A Revolutionary Cliché: How the Serenity Prayer Can Transform Learning to Change

“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.”

This Serenity Prayer is known by some as a comforting cliché and by others as a powerful guide in dealing with tough life issues.

It has been trotted out by self-help gurus to emphasize the importance of individual initiative and choice.   It has been incorporated into Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to reinforce the message that one needs a higher power and intelligence to overcome addiction.

Look deeper and you will find in the Serenity Prayer a revolutionary source for transformative learning.

Imagine a father taking aside his son, “Y’know son, I’m gonna teach you what my daddy taught me, how to grapple with, sort out, and understand the things you can and cannot change.”

Or how about a school?:  “Class, let’s examine moments in history of productive change and other areas where leaders overstepped their reasonable limits and tried to change things they were better off not changing.  Let’s look at the consequences, and then apply these lessons to our own lives.”

This would be nice, but it rarely if ever happens.  For some reason we tend to avoid the profound and necessary life-learning demands of change.  Instead we come up with excuses:  “You can’t teach things like change; they’re too broad or too individual or too innate,” or “Change involve ‘values.’  You can’t teach to change because you’ll impose your values.”

However, the industrial changes we have made as a human society and as individuals are seriously damaging the planet we live on.  This is not a problem that will go away by wishing or ignoring. Do we have much of a choice but to create aware change through learning that transforms our ideas and behavior?

The Serenity Prayer’s invitation to learn.

Let us understand that serenity, courage, and wisdom are core human capacities necessary for surviving and thriving.  Let us also understand that they have practical use and that they can be learned and developed.

The first thing you notice if you take the Serenity Prayer seriously is that we human beings fail the serenity-courage-wisdom test pretty badly.

1)    We mistake cowardice for serenity. We too readily accept abuses that can be changed, especially if changing them would place special demands on us.

2)    We substitute domination for courage.  We attempt to force change upon things that cannot or ought not be changed, often overestimating our ability, using bad judgment, and ignoring feedback in the process.

3)    We outsource our wisdom to ‘expertise’. We spend little if any time having a wise collaborative conversation about what can be changed and why. We have the pros figure all that stuff out.  When they fail, we shrug our shoulders.

It is time to confront these bad habits head-on, generate insights, and create healthy alternatives.  In this endeavor it is important to become keenly aware of the ways in which our rhetoric and actions contradict our deeper knowledge.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

How many of you have ever worked for an organization or company whose internal politics directly contradicted their mission and vision?  (Umm… I thought so, just about every one of you, right?)

Is this something you can change?  How many of you have tried?  For those of you who have tried to intervene in internal politics, what was the result?

How many of you were fired as a result, left the job in frustration, or stayed on but gave up trying?  How many succeeded?  I’m willing to bet a vast majority of those of you who have tried to change institutional culture to align with institutional ideals have failed, sometimes at heavy personal cost.

Okay, another example.  How many of you have had a struggling “friend” who consistently relied upon you to get them through a continuing series of struggles—money, death of a loved one, romantic break-up, finding a place to live, taking care of their dog or cat for a long time while they “find themselves?” (and the list goes on).

Sure it seems like a largely one-way relationship, but you hold out the hope that your friend can “change” and get back on their feet with your help.  After things don’t, you realize that all your help is enabling them to rely upon you in place of change.

Observation: Institutions and people don’t typically choose change overnight if at all, and individuals, by themselves, rarely have the power to enact changes “out there.”  That damn free choice—it can be irrational, counterproductive, maybe just plain wrong, but there it is.

Learning insight #1:  You cannot “make something change.”   You can influence change.  You can be open to change.  You can organize with others and exhibit a new way of acting in the world, that may spur change, but you don’t by yourself “make” change. You are not an external god.  You are part of the change event and its limitations (which can be expanded but not infinitely).

Learning insight #2: Sometimes wisdom means acknowledging that certain people and institutions will resist needed change.  In this case, the best course of action may be to withdraw your energy, and apply it in places more open to change. It may be ultimately better for all involved for you to leave.  (Unfortunately, we are more often taught: “Ignore context.  You can make your ideals succeed no matter what.  Stick by your friends regardless of what they do.”)

