Work in the field of addiction medicine long enough, and you’ll eventually come across the Serenity Prayer. It reads, “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.” As a trainee in addiction psychiatry at Bellevue hospital, I led groups of mentally ill, polysubstance-addicted people in reciting that prayer on a daily basis. It was one of our routines on the dual diagnosis hospital ward. It is now nearly two decades since my addiction training – long after Serenity Prayer recitation disappeared from my daily routine. Yet I have come to appreciate its value more than ever before. And I find myself using it constantly to help my patients, my friends, my associates – essentially, anyone who will listen.
I have found that many problems that plague us seem to stem from a failure to apply this simple principle. I’ve seen it in my patients with anxiety disorders who worry incessantly and pathologically about issues they could never hope to control. It’s evident in certain depressed people who could actually improve some of their depressing life circumstances if they would only commit and dedicate themselves to doing what’s necessary. And many of us, though psychiatrically healthy, waste countless hours wishing for meaningless, unattainable material clutter rather than appreciating the priceless relationships we already possess.
To be clear, laziness, complacency and self-satisfaction are deplorable. That’s not what the Serenity Prayer promotes. It suggests a healthy balance in our lives. It reminds us that we can strive to be, do and have the best that is attainable for us while appreciating our blessings and remaining at peace with our world. Ben Franklin said it another way: “Content makes poor men rich; discontent makes rich men poor.”