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Serenity Prayer: Change




"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not CHANGE"

The word "Change" seemed simple enough. It described one thing becoming another, like a chrysalis becoming a butterfly. Plus, it described switching one thing for another, like changing a light bulb. The 1934 Webster's Dictionary definition confirmed all of this.

The definition: "Change v. to alter by substituting something for"

Fine; that definition was settled. So what about the drawing? The Serenity Prayer has been a favorite of many Twelve Step members for decades. And the word "Change" figures among its most important concepts. So, what change are we praying for here? Nature automatically changes a chrysalis into a butterfly; so we are not praying for that power. We replace light bulbs all the time; so we are not asking for that power either. This was a very different change, but what kind?

For inspiration, I prayed and meditated, just as I did before starting all my drawings. I cannot recall how this this particularly elaborate scene unfolded in my mind. I think the candle came first. The magnifying glass next. The scattering of spent matches, then the light streaming into the room. I don't think I altered a single detail between the rough sketch and the final drawing. 

When I was finished, I felt choked by with emotions. I had come to realize that such a welling up of emotion was a sign that I had been true to my original inspiration. Mine were not tears of sadness, but of a kind of relief and joy.

The matches described the futility of my self-will. While gazing at those curled and charred matches, I thought of every time I had tried to "do better" for my kids or my wife—but utterly failed. I did not like who I had become, yet I couldn't stop. I could identify with the futility of trying the same solution again and again, only to come up short. 

I liked the magnifying glass for several reasons. It suggested that the failing person had radically rethought their situation (or simply become completely desperate like me!). More importantly, it became clear that the solution was not found IN the room; the most obvious solution simply did not work. The magnifying glass was crucial, but it depended on sunlight entering from OUTSIDE the room to be effective.

The dictionary described "changing by substituting something for". That resonated with the many places in recovery literature that urge us to change from self-will to the will of a Higher Power.

Perhaps it sounds silly to look at an old dictionary to gain insight into recovery-related words. Although this prayer was not written with Twelve Step recovery in mind, the words and their meanings were embraced at once in Twelve Step circles and have been recited daily at meetings ever since.

Anyone who has found some Serenity through the Twelve Steps knows that the idea presented in my  drawing is not remarkable. It embodies our need for a Higher Power OUTSIDE ourselves to change our selves. Maybe that sounds cliché. But when you have been rescued from dark enough realms, gratitude beats the daylights out of originality.

Serenity Prayer: Not



"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can NOT change"

I have to confess something. I stole this illustration. From myself. I had looked up the word "unmanageable" in the 1934 Webster's Dictionary in the first days after buying it. I won't go into it now, but the definition for "Unmanageable" fit this drawing perfectly. But then came the moment when I needed to illustrate the word "Not" for the Serenity prayer.

The definition: "Not adv. makes negative a word or group of words"

Not exactly heart-pounding prose, but I used prayer and meditation to seek a new illustration. In this case, nothing new came. That puzzled me. I kept trying but had no results. Finally, I recognized that I already had the right drawing in "unmanageable". But the word "unmanageable" belongs to the Twelve Steps, not to the Serenity Prayer. Still, it did the drawing perfectly. With some initial reluctance, I retitled the equine drawings with the "Not" definition. 

Whoever this rider is, they managed to guide their mount over several fences. Only at the very end did the results change for the worse. This made negative the words: "I can always manage my horse."

The definition fit and so I kept it.

Serenity Prayer: Can





"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I CAN not change"

I did not begin the Serenity Drawings with the goal of creating Twelve Drawings. I didn't see very many substantial words in the very beautiful but very brief Serenity Prayer. While words like "God" and "Courage" were captivating, there was nothing remarkable about words like "the" or "to" or "can" or "not". I honestly wondered if such tiny words would be included in the dictionary. I own a 1934 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, so I dutifully flipped the crinkling pages open to the word "can".

"Can v. to know how to." That was not at all what I expected. I thought the word might mean "TO BE ABLE TO". I myself had used the word that way all my life:

•  CAN you open this jar? "Yes, I am able to open it."

•  CAN I get to China on this road? "No, I am not able to reach China on this particular road."

•  CAN you touch your nose with your elbow? "No, I am not able to do that."