Learning insight #3: It is often through tragedy and hurt that you learn and grow the most. Your parent passes away, you lose a job, your marriage breaks up, even though you may have tried your hardest to save them.  Finality brings undeniable changes.  Something dies, and something is born.  You are left with grief but also an opportunity to reexamine your life, your identity, and your mortality and create anew.  This is a hard gift, but one to be respected.

the courage to change the things I can…

In January, 2011 I moved with my family from the San Francisco Bay area to Metro Manila in the Philippines.  I was open to this huge cultural change but not quite prepared for it. I am accustomed to questioning, but to my embarrassment, I did not thoroughly research the move.

My spouse had a good job offer from a development bank in the exciting, pro-social area of microfinance, and I had a small but interesting learning consulting practice I hoped to transport to our new place of residence.

Like many places, the Philippines is a land of emotional and cultural contradiction, a quasi-democracy with vast separation of wealth.  Family drivers can get paid more than college professors.  Huge malls are piled right next to each other, but hardly a single public park can be found. The constant crush of traffic and aggressive driving (at odds with the generally sunny Filipino demeanor) creates stress and boredom at the same time.

Things take longer to complete. People will tell you what they think you want to hear.  Conflict is supremely avoided and “saving face” rules social interaction.  You will rarely find people “getting real” until you are accepted on a more intimate level.

Intellectual and creative culture has been replaced by a vast service culture.  As a consequence, nearly everyone is eager to help, but few are able to direct you to what you need.

Most Filipinos support families on less than ten dollars a day, yet they also spend big on frequent celebrations. Conservative Catholicism co-exists with rampant marital infidelity.  A powerful cultural sense of heart, intuition and optimism, mixes with resignation around political corruption.

As an outsider, you get pulled and tugged into different directions.

“How do I make sense of this?’ My mind reeled at this upheaval.  “What am I going to do?”   Where are the professional opportunities?  Where were the art galleries and book talks and neighborhood coffee houses?  Where are the arenas of debate and creativity?

I found myself starving intellectually and craving meaty engagement.  I railed against what I saw.  I criticized.  I went through my growing pains.  And you know what happened?

I began to create for myself what I could not find around me.  In response to a culture I could not change, I decided to change what I could— myself.

As a result, I have gotten into peak physical shape.  I have begun to search out those hidden subcultures and Filipinos where I could share who I was and develop my ideas.  I have gone on long bike trips with other ex-pats and shared in cultural and intellectual conversations.  I began to develop this website, Citizen Zeus, as an online business and blog around transformative learning.

The irony is this:  When I enjoyed the cultural advantages, the rich artistic, intellectual, natural, and spiritual culture of the Bay Area, I actually accomplished very little for myself.

I was constantly extending myself and developing collaborations that did not pay off.  I applied to all those really cool jobs, and I did not hear back.  I was waiting for someone else to play ball. Now I am not distracted with that.  I can concentrate what I am on this planet to do, and simply go for it.

Observation: Rich culture is not necessarily a blessing.  Poor culture is not necessarily a curse.  Creative initiative requires a certain internal hunger born of a desire to feel and be yourself in the world.  This hunger often does not come if you are too well fed culturally.

Learning insight #4: Create the hunger.  Avoid the temptation to simply participate in a culture of ideas.  Apply yourself, contribute to a world already changing and find the best ways to do that from your own position.  Often the best way to find out what your contribution may be is to challenge yourself to live in a situation where your character is tested and those things that matter most to you must be created by you and brought forward.

Learning insight #5: Change yourself, but do so authentically.  You don’t have to simply give in to a culture. I fought it.  I fought myself.  I faced resistance honestly, not by surrendering myself, but surrendering the parts of me that did not work for my learning.  I changed my methods and expanded my understanding. My values were engaged, not discarded, and they have been made stronger, more “filled out,” and less naïve as result.

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

Western culture leans toward change, achievement, and individualism. Eastern culture leans toward acceptance, humility, and community. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.  In general, you could say that Western culture tries to change too much, and Eastern culture accepts too much.

Neither culture encourages individuals to learn the best relationships between change and acceptance.

Westerners have done the “impossible” by sending men to the moon, setting impressive world records, and inventing amazing new technology.  On the other hand, Western culture has a record of invading and dominating other cultures and destroying the planetary environment in its relentless pursuit for increased standard of living.

Easterners tend to have stronger cultural roots, family ties, respect for ancestors, yet they also (with notable exceptions) seem more willing to accept social injustice, hierarchy, seniority, and caste systems that keep individuals from expressing their deepest potential.

