And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.
-Paul O. “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict”
Acceptance was the topic at my homegroup last night, and I’ve been thinking about it since. The only sane response to life, acceptance is also the arch-nemesis of ego, which much prefers its minions – denial, control, and resentment. Ego says, “What is shouldn’t be!” Acceptance says, “What is, is. Now what?”
Acceptance is closely tied to humility and surrender. Our faith in a higher power lets us surrender to the workings of a universe beyond our comprehension, or to the irrevocable fact that we just stepped in dog shit. Life brings a lot of what we don’t want, and we’re often powerless over it: the dinosaurs didn’t screw up in any way; neither do victims of disaster and disease. Other times, we do play a part. Maybe we were too busy daydreaming to watch where we stepped. Either way, acceptance means being honest with ourselves about what transpires or exists, whether we like it or not.
Last night a young newcomer shared that the hardest things for her to accept had been that A) she was alcoholic and B) that abstinence was, according to the medical community, the sole way to arrest her disease. Her voice, still ringing with that forlorn loss of her best friend and coping tool, reminded me of the savage fight I’d put up years ago against those same facts. Real alcoholics did X and Y, and I didn’t – so I wasn’t.
But awareness of the truth grows ever so slowly in our bones, no matter what rationalizations our brains light up as the neon truth of the day. Layer by layer, truth gathers substance beneath our superficial mind babble until it grows too prominent for us to stuff into the strongbox of denial any longer. For years I’d been a maybe alcoholic or even a sure but who gives a fuck? alcoholic. Yet there came a day, a minute, a second – yes – when I acknowledged reality: addiction ran my life, and I didn’t know how to live otherwise.
So it goes, to an extent, with every acceptance. The process can take years or seconds. In 1998, driving down a familiar street that passes under a highway, my partner and I encountered a handful of pedestrians mulling in the middle of the road with no inclination to step out of our way. When I looked where they were looking, I saw a Metro bus in an odd place – the rockery of an apartment building – with its middle accordion bent at a sharp angle. Dust hung thick. Piles of what looked like dirty laundry littered the grass nearby. I took in all the pieces, but they made no sense to me until, like a bowling ball rolling down the alley of my mind, the thought struck: look up.
When I craned my neck to peer up at the highway fifty feet above, I saw… open air where the guardrail should be and something hanging by its wires – an inverted lamppost. Those little piles of laundry were bleeding, suffering human beings flung where they lay. I still remember the fight my mind put up: This can’t have happened, can’t be true! It was not unlike the silent fight I waged when my boss told me the best job I’d ever had had just been cut; or after I picked up my cell phone and was told I had cancer; or when I looked at my boyfriend’s texts and learned he’d been seeing a girl from work for years. The mind whirls, searching for outs. But denial, in big cases like those, is like a frantic little terrier scratching at a closed steel door. The weight of the facts precludes wrangling. Shit. has. happened.
Thank god I have a place where I can speak of my loss, my fears, my broken heart and be heard and hugged by friends or even strangers with full hearts – people who carry the message of god: everything’s gonna be okay.
In daily life, what’s denied may be less dramatic, yet we go through the same process of looking for outs and telling preferred stories about what’s going on. This bill is so stupid I don’t need to pay it. It’s not gossip if I only tell one person. I waste a little time on Facebook. My shit’s so together now, so I don’t need meetings. It’s not my fault. I never promised. Just one won’t hurt. The list goes on. Because if there’s no undeniable steel door, that little denial terrier is likely to scamper down a happier avenue, a story we make up to avoid whatever truth we’d rather not accept. All the red flags of non-reality we take for roses along our hallucinated garden path.
As Don Miguel Ruiz puts it:
We only see what we want to see… We have the habit of dreaming with no basis in reality… Because we don’t understand something, we make an assumption about the meaning, and when the truth comes out, the bubble of our dream pops and we find out it was not what we thought at all.
Life strikes me as a series of popping bubbles. After I’d accepted my alcoholism, I had to accept the need to let god change me via the steps. Next, I had to accept my character defects – all my selfish fears and judgments. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I somehow ended up in Al-Anon where I became aware of my codependent people-pleasing. I also learned the Three A’s of Al-Anon: Awareness, Acceptance, & Action. With annoying pithiness, these three words sum up the entire process of emotional and spiritual growth. I have to recognize a problem before I can accept it; only then can I ask, “so, what now?” and begin to change.
Acceptance most certainly does not mean giving up. I accept getting old. But having accepted my arthritic left foot, messed up meniscus, radiation-scorched lung, and the general creakiness of life in my 50s does not stop me from killin’ it in advanced ballet class. An extra half-hour warm-up, trimmed Dr. Scholl’s pads, pre-class ibuprofen, and all the weird stretches I’ve invented – these are the changes I’ve made, along with knowing those first fifteen minutes are gonna hurt. But after that, I’m 26 again – all music and technique – and grateful, so grateful! I take the same approach with every obstacle life throws at me. I accept the unpalatable truth: Dammit – this is how it is! Then I ask what tools, what changes, what creativity can I use to make the best of this? The answers always come if I’m honest, open-minded, and willing.