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The serenity prayer and Venn diagrams

The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr and now associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, goes,

God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed;
Give me courage to change things which must be changed;
And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

I think this would make a great classroom example of Venn diagrams (as used for set theory and probability). There are two sets:

A: “things which cannot be changed”
B: “things which must be changed”

and the prayer implicitly assumes that A and B are disjoint and exhaustive (that is, that every item in the universe of “things” being considered is either in A or in B, but not both).

But if you draw the Venn diagram, you can see the possibility of:

not-A and not-B: this is ok, things which can be changed but do not need to be changed

A and B: this is bad, these are the things which cannot be changed but must be changed!

This is a great example, in that the rhetoric of the prayer is so compelling that it’s easy to miss, at first, these other two categories, but the Venn diagram makes it clear. Also, many students will already have been exposed to this prayer, and the others will probably find it interesting. How does the Venn diagram version affect how the prayer says we should live our lives?

P.S. The above version of the prayer is from Niebuhr. As Jim Lebeau notes in a comment, the actual version used by AA goes “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can . . .”, which doesn’t quite work as a Venn diagram example.

P.P.S. The pretty picture below is from Will Fitzgerald (see comments).

ser-venn-ity.png

9 Comments

  1. I'll give you disjoint, but I don't see the exhaustive. The point is that "things which can be changed but do not need to be changed" aren't important enough to warrant a prayer over them. The prayer's author probably thinks that
    …things which cannot be changed but must be changed!" is an empty set.

  2. Jim Lebeau says:

    The way I learned the prayer was different:

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things which cannot be changed; The courage to change the things which can be changed; And the wisdom to know the difference.

    And no problems with Venn diagrams.

  3. Jim,

    Yes, I have heard this from others too. Looking at the above link (and others) more carefully, I realize that the AA version of the prayer is as you say. The version in my entry above is from the original Niebuhr version from 1932. Somewhere along the way, it was changed to the more logical (though less rhythmic) form that you cite.

  4. The AA version does raise some other questions.

    What about those things I can change, but shouldn't? Or cannot change, and wouldn't want to anyway? It seems to be predicated on the idea that "things are bad". Or do good things fall into the category of TheOneEyedMan's "things you don't need to pray about"?

  5. lance says:

    the "good things" would be things to be thankful for, right?

  6. Well, if `ought-implies-can' holds, the set A^B is empty…

  7. Doug says:

    Maybe it works better as a flow chart:

    1. Ask: Must it be changed?
    1.1 If No, then Stop.
    1.2 If Yes, then go to Step 2.

    2. Wisdom: can it be changed?
    2.1 If Yes, change it using Courage, apparently, in the face of that which needs to be changed when those changes are difficult (i.e., we'd rather pretend they cannot be changed; e.g. "What can I do about it?" or "It's not my responsibility!")
    2.2 If No, accept it, work on being Serene, and Stop.

    The quote doesn't imply that wisdom is needed to know if something must be changed, but it seems fair to assume that this is so.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I learned the prayer as "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. Making it subjective moves the whole concept more towards "help me take care of my stuff and mind my business about others'". No need for diagrams.