Psychology and Prayer

Man with brown skin and graying hair wearing a tie smiles at camera. - 4/16/2020

The Serenity Prayer. It’s not just for people in addiction recovery programs.

As we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we ask ourselves each day what can elevate our spirits and help us remain resilient? How can we get through the days, weeks and even months ahead and sustain good mental health? A historic method may hold the answer. 

“People have relied on The Serenity Prayer for decades,” said David Josephs, Psy.D., Lakeview Center Clinical Director. “Most recently, I’ve used it when talking to people who are feeling helpless while coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The prayer may be most popular for its use by Alcoholics Anonymous as the motto for its 12-step program. Not only have millions of people with substance use disorders used the prayer as a healing mechanism, but people also have relied on it during other unsettling times such as World War II. The prayer is a global reference for people from all walks of life and religious denominations serving as a lifeline to hope and encouragement.

 “A big piece of psychological health is figuring out how we exercise control in anything,” said Josephs. “The essence of this prayer is that there are things in life we simply don’t have control over, but there are things we do have control over all the time. If we take to heart this prayer, it challenges us to see what we can control. In the current environment, that might be wearing face masks, social distancing, or making sure our families are OK.”  

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971), an American theologian, wrote The Serenity Prayer in the 1940s. It’s worth taking a look at the man behind the famous words because the prayer mirrors his character. Scholars say that the intent of his prayer was to bring peace, faith and certainty to the minds of those seeking support from a higher power.

Niebuhr was a theologian who in the 1920s was opposed to unpopular, unfair and often racist notions. He was a hopeful political activist who believe that good things could be achieved if our pretentions were overcome. Niebuhr held utopian hopes about the things that are right in the world without providing any political overlay. Many people have said his prayer is a reflection of his innate humility and optimism. In time, political and civic leaders grew to respect him.

The notion of right or moral behavior is the undertone of new lifestyles with which we are currently adapting to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, social distancing and wearing masks are not actions that protect ourselves, but actions that protect others. In other words, these controllable, thoughtful, selfless actions are moral at their core. It’s like getting a flu shot each year to protect the infants and elderly with whom we may come in contact. The prayer also promotes self-care.

As leaders, experts and caretakers, we must take care of our physical, mental and emotional health if we are to help others. The second part of The Serenity Prayer tells us to surrender the things we can’t control. It prods us to trust those things to a higher power so that we can be hopeful about the future. Otherwise, we carry a heavy burden to no avail which can be overwhelming and unhealthy. If we let go, we open a pathway to growth through adversity.

Consider the second verse. 

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

In mental health, when we talk about resilience we are talking about looking beyond bad things to see how those bad things can help us grow.  In a sense, crises can actually bring out the best in us. While none of us would choose to go through a horrible experience, they are a normal part of life and we can choose to see how those challenges make us better people. 

“I think the takeaway from this prayer is not to discount the reality of our emotions, but allow our thinking to lead what we do and how we process,” said josephs.  

Prayer has been used for centuries as a form of meditation. The Serenity Prayer’s calm, rhythmic cadence compels us to slow down and makes it easy to remember and repeat to ourselves during times of distress. Reflecting on the prayer can help us be more aware of our environment, determine thoughtful actions and move forward with more confidence.

“The Serenity Prayer is a very thoughtful prayer,” said Josephs. “It reminds us that we have the tools to get through a crisis. Despite suffering, we have the ability to be deliberate in our responses if we just take the time to do it.” 

The Serenity Prayer

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.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.

Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it.

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His will.

That I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Amen.        

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