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.
The Serenity Prayer. Words to live by. When you can change it, change it. When you can’t, accept it. Easier said than done, sure. But it's an elegant heuristic. (And really, what else is there?)
What actually is acceptance, though?
Let’s say you’re grappling with a circumstance you can’t change. You realize it’s time for acceptance. What exactly does that look like?
True acceptance is contact with the reality of what cannot be altered. It requires deep feeling, metabolizing, and meaning making. Grieving, mourning, raging, surrender, all in relation to what is. That's the process by which serenity may ultimately come.
In other words, it requires reckoning.
Except we live in a dissociated culture. A culture founded on fantasy, enabled by seminal atrocities, and maintained by denial. Not only is reckoning not a cultural priority, it’s actively discouraged. We’re discouraged from reckoning with our needs, limitations, or mortality. We’re discouraged from reckoning with the brutality we continue to perpetrate and permit.
To reckon would be to come out of the meritocratic myth, the one that tells us we are simply failing to attain the lives that would be available to us were we only more deserving. Those marketing to us daily hope we never transcend that myth: they benefit from our dissatisfied pursuit of the unattainable, and our spending accordingly. That myth keeps us from reckoning.
And there can be no acceptance without reckoning.
Attempting to accept a circumstance without reckoning with its meaning and impact is called detachment. Detachment says that may be true, but it doesn’t matter. We are swimming in this detachment like fish in the sea. Without the skills of reckoning that as a collective we sorely lack, “acceptance” in this sociocultural context renders as just another dissociation tactic.
Yet in its true form, acceptance is the bedrock of wellbeing. How can we move towards acceptance in earnest?
1. Be specific about the shape of the reality to which you must assent. What's it really like? What's at the heart of the matter?
2. Allow emotions to move through you without interference. Name them (“this is rage”), validate them (“yeah, this situation is unfair!”), then allow them passage without getting overly entangled.
3. Support your body in metabolizing feelings. Cry, let your feet pound the pavement, talk to someone, make art: find a healthy way to move energy through and out.
4. Be vigilant for “acceptance” as a tool of dissociation. Acceptance is not a way to stop caring. Acceptance is not a way to not hurt. Acceptance is not artificial certainty to avoid future unknowns. It’s being with present reality, the painful and uncertain, as fully as we can.
5. Seek refuge when you need. Numbing, detachment, dissociation, and denial have their place. It’s okay to disconnect and distract. It’s the costly fallacy of mistaking these for acceptance that we want to avoid.
6. Join the search for meaning. Throughout history, we have turned to existential and spiritual grappling to help us bear the human experience. How do we make sense of our suffering? Read great thinkers, consult clergy, philosophize with loved ones, explore with a therapist: whatever helps you find company, clarity, and the questions that will guide you.
I’d love to hear from you. What supports you in moving towards acceptance? Let me know what works for you, as well as any topic you’d like to see taken up on the blog in the future!