I’ve long loved the Serenity Prayer in its classic version. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When this prayer is paired with a rich understanding of the emotions and stress response processing that has to go with it, it’s great. The problem, of course, is that when it is separated from those things and only viewed cognitively, this prayer can become a tool for an unhealthy form of spirituality called spiritual bypassing. In this article I’ll be explaining how all this works and revising the classic prayer to create a literally healthier form that’s less prone to abuse.
My Personal Context
As a reminder, I’m a communication scholar and a pastor’s kid whose primary research area is stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I’ve talked a lot about stress and its relationship to conflict the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” that’s free to email subscribers (I’ll offer instructions for how to get that at the end of this article). Here on the blog I’ve also talked about how “Christian Nice” can actually make us sick.
The Broader Context
The truth is that we’re living in very stressful, contentious, and emotionally overwhelming times. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, an election year, grappling with centuries of racial injustice. And that doesn’t even get into the murder hornets!
In these times our bodies are processing a LOT of stress. And as I’ve explained before, a lot of stress tends to give rise to a lot of interpersonal and group conflict.
The Temptation toward Spiritual Bypassing
In times such as these, there’s a strong temptation for those who are spiritual to fall into a form of spirituality known as spiritual bypassing. Buddhist teacher John Welwood coined this term in the 1980s to describe ways in which people use spirituality to avoid engaging with their emotions and psychological wounds—which as he describes it, is the opposite of what spirituality is meant to do.
(NOTE: Subsequent neurobiological research shows this practice is pretty terrible for us physiologically as well.)
Last week’s guest post by Rachel Contos gave a nod to this unhealthy form of spirituality when she talked about God’s will, the pandemic, and why it’s important not to frame not wearing a mask as a form of “faith.”
This week I will explain the benefits of the serenity prayer, but also how it could be weaponized to enable spiritual bypassing if turned into a purely cognitive exercise. I will suggest a revised version as well. (I had introduced this concept in my very first COVID-19 article, but that feels like several decades ago now in pandemic time, so it’s high time I flesh these ideas out better!)
The Benefits of the Classic Serenity Prayer
First, let’s just acknowledge that the serenity prayer, when understood in a context of emotion- and stress-response engagement, has a lot of strengths. Taken within this context, it actually fits in pretty well with stress research.
If you’ve forgotten, stress is the body’s physiological response to felt threat or challenge. This means it’s energy that’s designed to help us rise to the occasion—but its responses can of course be taken too far in some circumstances. And sometimes we react strongly to things that carry perceived threat but won’t really hurt us.
Overcoming Some Emotional Fallacies
Our stress responses, like our emotions, can be really useful as signs that something might be wrong. They aren’t infallible signs that something necessarily is wrong. And depending on how we respond to overwhelming stress, we may either fall into the fallacy of perfection or the fallacy of helplessness I discussed earlier this year, and both of those are unhealthy.
Taken within an understanding that our body’s responses are natural, the classic serenity prayer helps to work as a corrective to both of those tendencies—to an extent.
By encouraging us to think through what we ought to accept what we CAN’T affect, it helps us deal with the fallacy of perfection.
By encouraging us to think through what we CAN do, it corrects the fallacy of helplessness.
And by encouraging us to recognize that it takes wisdom to decide between the two, it proposes a healthily situational model of spirituality, suggesting that discernment is needed in order to determine whether to change things or accept them.
The Limits of the Classic Serenity Prayer
Here’s where my stress research nerves begin to jangle with the classic version of the serenity prayer, though: There are more options than changing what we can and (especially mildly) accepting what we can’t.
See, coming from a culture of toxic “Christian Nice” which suppressed the “negative” emotions, the original serenity prayer—again, with THAT context in mind, rather than the stress research context, leads me to feel like we’re just supposed to swallow our feels if we can’t change things. (I talked about how “Christian Nice” gets mean about emotions here.)
And all of the research shows avoiding emotions is incredibly, literally unhealthy. As John Welwood pointed out when he identified the problem of spiritual bypassing, it also becomes a way of avoiding some of the most real spiritual work there is to do. It’s also just really impractical from a stress research standpoint.
The Leftover Stress Energy Problem
See, physiologically, you may change what you can, try to accept what you can’t, and you still may have a lot of stress energy swirling around in your body affecting you. In order to maintain health and wellbeing, you need to do something to healthily work through, as Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski helpfully point out in their book on Burnout. You can’t just will it away.
The classic serenity prayer may imply to those with healthy emotion practices that there’s a need to work out the emotions and stress responses that come with changing what we can and accepting what we can’t. It’s great when that happens. But when it doesn’t, it can too easily be weaponized into a tool toward spiritual bypassing.
My Proposed Revision
To avoid this problem, I propose the following version of this prayer, which helps emphasize the context of stress and trauma research. Granted, it rolls off the tongue a bit less fluidly than the original version, but it doesn’t really have all that many more components.
I’ve also adjusted it so that it can work for those with non-theistic spiritualities.
Overall, this version of the prayer lends itself much less to spiritual bypassing, as the wording shows the need to work through all that emotional stress energy that we naturally deal with during stressful times.
Here it is: The Healthier Stress Research-Based Serenity Prayer
“May I have the ability to grieve the things I can’t affect, to (channel my stress energy into) influencing what I can, to reduce and burn off the remaining stress (through healthy modes), and have the wisdom to cycle through these techniques as needed.”
The major changes and additions are as follows:
- In the first part, instead of the word accept—which is commonly held to be at the end of the complicated grieving process—I’ve substituted the word grieve. This acknowledges space to deal with all the many stages of grief about things we cannot change.
- In the second part, I’ve highlighted the fact that changing things doesn’t require outside energy to do, just taking existing stress energy and channeling it to influence what we can.
- In the second part, I also shifted the word change into influence to help further with that whole fallacy of perfection problem. Changing can sooo easily slide into that control category, whereas influence requires more mutuality between parties.
- I’ve added a third part about burning off or reducing excess stress through healthy modes. This can include exercise but also meditation/prayer or other physiological and spiritual practices that help burn off and reduce stress energy that can’t be managed through the grieving process or through working to influence the world.
- In the final part, I’ve kept the word wisdom, but moved beyond implying that it’s a relatively simple choice between two options into suggesting that we often need to cycle through these techniques to work through the emotions and stress responses that come with facing challenges.
So there you have it, friends! Whether you choose to use the classic serenity prayer or the adjusted version, or some variant between the two going forward, I hope you’ll do so with the full awareness of the need to work through your emotions and stress energies as you do so.
Why It’s Key to Keep All of This in Mind
As so much good scientific and spiritual research implies, it’s not a healthy option to ignore this emotions and stress dimension of moving through challenges long term.
Certainly, as we continue to cope with this remarkably strange and stressful period in history, I hope for all of you the ability to grieve what you need to, to influence what you can, to burn off that excess energy, and the wisdom to work through what you need to in order to keep doing what you can.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to work through our emotions and stress responses in order to keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?
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