“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This famous “Serenity Prayer” is cited by self-help websites, addiction recovery programs, church ministers, and even modern practitioners of Stoic philosophy as containing a deeply important perspective for us to hold as we navigate life.
But to benefit from the perspective suggested by the prayer we need to know what things (if any) are in our power to change, what things are not, and how to tell the difference. On these questions, however, the prayer is silent.
In her essay “The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made,” Ayn Rand (philosopher and well-known atheist) comments on the Serenity Prayer. After citing the prayer, she writes:
This remarkable statement is attributed to a theologian with whose ideas I disagree in every fundamental respect: Reinhold Niebuhr. But — omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one’s mental-emotional states [serenity, courage, wisdom] are a gift from God — that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: it names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve. The statement is beautiful in its eloquent simplicity; but the achievement of that attitude involves philosophy’s deepest metaphysical-moral issues.1
What Rand proceeds to argue in the essay is that the mental attitude merely wished for in the prayer is one that we must achieve through our own efforts — and she explains what is required to achieve it. Central to that argument is a thesis regularly denied by many secular thinkers today, namely that we have free will, and that we shape our lives and moral character through the choices we make in life.
For Rand’s perspective on the issues raised (but not fulfilled) by the Serenity Prayer, read Rand’s essay. It is one of my personal favorites — both for the seriousness with which Rand approaches the struggles we face in life and for the guidance it offers us for our endeavors and aspirations.
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