Don’t be too quick to accept things you think you cannot change: doubting the serenity prayer

If you have a mug or a wall hanging with a saying on it, odds are it is the Serenity prayer. It goes like this: “God 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.” It is most likely written by Reinhold Niebuhr, in about 1937, originally in a student newsletter as “Father, give us the courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other,” according to Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times 27 November 2009.

How could I have a serious problem with something that sounds so nice? I have to say that I like the original better than the later one because it puts change first. I like it because there is nothing serene about righteous change. The 1960s civil rights movement were not serene overall, though Martin Luther King Jr. might be described thus. If we are too serene about giving up on change, however hard, then when will change come? How about the strength of one person to make a real change that other might think impossible? How about Rachel Carson? How about Harper Lee? How about Charles Darwin? Surely the Serenity Prayer would have caused them to sip tea, or get back to croquet.

I know the Serenity Prayer is often applied to our own lives, to things like alcoholism and maybe it has more place there, though the person with alcohol issues should not be too quick to accept the impossibility of change.

I’m sure I could use a little more serenity, but I would prefer constructive efforts to change what can be changed right up to the limits and no placid acceptance. OK, maybe I’m misinterpreting the line between acceptance and action, but I saw something in our local independent bookstore, Subterranean Books, that we walked to on this sunny, warm day that set me off.

First a little background. The biology department at Washington University in St. Louis has a Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini. She got the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of nerve growth factor, along with Stanley Cohen, in 1986. You can read all about it on her Wikipedia page, so I don’t need to repeat it here.

What has me outraged is how her prize was discussed in a book on our town, University CityIMG_2452, by John Wright. I include a photo of the text, but will quote it here also in all its outrageousness: “The University has many internationally known Nobel Prize winners and accomplished educators on staff. Many give a great deal without recognition such as Victor Hamburger, pictured here: Many believe he was overlooked in 1987 [sic] by the Nobel Prize Committee for the Medicine Award [sic]. The award went to Levi Montalcine [sic], professor emeritus [sic] of Biology at the University and Stanley Cohen, a biochemist at Vanderbilt, for discoveries made nearly 40 years earlier in Hamburger’s laboratory.”

Aside from the errors of fact, in the year of the prize, the name of the prize, and the spelling of the names, the implication is that it was Hamburger’s work, not Levi-Montalcini’s. This is patently false since she had begun the work before she ever came to Wash U.IMG_2451

What is a woman to do? Even when she wins a Nobel Prize, this is what it says in the book about the town housing the university where she won it. Yes, this may be one ignorant writer, but it is a particularly strong example, that even if a woman wins a Nobel Prize she is likely to just end up misspelled as a caption in a photo of a man.

So drop the serenity, don’t give up, keep fighting and exposing!

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Gender bias, Life in a biology department, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Don’t be too quick to accept things you think you cannot change: doubting the serenity prayer

  1. Phil Starks says:

    Great piece, Joan! You’ve a right to be mad. I read the prayer a little different than you do, however. I think it puts a lot of responsibility on the actor to determine the limits of his/her abilities. In general, I think we can drive more change than we give ourselves credit for. In my romantic view, Carson, Lee, Darwin, et al would have read the prayer and said, “oh yeah, watch out World, ’cause I got this!”. You should have a public conversation with John Wright. ~Peace

    • The thing is, I looked him up after I wrote it and he’s an elderly man who probably got the photo and needed a caption and didn’t realize what he was doing. He was telling the story of the photo, not getting the story of our department correct. He’s probably not the sort of person who would have done the digging as I did to even figure out the Serenity Prayer and where it came from. I know I shouldn’t just make excuses for him, however.

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