me she’d attended a 12-step meeting that focused on the Serenity Prayer. As it happens, that meeting came on the heels of a conversation about an in-law’s lack of the casual gratitude that is simple good manners. The in-law depends on financial rewards to do the talking rather than saying “thank you” or “you do a good job”. “Guess I can't change my in-law,” my friend wrote, “and should not expect anything other than I can change myself. If I don't get big gooshy thank yous from her I can be confident personally that I am doing what she pays me to do well.”
I found myself studying this email with outrage. The nature of her work for her in-law is pretty much 24/7 and the compensation isn’t brag-worthy. The joy of her employment is in her actual work and while her sibling is full of praise, I think using the Serenity Prayer as a lesson in accepting her in-law’s attitude is an abnegation of the person my friend is working hard to become. “Part of changing ourselves,” I responded, “is to accept what we REALLY need, what makes us thrive, what keeps us motivated and in pursue of it.”
My friend needs to be acknowledged and thanked. Each week, I leave a tally on the front of an envelope for the number of walks I’ve given that owner’s dog and I write thank you under the amount. It’s rare that an owner fails to write thank you back again.
The words “thank you” are as necessary as “I love you,” “I feel sympathy for you” "I'm sorry" and oxygen.
“Little Debbie and Jack Daniels,” I went on, "allowed us to accept circumstances and people but they did not allow us to grow, thrive, pursue. Telling your in-law that she’s cold and that she is not contributing to a relationship that you consider important is one way of acknowledging your self, accepting your self, accepting your needs.”
The problem is not letting a slight slide, it’s finding the courage to say a slight isn’t slight. My friend and I relied on burying slights in our addictions. It’s terrifying to ask for emotional support and good behavior but not to do so, from personal experience, leads straight to a relapse that is more damaging than the dependence I lived in for years.
I took a look at what I’d written and decided that there is also a middle ground, which is not articulated in the Serenity Prayer that is making my friend dig in for a long haul of accepting emotional coldness. “You can also simply accept that you want more from your in-law and don’t have the energy and wherewith all to go after it right now. Maybe you need to meditate about whether and how you need to get to the confidence to take a stand.”
I was happy to find a middle ground to give my friend, who is suffering too much over how to function in this situation. But I think the 12-step acceptance of others is too often over-rated because it means carrying the burden of somebody else’s unwillingness to grow and change.