At the beginning of this year, someone (I think it was on Facebook) suggested I pick a word to guide me through 2020. Because I struggle with it whenever I say AA’s Serenity Prayer, I chose the word “acceptance.” So far, I’ve been spending a lot of time grappling with this concept, trying to accept not only the pandemic world I’m now living in, but also myself, which I’m finding is a far more difficult thing to do.
First, I need to be clear about what I mean by acceptance. Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll find that some of the definitions are “favorable reception, approval, favor,” meanings I don’t … well, I don’t accept. Nor do I agree with the opinions expressed in a blog entitled “Why you should never accept yourself.” The author writes that accepting something means you’re making excuses for bad behavior; that you don’t think that things can be changed or that you don’t want to change; that you’re letting other people tell you who you are, what to believe, how to behave. (This last one seems to me to be a big reason for a lot of the protests these days against stay-at-home directives.) The author of this blog is male, but I recall last year a feminist saying that she was not going to accept that she cannot change the sexism in this country.
I don’t think the Serenity Prayer’s “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” means making excuses for bad behavior. Nor do I think when Michael J. Fox—who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost thirty years—says, “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations,” he wouldn’t like his disease to go away. Or when musical composer Arthur Rubinstein states, “Of course, there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings,” he’s letting people tell him how to behave.
For me, acceptance means to acknowledge what is, without resisting or denying it, but also without necessarily liking, wanting, choosing, or supporting it. We are in a worldwide pandemic. I don’t like it, but if I don’t accept that, if I try to live my life as if the coronavirus doesn’t exist, I am endangering my physical health. And if I don’t accept that there are people listening to politicians who will say anything to stay in power instead of to doctors who have spent their lives studying diseases, I’m endangering my mental health.
I first learned about acknowledging without approving when I learned Centering Prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault used to tell us that while we were sitting in silence, “resist no thought, retain no thought, react to no thought…” Well, that was shortly after my daughter had died, and I was full of ugly, angry thoughts. One of which was that I was responsible for Laurie’s death, either because I had left her mother and remarried, or because I had stayed with her mother too long and she’d been caught up in the bitter fighting between us. No way, I said, am I going to accept those thoughts.
And I fought that thinking for years, until one night, I finally surrendered them. Okay, I said, at some level I am always going to feel I helped kill my daughter. It was as if a 1000-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
Harder to accept than my character defects, however, are my strengths. As Nelson Mandala said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” When someone praises my virtues, I can become terrified. I feel I need to live up to them and that’s scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sabotaged myself by following up on some virtuous act with something dumb or destructive. It’s easier for me to create some unreachable idea of perfection (usually based on some movie hero or athlete or spiritual saint) and then flog myself for not living up to that ideal.
So, for me, acceptance is not about whether I like what’s going on. I’m also finding that acceptance is not, as some suggest, a passive process. Along with my daily calisthenics and practicing the scales on my banjo, I must actively practice the scales of acceptance. The other day, I was raking some dead leaves from our flower garden, and thought: “Yeah, acceptance is a bit like this—raking out the dead leaves of denial, judgment, shame, guilt, perfectionism so that acceptance (including acceptance of the fact that it may snow tomorrow)—can grow. I can practice acceptance toward what’s happening with the coronavirus, with people whose political views differ from mine, with my aging body, with my character defects and virtues.
And acceptance doesn’t mean I can’t work to change things. I can write letters to my national representatives urging them to stand against irresponsible behavior. I can phone people who are alone, and continue to “see” my grandchildren via Zoom. I can wear a mask in public even if others don’t. I can accept the fact that I’m 77 years old, and still exercise, still eat better. I can—as Cynthia suggested years ago—accept my emotions, while at the same time acknowledging their impermanence. I can tell my inner critic to get lost. I can forgive myself for things I’ve done wrong and work to make amends. I can grieve the loss of my unrealized dreams. And when all else fails, I can fake it until I make it.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that I feel things are always going to be the way they are forever. One good thing about aging is that I’m learning that there’s Chronos, human time, and Kairos, God’s time. For years, I accepted that my body chemistry was going to change between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the months I spent watching Laurie die. And then, two years ago, I realized I was enjoying the holidays. And as I was writing earlier in this blog about always feeling responsible for my daughter’s death, I heard a voice: are you sure about that? In the last few years, I’ve discovered how my family’s history of alcoholism has caused me to want to blame myself for all kinds of things for which I’m not responsible. Maybe Laurie’s death will become one of those things.
So, what does it mean “to accept the things I cannot change”? More than anything else, I think it means being open to Grace, “gifts,” as I called them in an early blog, the undeserved help I’ve received in my life. Acceptance, it seems to me, is a stance that says no matter what comes, I know that the God-of-my-not-Understanding will give me the grace to endure it or to learn from it or to love it. Maybe all three.