Courage, serenity and wisdom. How can a prayer fit into the world of exercise?

Courage, serenity and wisdom. How can a prayer fit into the world of exercise?

Prayers will not be part of life for those who do not follow a faith or religion. However there is one prayer which has moved into the secular world, and can provide a different approach to fitness motivation and self-esteem.

Prayer and its secular cousin meditation have been used as aids to calm and relaxation for thousands of years. Most prayer and liturgy will not be relevant to those who are not religious, although phrases and quotes from various holy books are ingrained in our culture and languages.  Just occasionally a piece of religious writing can move into the mainstream. The ‘serenity prayer’ is one of these pieces, and can offer some useful thoughts for even the most agnostic of us.

Where does the serenity prayer come from?

Although it is often assumed to be much older, the piece of writing commonly known as the ‘serenity prayer’ first appeared sometime in the 1940s. It was written by an American theologian and political commentator named Reinhold Niebuhr. Although the original writing refers to God, the prayer has been adapted for secular use and is particularly important in addiction recovery programmes. The best known use of the prayer is by the Alcoholics Anonymous organisation, whose ‘twelve-step’ programme has been adapted by many other groups.

What does the prayer say?

The full version of the prayer has two longer verses and talks about happiness in this world and the next. The version that is most frequently used in the secular world is:

‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’.

The three concepts are related and linked – obtain one and the other two will probably follow.

How does the concept of serenity fit with the desire to improve ourselves?

While most of us can improve what we eat and become fitter, there is much that we cannot change. We are unlikely to grow tall and willowy if we come from a family where everyone is short and stocky. If we are pale red-heads, we won’t be getting a natural dark tan – in fact, attempts to do so will only result in painful and dangerous sunburn. We also have to accept that we will grow older, and look different as a result.

Modern cosmetic surgery does allow quite a few things to be changed about our bodies. Look at some celebrity ‘before and after’ pictures, with the associated tabloid mockery, and it will be clear that most of these operations would probably have best been left undone.

How much better it would be if those in the limelight would say ‘this is me, I make the best of myself but this is how I look and I am proud to look this way’.  That is one of the meanings of serenity – accepting yourself and being happy about what you are.

Does exercise need courage?

Quite often the answer is ‘yes’. Especially for those who have not exercised for a long time and have some weight to lose, it takes some bravery to walk into that fitness class full of strangers. Many people are discouraged from the excellent exercise given by swimming because they are worried about being seen in a swimsuit.

Use that courage to remind yourself that you are making a difference – you are changing the things that can be changed! A little wisdom will also tell you that no-one can see you once you are in the swimming pool. Finally, why worry about what other people think – do you really want to associate with anyone who would be rude about your appearance? So there is the serenity to go with the courage!

Where does wisdom fit into exercise?

Wisdom includes the knowledge of when it is time to stop, or even slow down. This means that we must allow our bodies time to recover between fitness sessions, and must pay attention to the type of pain that tells us that we are risking an injury.

It also means the wisdom to know that we will change with age, and that some activities will need to stop as we grow older. This can be one of the hardest things to accept, especially for those whose sport is their profession or a big part of their lives.

How can I incorporate these principles into my life?

  • If your body is healthy, count your blessings. There are so many people who have movement disorders, life-limiting illnesses or mental health problems who would swap with you in a second.
  • Look after that healthy body – it is the only one that you will get. Feed it properly and in the right amounts, limit the toxic substances that go into it and move it around.
  • Set a good example if there are children about. Don’t go on about dieting in their hearing, don’t admire celebrities for being skinny, but do set a positive example by taking some fresh air and exercise and encouraging them to join in.

The serenity prayer teaches us to strive for better but also to appreciate what we have. It may be a little early for new year’s resolutions, but that concept seems a good place to start.



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