by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 16 January 2024 |
We’re only weeks into 2024, and for some of us, the fresh start is already growing stale. By now, we are seeing editorials, articles, and advertisements discussing the efficacy of New Year’s resolutions. Some give hints for keeping them, some condemn the practice outright, and some argue we just aren’t applying ourselves.
All of it stresses me out. That anxiety is a reminder to focus on words that help me center at each year’s end—as well as each day, hour, and even each minute when things are tough.
The format is simple, and the words familiar:
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.
Just a clichè?
I was bewildered when I first learned there were groups of people who sincerely leaned upon this prayer. From my perspective at the time, the prayer was too simple. It was just a clichè— just something holy-sounding to embroider on a pillow. Life and my problems were infinitely more complex than this little prayer proposed. To change things and conquer obstacles, I needed to understand why things happened, and figure out what would fix the people and problems messing up my peace and harmony.
And yet, the first person I knew who was actually doing 12-Step Recovery had something she certainly didn’t have before: she had peace. Few, if any, of her life situations had changed. Some were apparently worse. But she wasn’t agitated or fighting losing battles in response.
I wanted what she had.
It isn’t me—or is it?
When I and 99% of my peers step into the rooms of Al-Anon meetings, we do so with the conviction that our problem is someone else’s choices and bad behavior. We only need the tools and information to help us know how to fix them.
What we learn in time (if we choose to lose the battle to fix others and recover ourselves) is that while our friends and loved ones are addicted to substances and damaging behaviors, we are also addicted— to trying to fix and rescue them.
When we begin to hear the stories shared by other codependents (people who have a dependency on a person with a dependency), we hear stories that sound remarkably like our own. We meet our peers—who, like ourselves, have a problem with trying to know all, do all, and be all things to all people. We have a damaged sense of responsibility, and an impaired sense of reality, imagining we can solve any problem and conquer any challenge.
It is this false sense of power and responsibility, and its accompanying anxiety, that the prayer aims to address:
Grant me the serenity [acceptance/peace] to accept the things I cannot change. Contrary to thousands of social media quotes and sayings, human beings have limits. If anything were truly possible, if there were “no try, only do,” we would have success in every effort. We would be like God. The result of our magical thinking is a culture that plays cheerleader as we try to solve problems too big for us, often involving ourselves in the lives of others without their permission.
The courage to change the things I can. For every person addicted to playing God, there is another desperately seeking someone to be the object of their worship. Relationships, celebrities, leaders, and even real heroes, can become god-surrogates. We endow them with authority and burden them with expectations. This part of the prayer calls us to be responsible for our own choices, and to do that which is possible. This reality means we no longer expect others to tell us what to think or do, or to solve our problems for us.
And the wisdom to know the difference. Recovery groups remind each other of one humble truth: all our best intentions led us here. It’s important to realize terrible choices can be made by people who truly want to do the right thing. Forcing solutions can be harmful and hurtful. Allowing others to make choices for us can result in lives that don’t reflect our values or honor our consciences. Asking for wisdom puts us in a place of perspective: we become willing to see what jobs are ours vs. what belongs to God.
What I learned in the rooms of recovery, and through ongoing work with a sponsor, brought unexpected peace into my life. Owning my impulse to play God, or avoid difficulties, makes it harder to force solutions or avoid doing the right thing.
What happens next?
Consequently, I also notice when I am being asked to ignore my conscience and relinquish my free will. When someone stands and claims the authority to tell me what I must believe and accept on their say-so, I am now hesitant to let them do my moral reasoning for me.
These are important tools to the recovery of sanity and serenity, because playing God or buying into the controlling mindset of others is like “taking that first drink” for an alcoholic. Agreeing to function in a controlling way, or to participate with an atmosphere of control, immediately plunges me back into my old disease. This is at the core of why New Year’s resolutions and most self-help programs are crazy-making instead of serenity and peace-producing.
Recovering codependents remind each other that “the things that once served us well, are now the bars of our own prison.” This transition is akin to what mechanics and engineers call a “glitch”: something present in the initial design that causes problems down the road. Embracing this truth in my own recovery has shed some light on my Adventist identity as well.
Anxiety in the Church
What’s revealed is that Adventism has an inherent glitch which, while it served us well in the beginning, has become problematic through the years.
When the theories of the Millerite movement proved greatly disappointing, we became researchers and problem-solvers trying to unlock the answers. In our excitement over the possibility that the 2,300 days might mean something else, we may also have formed a dependency on being the people who “know it all.”
Many of the things we’ve discovered or uncovered have great value.
Sabbath is a wonderful door to serenity. The act of letting go of our survival-frenzy is in harmony with the recovery principle to “let go and let God.” Each Sabbath, we relinquish the illusion that we are in charge of the universe, and we spend time in relationship with the one who is.
Our beliefs about what happens after death and the importance of caring for our health keep human reality proportional to the power of God. We rest in death because we have no control over it. That’s reality. We go to our rest in peace, consoled that one day we will be re-created by the one who spins all the molecules and knows every aspect of our “self.” We care for the bodies we’ve been given in gratitude and recognition of our human limitations. All important perspectives.
But the valuable search for answers can easily become an obsession. Our conclusion that having some answers must lead to having all the answers is the problem. It’s easy to be driven by the quest, and lose sight of how (or if!) the answers will benefit ourselves and others. A mission separated from loving and serving as Jesus asked us to do, can inflict suffering instead.
The other consequence of our internal glitch is our urge to halt and codify what we’ve discovered in order to defend it. Having “the truth” requires that we all agree on exactly what that is. We can become standard-bearers who care more about the rules than about each other. Or, we may also become dependent on church leaders or doctrines to do our moral-reasoning for us.
Relying on God
Just as the best intentions of addicts and codependents can lead to behavior that is hurtful and wrong, the best intentions of church members and leaders can hurt, wound and deceive us. The fourth step of 12-Step Recovery leads its participants through a “fearless and searching moral inventory,” a practice that is sustained as a life habit in step ten.
The point of this inventory is not to harm, criticize, or punish ourselves for our past mistakes. We aren’t defined by our mistakes unless we continue to embrace them. Instead of defending what we’ve done and trying to justify it, we examine choices gently and truthfully. This allows us to see, learn, and grow beyond our past wrongs, and to make amends to those we’ve harmed.
It is this habit of honest self-examination that would most benefit the church. People hurt by the church, by bad policies, beliefs, neglect, or outright abuse might have room to heal.
Instead, we see extreme pushback and defensiveness from church leadership when asked for a “fearless and searching moral inventory.”
A moral inventory might shed light on two important areas.
First, that all our best intentions have still led us to this place where the opinions and authority of our leaders are weighted to rival God’s.
Second, that our claim to have and know all “truth” separates rather than connects people to God. Telling church members what we as Adventists will believe on pain of expulsion (or encouragement to resign) is the opposite of compassion, and amplifies the problem.
Two of the most damaging responses fueling addictions and dysfunction are denial and shame. We seem intent upon denying the possibility that our zeal for our answers and beliefs may be replacing our reliance on God. What makes this worse is the shaming of anyone’s pointing out the need to grow and change.
Jesus asked the religious leaders of his day to make significant changes to their beliefs and traditions, and promised, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32 NRSV).
It’s a promise of peace that sounds good to my resolution-weary soul.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness addiction recovery curriculum from AdventSource.