Acceptance as a tool for tough timesIMAGE: JACUB GOMEZ | PEXELSSome things are worth fighting for in life, but many issues and events aren’t worth fighting over at all. Simply paying attention and seeking understanding will help us discover which is which and hence know which to accept .by Scott CooperAcceptance is jumping off the rocky cliff of mental and emotional turmoil, into the clear, deep pool of non-judgment and non-clinging. Too often in everyday living, we struggle in the ‘heat’ of things that don’t matter, when we could be swimming around in the clear, cool waters of acceptance.

Some things really matter in life: meeting our physical needs, good relationships with those close to us, healthy core beliefs, family and civic responsibilities, and personal causes and interests. Fortunately, many of these things are also things that we can do something about.

But there are many everyday irritations, worries, and disagreements that really don’t matter. In the scheme of things, whether someone cuts us off in traffic, whether we forget something on our shopping list, whether my spouse wants to watch a different television program than me, whether the weather is cold, or whether my favorite football team wins, just doesn’t matter. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life and the nitty-gritty of personal relationships, one of the most powerful reminders we can give ourselves is that it just doesn’t matter, when it really doesn’t.

Likewise, if there are everyday issues that we either have no choice over or no ability or intention of doing anything about, there is no benefit in churning over them. It’s human nature to banter with ourselves and others over topics like people, politics, religion, and sports, and sometimes it can be fun. But sometimes it’s not fun and can add more stress to our lives than we want. On those occasions when we prefer peace, it can again help to remind ourselves that it just doesn’t matter.

In the film Meatballs, Bill Murray plays a camp counselor working for a cut-rate summer camp called North Star. The camp’s nemesis is the much more wealthy, athletic Mohawk camp across the lake. The Mohawks have beaten the North Star camp in their annual Olympiad for twelve straight years. When the North Star camp is feeling the gloom of the impending annual event, Murray rouses the camp with his motivational “It just doesn’t matter” speech. In stirring words he reminds everyone of the obvious: it really doesn’t matter to the lives of the North Star kids if they win a camp contest. A collective light bulb goes off in the minds of the camp kids, and soon they are whooping and hollering to the energetic chant of “It just doesn’t matter!”

Sometimes without thinking, we get so quickly and automatically invested in the emotional turmoil of events, that we skip the really big step of asking ourselves the obvious: does this really matter to us — and if so why? My kind New England mother-in-law was fond of phrasing this differently: “In fifty years this won’t matter.” This has always stuck with me, and is surely true of many of our everyday worries and cares. If something will matter in fifty years, then maybe it’s worth taking seriously; if not, then maybe not so much.
IMAGE: JACUB GOMEZ | PEXELSOn the other hand, some of the things that really do matter to us in life can also be sources of great pain.

Some losses, mistakes, accidents, and illnesses are catastrophic and unalterable. Illness, poverty, and the deaths of loved ones can all be sources of immense suffering. In these cases, saying “It just doesn’t matter” is both untrue and hollow. But it is completely true that these experiences are a built-in part of this difficult life, and finding even a measure of peace in the midst of great suffering requires finally accepting this truth.

Sometimes we have to accept pain (including emotional pain), before it will lessen. Grieving is the process of accepting difficult losses. As William James once wrote, “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” We can wish that the world were free of losses, mistakes, and accidents, but it’s not. We can wish that we were perfect, but we aren’t. We can wish we would not experience pain and suffering, but we do. We are in denial of the world we are born into to think otherwise. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.
IMAGE: JACUB GOMEZ | PEXELSCS Lewis was an author, literary critic, and professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England during the 1920s to 1960s. He was raised in Belfast, Ireland, and after arriving at Oxford for his college education, he volunteered as a soldier in World War I, during which he was wounded while in trench warfare. He had become an atheist as a teenager, but while teaching at Oxford, he became friends with JRR Tolkien (the author of the ‘Lord of the Rings’), who helped to convert Lewis to Christianity. Lewis thereafter became a writer on popular themes about Christianity. But following the death of his American wife, Joy, after just three years of marriage, Lewis went through a period of great despair and grief. As documented in his book, A Grief Observed, nothing provided him with much relief, including his religious beliefs. He writes in his book:

For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs... How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.

His book is a poignant, searing meditation on the extreme difficulty of losing a loved one, and in the end he concludes:

Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?

We can and should seek out help when we’re suffering, but in the end, there is no way to deal with some levels of suffering over things that we cannot change, except to accept the suffering.

