Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Thoughts on the Serenity Prayer

I was recently invited to be a guest speaker at an Al-Anon meeting.  No surprise, the meeting was held in a basement room, several stories below street level. 

As a father who lost his son, William, at age 24, to an accidental heroin overdose close to six years ago, I was perhaps a discomforting guest for people working to bring some calm to lives distressed by family members suffering from substance use disorder; people hopeful their loved ones find a path to recovery.

Yet, my message was one of hope.  I began and ended with a line from Shakespeare, “Action is eloquence.”  I shared our family’s story, including the promise we made to William at his memorial service.  “We promise to do everything in our power to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.”

I was able to share my own Al-Anon experience and to explain and answer questions about the advocacy work we’ve been able to accomplish since William’s death.  I suggested books to read, online resources that might prove useful, organizations doing remarkable work and providing assistance, answered questions, and provided my own contact information. I was subtlety, or perhaps not so subtlety, encouraging people to be enterprising in altering their personal dilemmas and the larger addiction epidemic that confronts our nation.  We can and must support one another not only in day-to-day difficulty but also in effecting change for the greater good.  The meeting closed with the Serenity Prayer.  “God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change….” 
 Despite after-meeting conversations and multiple offers to be of assistance, hugs and handshakes, I’ve yet to hear from anyone at that meeting other than a thank you from the leader/organizer.  

A few days later I had a revelatory talk with a lifelong friend.  His young adult son has had a self-defeating substance use issue for several years. Through reading, research and reflection, my friend has come to realize that parental drug testing and ever more harsh punishment were yielding nothing more than deceit and evasion while doing nothing to positively alter his son’s behavior.  My friend abandoned punishment as coercion, got his son to agree to counseling and attended sessions with his son.  Together they are now both learning how to work toward the son’s recovery from a stubborn but not insurmountable disease. I admire my friend’s loving and proactive response.  

While contemplating these two experiences I was drawn back to the Serenity Prayer.  I had difficulty with it as a parent at Al-Anon meetings and my misgivings returned.  I lean heavily toward the eloquence of action, as opposed to praying and waiting for a gift of serenity. I fear that the prayer invites passivity and dependence. It relieves one of responsibility. Serenity comes as a result of action taken, not as a precursor to action.  

When I think of the leaders I admire most in the addiction advocacy and recovery movement, I am struck first by how many are themselves in sustained recovery. Then I am impressed by the boldness, strength, dedication and persistence of the actions they have taken and continue to take in their work. They are shining examples of courage and wisdom; wisdom acquired no doubt through trial and error.

More recently I came across this sign from a demonstration.  I know not where nor the circumstances of its employment.  The message, however, is loud and clear. I am not alone in my thinking.  Is this not only a sign, but a signpost directing us ahead?

As we continue to combat the opioid epidemic and the larger addiction epidemic that surrounds it, we need to remind ourselves that change is an ongoing process. We need courage to initiate the process and wisdom to assess the results and guide our next steps.

For me that includes a personal prayer:

Grant me the courage to change the things I cannot accept, the wisdom to know how to go about it, and the fulfillment that comes with accomplishment.

As I mulled over my thoughts on the prayer, I conversed with one of the recovery/advocacy leaders I admire so much.  She responded this way:  “What I have discovered in my journey is that prayer keeps me from bulldozing my will onto a situation that may need a more nuanced approach. The Serenity Prayer doesn’t relieve me of personal responsibility. It calls upon me to be responsible in how I act. It opens up the door to clarity so that I am not bloodying my head by banging it against a wall that will not move. It allows me to look for ways around an obstacle in my path and find the way forward.”

Her wise response is a reminder to me that, just as there are many paths to recovery, so too are there many paths to bringing about lasting change. We each need to discover and arrange the mix of courage, serenity, and wisdom that works best for us.  It is not a fixed formula for all of us or each of us.  We need to be prepared to titrate the mix for given situations.  What we always need, the fragile vessel that contains us so we can be effective, is each other.   



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