Perhaps it is time for a transformative learning framework that not only combines cultural strengths but surpasses cultural limitations.

In this, it may be helpful to develop simple guiding practices and principles.

1)    Identify significant social needs or contradictions.  Where there is need or contradiction there is fertile soil for productive change.  Some people may array against you, but many more are likely waiting for someone to initiate change.

2)    Observe, discern, and decide whether it is possible to initiate change effectively in your current environment.  See what happens if you go for the gusto. Sometimes a bold individual act can spark a change. More often the individual gets spit out as others watch.  Regardless, inspired risk pays off in either success or learning.  When you experiment and accept the consequences, you’ll develop a craft understanding of the “better bets.”

3)    Reaction deepens resistance and increases threat.  If you want to be successful, create a proactive alternative. If there is a need or injustice out there, it is usually more effective to create a direct, competitive alternative .  For instance, you can “fight city hall” to direct more budget money for the poor, or you can develop community responses and push for matching funds.

4)    Evidence, evidence, evidence.  Take people at their actions, not their word. There are platoons of enthusiastic “mental” change-makers out there who are not mature or committed enough to follow through in action.  Stick with the ones that act.

5)    Results matter.  Drama is not action. The best way to sabotage productive change is to get embroiled in some contentious committee work around a plan to consider changing.  Make your change aim straightforward.  Find people who can help.  Learn by doing. If you fail to create meaningful change, you have the experience to go on for your next change attempt.

6)    Allow yourself to be transformed by the change you engage in.

7)    Trust yourself; strive for naturalness. Change is already challenging enough without pretending to be someone you are not.  Be open, but be yourself.  Stand on and proceed from your principles and purposes.  Trendy changes are rarely authentic or useful. “Seizing the day” does not co-exist well with conformity.

8)    Gain self-fulfillment in collaboration with other change participants. “I am a more fulfilled ‘me’ by a more effective ‘we.’” Having a group merely follow individual ideas of change is outmoded.  We contribute our best as individuals to a group effort that incorporates our best intelligence.  This is not up for vote. Reality, not popularity, is the test.  Does what we offer work better to enact successful change?  Let’s see.

9)    Supportive environment supersedes ‘battle.’  Learn to listen to and love each other in a community of committed change.  Take a few lessons from the “radical” changers in the 1960s who touted revolution while acting like sexist jerks.  External provocation is not a substitute for internal preparation or interpersonal respect when it comes to effective change.

10) Change excellence is an evolving skill.  The line between “accepting what you cannot change” and “changing what you can” will move as you get better at the craft of change.


The idea of change is very attractive:  “I want to be on the cutting edge!”  The reality of change is difficult: “What? I have to transform myself and my community to make that happen?”   This dynamic is made all the more confusing by people and institutions that claim to want to change, while opposing attempts to create healthy change.

Change is not ultimately a bumper-sticker motto or a luxury.  It is the ever-present human condition.  We cannot ignore change and hope to survive.  We cannot attempt to control change (“make it do our bidding”) without making matters worse.

Why?  Because we are always changing and being changed whether we like it or not.  We may try to stand outside change either by denial or attempt to control change, but this is an illusion.  Look!  Our bodies age and we die.  That is a fact. There is no permanent and transcendent “I” outside of the change.  That falsehood is simply a fantasy of the ego.

What we can do is learn to change well, to change for the better, in conversation with each other and the world.  We can attempt to become more graceful and aware, more active and humble in our change.  We can learn to be awake to change, to live in joy, die with grace, cultivate change leadership in the younger generations, and preserve and circulate our learning about change.

It is a human craft skill.  It is a life skill.  We can no longer deny the reality of change if we are to meet the challenges of accelerating human history.  So let us commit to embracing the creative, inconvenient, and massively intriguing human adventure of change.

 Let’s start the learning and sharing now: Let me know your change story.  How did you deal with it?  What did you learn from it?

  • Adding a question. What has some change done for you or to you?

  • heather Cleveland says:

    Interesting Article Zeus. Makes me think of something that you may find helpful. I just took a class on the Four Temperments and how to interact with them so that you can help yourself and others to be their most honorable selves….A Rudolf Steiner theory. Look it up and take a look, I think you will find it quite relevant.

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  • Learn More says:

    Learn More…

    A Revolutionary Cliché: How the Serenity Prayer Can Transform Learning to Change…