Acceptance is the primary portal to letting go. We usually can’t let go by just telling ourselves to do so. We need to go through the mental shift of accepting the event or emotion that is causing us turmoil. Acceptance means stopping the resistance and avoidance and simply letting things be as they are. It means being willing, open and receptive to experiencing events no matter how painful. When we accept, we stop judging. We stop telling ourselves what we don’t like about something that is difficult or unpleasant for us. We simply experience it. It doesn’t mean that we have to forget – as if we could. But if we cannot change difficulties, we simply let them be.

Acceptance does not mean evaluating things positively, or having to like them; it means seeing reality as it is with less mental struggle or emotional turmoil.

Acceptance also does not mean that we still don’t try to make things better, including dealing with the irritations of everyday life. Even as we accept and stop churning internally about the weather and bad traffic, we can still make things more pleasant by having a cold drink or turning on the radio—the idea is not to become an ascetic monk, but to reduce internal stress and turmoil.

Acceptance is enhanced by making sure that we have reasonable core beliefs about ourselves, others, and life. If we don’t begin with a core acceptance that life is imperfect, filled with both good and bad, we will live a life of continual turmoil and frustration. Our expectations will not be in synch with how life really is. If we expect ourselves and others to be consistently perfect, we will be filled with anger and disappointment as everyday imperfections naturally unfold in the actual world we live in. In order to learn to accept difficult, unalterable events, big and small, it helps to first accept life. William James wrote in the Varieties of Religious Experience: At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?

Acceptance is also greatly enhanced by applying mindfulness: to practice just noticing events (both internal and external ones), without judging them. Rather than avoiding and running away from unpleasantness we directly acknowledge it. By not judging, we can more clearly see events with greater understanding. We’re not so focused on changing things, as we are on letting them be. Some things are worth fighting for in life, but many issues and events aren’t worth fighting over at all. Simply paying attention and seeking understanding will help us discover which is which.
IMAGE: JACUB GOMEZ | PEXELS‘Radical acceptance’ is a leap beyond acceptance as an occasional coping tool. Radical acceptance is incorporating into one’s everyday living a fundamental attitude of acceptance towards everything; an assertive embracement. It means opening up fully to ‘what is,’ with the relaxation of judgment or defensive mechanisms. It means complete acceptance of self, our emotions, others and the world, in this very moment, in spite of flaws and imperfections. What it doesn’t mean is being passive or evaluating everything positively or accepting harmful and destructive behavior without response.
It means seeing things more directly as they are, not as we want them to be, with the understanding that in some matters we have the power of choice and in some matters we don’t. Arthur Rubinstein once wrote:

Of course there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.

I know from personal experience that radical acceptance is difficult to maintain; but even moments of radical acceptance can be moments of greater peace and insight.

Consider practicing acceptance in the following ways:
  • When we are worrying, a big question to keep asking ourselves is whether we are worrying about something that we can actually do anything about. The low-hanging fruit of acceptance is to start with the things we have no power to change. There is absolutely no value in spending our emotional ‘cash’ on problems we cannot solve.
  • When feeling everyday emotional turmoil, don’t skip the step of asking yourself if the situation that is causing the turmoil really matters. If not, consciously remind yourself that it just doesn’t matter.
  • When feeling everyday emotional turmoil, don’t skip the step of asking yourself if the situation that is causing the turmoil really matters. If not, consciously remind yourself that it just doesn’t matter.
  • The next time you’re in a traffic jam or in a long line, practice accepting the situation for what it is, rather than letting frustration and turmoil have its way. A traffic jam is a natural part of life—too many cars in one place—and there’s nothing to be done about it. You don’t have to love it, but you also don’t need to battle it emotionally, because it will not do any good (and may actually do your body harm).
  • When you find yourself in a conflict with one of your children or with your spouse, sometimes it’s good to catch yourself and ask if the battle is worth fighting. Does any of this really matter? And if so, why? Sometimes battles are important to wage because something important is at stake, but too often, conflict is just a bad habit—driven by our imperfect, noisy emotions.
  • If we are struggling with deep suffering over losses that we cannot change, in addition to getting help from others, our only other way through may indeed be acceptance—our willingness to let sorrow and grief happen, rather than fight them.
Try moments of complete, unconditional ‘radical acceptance.’ Moments when you accept everything in the world in that point in time as “It is what it is.”Reprinted from ROCK AND WATER by Scott Cooper with permission from DeVorss Publications is a US national youth advocate and writer, with a focus on bullying prevention, assertive social skills, and online safety.
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