These examples were all asking "Are you able to?" That seemed to prove my point. I wondered if there was some sort of mixup at Webster's. My definition couldn't be wrong—could it? Then I realized there was something about the Serenity Prayer that always made me uneasy. Whenever I prayed about what I am able vs. unable to do, I became painfully aware that I did not know the diffference—even after praying for wisdom.

My recovery had taught me not to close the door on new possibilities. I left room for my Higher Power to weigh in. Soon, I had a very powerful insight. All my life, I had used the word "can" two ways; both as "able to" and "to know how". It sounded something like this:

•  CAN you speak Swahili? "No, I have never known how to speak Swahili."

•  CAN you name all of the state capitals? "No. I used to know how but I have forgotten."

•  CAN you help me work the Twelve Steps? "Yes, I know how and would be glad to help you."

In these cases, I was asking "Do you know how?" The point of my 1934 Dictionary experiment was to discover whether the definitions might shed new light on the 1934 Serenity Prayer. So, I recited the same prayer through my mind, but this time I substituted the 1934 definition where the word "can" appears. It sounded like this:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO change."

I came to a sudden halt. I reread the opening line, substituting the definition again. I fell silent for a long moment. This did not sound like the same prayer I had prayed thousands of times. There was a difference. Maybe a big difference.

Am I praying "Help me when I am unable" or "Help me when I don't know how"? The 1934 Dictionary suggests I should seek help when I don't KNOW how to do something. I considered seeking other definitions in the dictionary. Even Joe & Charlie (of the Big Book Study) admit to cherry-picking dictionary definitions sometimes. But the Big Book says part of my insanity (in the Twelve Step sense), includes my "inability to think straight". I decided on that basis to avoid temptation. I stayed with the #1 definition. 

The 1934 dictionary definition gave me the wisdom I had been missing. I can easily distinguish between something that I know how to change and something I don't. So this new definition shifted the request from God to me. I was now asking myself whether I really KNEW HOW to handle what I was faced with. 

•  CAN I get a job as good as the one I lost? "I hope so, but to be honest, I don't really KNOW how in this economy."

•  CAN I wake up every day to a world of uncertainty? "I do KNOW how to do that. I've done it all my life."

•  CAN I face my loved one's grave illness? "I don't want to, but I KNOW I can with the help of my Higher Power."

These questions no longer mystify me. I can answer whether I KNOW HOW or not. Very, very often, I do not know how. But that's my point. Instead of the Serenity Prayer offering question marks, I now sense that it offers firm answers. If I don't know HOW to do something, then my prayer is for Serenity. If I DO know how, then my prayer is for Courage. And if I am literally stumped and can't tell what I know....... well, I surely need to pray for Wisdom.

With that definition in mind, I began considering how to illustrate this small but important word "Can". The drawing poses a simple question about two pipe valves: "Can you operate both of these valves?" Prior to reading the dictionary, I would have answered, "Yes, my hands work fine, so I am ABLE to operate both types of valves." But when using the 1934 definition, I would answer, "No, I do NOT know how to operate the complicated valve on the left. However, I DO know how to operate the simple valve on the right." For me, the "KNOW HOW" answer is more definite and therefore more serenity-inducing.

This knowledge has shifted what I get from the Serenity Prayer today. I now see my situation more clearly and that helps me see how my Higher Power might be needed most. I am not suggesting that you change your own understanding of the Serenity Prayer. But I would be negligent if I did not share how a 1934 Webster's Dictionary has changed it for me.



Serenity Prayer: Thing





As I looked up Serenity Prayer words in my old Webster's dictionary, I continued to be surprised. For example, I had been using the word "thing" since an early age but never gave it a second thought. I might ask my mother, "Where is that thing that spins around when you blow on it?" She knew exactly what I meant. Everyone seemed to know what "thing" meant without ever hearing a definition. The word felt thoroughly modern to me, and I even suspected it was some sort of slang. I could not have been more wrong.

The definition: "Thing n. a matter of concern".

The word "thing" was used back in c.1600 to indicate matters a legislative speaker could not name at the moment. For example, if someone handed the speaker a piece of paper with writing on it, it was his job to determine whether it was a law, a bill, an amendment, a proposal, an objection, or some other matter. If it was something trivial (i.e., a lunch invitation), he would never bring it before the legislature. However, if it were potentially important (i.e., a written request that an official matter be looked into), the speaker would call that document a "thing". Later on, it might would be categorized more specifically, but for the moment it would merely be a matter for concern—a "thing".

