The Serenity Prayer: A Mental Health Resource for All

The serenity prayer can be a balm to the soul in these unprecedented times.

Posted Dec 10, 2020

The Christmas season is typically a time of joy, happiness, and bustling social activity. But lockdown regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic mean that the coming season will pose unprecedented difficulties.

Many of us face the prospect of spending the Christmas season separated from the people, places, and activities that we love. Dealing with this situation requires the harnessing of resources that can help guide us through these strange times. The serenity prayer may be one such resource that can help everyone, regardless of religious orientation. The words of the serenity prayer are well-known:

 Sunsetoned/Pexels
Serenity.
Source: Sunsetoned/Pexels

"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."

What is lesser known is that this prayer was written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at the height of the Great Depression, when people across the globe were faced with unprecedented difficulties. The prayer provided much-needed guidance and wisdom during those distressing times, and it can do the same in the here and now. 

The Serenity Prayer and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The serenity prayer starts with a reality check, "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," forcing us to accept that some things are simply out of our hands. This is especially pertinent now due to COVID-19. Many of the usual Christmas activities have been prohibited, including family gatherings, holiday parties, and other social activities. Restaurants, gyms, and places of worship remain closed in many jurisdictions, and travel restrictions are still in place across the globe. Many people are working from home alone and will remain alone during Christmas.

All this has created much misery, loneliness, and despair; however, the serenity prayer does not demand that we simply passively tolerate this situation. While we must accept the reality of the COVID-19 crisis, the serenity prayer demands that we actively respond to this situation with positive action. Indeed, that is the focus of the second sentence, which is a call-to-arms to take "courage to change the things I can."

This means adopting a positive and active approach to these strange times. While the pandemic has limited many opportunities and activities, it has created time and space for many other activities. This has led many to engage in helpful reflection, which has catalyzed positive lifestyle changes. My own research indicates that this includes:

  1. Rekindling dormant hobbies such as arts, crafts, reading, or writing
  2. Mastering new skills, such as learning a language or playing a musical instrument
  3. Exploiting new technology to renew social connections with friends old and new
  4. Engaging in spiritual activities, such as meditation, mindfulness, and prayer
  5. Conducting physical activity, such as yoga, indoor workouts, and walks in the park

These changes have brought purpose and meaning to many during the COVID-19 era and are the type of changes that can be used by all to promote their own mental health.

The final part of the serenity prayer, "the wisdom to know the difference," demands that we engage in deep thought to differentiate what we can change from what we cannot. Such thought can be liberating, as it means averting self-blame for things outside of our control while taking responsibility to change ourselves and our lifestyles in a positive direction. In sum, the serenity prayer is optimistic about the human condition, encouraging individuals to think deeply and act with resolution in the here and now, rather than wallowing in a fatalistic worldview.

Conclusion

In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl made a piercing insight:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

None of us chose to be placed in this COVID-19 crisis. However, we can choose how we respond to this unprecedented situation, and a positive response can allow us to flourish and thrive. The serenity prayer can help shape our response, as it offers:

  1. A framework for understanding the social situation we now face
  2. A guide to helpful thought and beneficial action 
  3. A catalyst for positive personal change

The serenity prayer is a gift to all, prompting us to positively engage with ourselves and the world in a decisive yet thoughtful manner. Here’s hoping it helps many this Christmastide and beyond.