In my own recovery, I remember many times when something caught my attention but had no certain meaning. When I missed an important meeting and had no legitimate excuse, was that serious or just a trivial slip? When I missed buying a birthday gift for my child because my obsessions were distracting me, did that really matter or should I shrug it off? When I chose to pursue the company of strangers and neglect my wife, was that trivial or grave? At that time, I could not distinguish the minor from the major.

The Big Book defines our insanity as "a lack of proportion, of the ability to think straight" (p. 37) I believe that means we cannot distinguish the minor from the major. Just like me, the alcoholic may not accurately see the difference between spending their paycheck on their family versus spending it on liquor. I compare this person to a legislative speaker who has lost the ability to distinguish one type of bill from another.


My drawing for the word "thing" includes a huge brick arch. After a moment, it becomes clear to the viewer that a brick is  suspended in mid-air and appears to have fallen from the arch. Nothing about the scene is necessarily alarming at first. But there is something mysterious afoot. What is the meaning or origin of that lone brick? Did someone idly drop an unimportant brick from above, just to watch it splash harmlessly into the water? Or did a very crucial brick come loose and fall on its own? If it is just one brick breaking loose from the bridge, is that a trivial matter? Or is that dire a warning sign of a very, very serious problem with the entire bridge? 

The drawing captures a moment when we see something but we are just not sure what it means. We cannot yet put it into it's correct proportion (see definition of insanity again on page 37 of the Big Book). The matter has our attention, but we do not yet know what category to put it in—so we are just like that speaker of the legislature in c. 1600.

In the Serenity Prayer, I ask for the "courage to change the THINGS I can", etc. By using that word, I am admitting that I cannot know what my Higher Power knows. I cannot distinguish those uncertain "things" the way He can. Instead of "faking it until I make it", I must honestly admit when I am ignorant and do not understand my situation fully. This admission invites my Higher Power to help me sort out the many matters of concern that may arise today. As things are placed into their correct proportion, I find that my addictive "insanity" diminishes and I can live free again.

One thing at a time. One day at a time.

Serenity Prayer: Accept



"God grant me the serenity to ACCEPT the things I cannot change.

My 12 drawings of the Serenity Prayer were not created in any certain order. The 1934 Websters dictionary sat on my desk for months and I was not very methodical when choosing which word to look up next. At that time, I was not really convinced there would be twelve suitable words in the prayer. The word "Accept" was a good case in point.

The definition: "Accept v. to receive with an assenting mind".

Here was a good, solid description that contained nothing out of the ordinary. It seemed I had found a definition which added absolutely nothing to my understanding of the Serenity Prayer.

Then the word "mind" caught my eye. One of the defining characteristic of an alcoholic (and by extension any addict) includes a certain insanity of the mind (Big Book of AA, p. 37). In my own recovery, I knew that the remedy required my making a dramatic personality change with the help of a Higher Power. Part of that change would surely require that I receive new ideas with an assenting mind. 

It was hard to imagine an illustration showing an assenting mind; I wasn't at all sure what that would look like. As I sometimes do when brainstorming, I tried to image the mirror opposite of the idea—a mind that rejected everything coming towards it.....like an umbrella fending off raindrops. That seemed like a good comparison, but it did not help me. I needed a rain acceptor, not a rain rejector. What would a rain acceptor look like...a gutter on a house? Nah. That gutter notion caused no stirring in my heart. (While sober, I pay close attention to my instincts, because my heart is my best instrument for getting closer to the Higher Will.)

Then it hit me. Acceptance is meaningless without the ability to reject. Acceptance can only exist if the option to reject is also present. I cannot really say "yes" unless I truly have an option to say "no". So, I flipped my "rain rejector" upside down in my mind. There it was.....


I quickly started sketching and soon I was looking at the most improbable drawing I had ever created; a man, leaning out a window and turning his open umbrella upside down so he can collect raindrops. The end-result was an unexpected scene, but not an implausible one. It was something I could easily imagine seeing someday, no matter how unlikely. Although I am the creator of the drawing, I do not know why anyone would do this; I must accept such little mysteries the same as you.

This drawing reminds me of how I decided to take something I used my whole life—my mind—and turned it toward a completely new purpose. It went beyond intellectualism and took root somewhere in my own spirit. The change I had hoped for was possible.... I could change..... I could BE changed. 

I am an ordinary person. But having this small miracle worked upon my insane mind was extraordinary. 

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