Acceptance, they say, is where you begin. I may be more stubborn than most, but I find myself moving in and out of acceptance. I find much in the world baldly wrong – poverty, graft, ridiculous wealth, violence – and it’s difficult for me to know how ‘acceptance’ isn’t just a weak way of saying ‘submission’ or ‘indifference’. It seems, at my stubbornest, that acceptance is just a form of denial, and I don’t want any of it.
Just as recovery itself has that onion skin of ever deeper layers, ever deeper meaning, so too has acceptance. In the beginning, I accepted my addiction and that I was sick, helpless on my own. Acceptance becomes, everyday, a concept more subtle and sophisticated. I react to what looks like oversimplification: I reject the idea that we should ‘accept’ everything as the best it should be, that it will all work out, that it’s for the best in the end. I think that kind of ‘acceptance’ is morally repugnant and doesn’t lend itself to recovery so much as it does to a kind of idiocy and ethical retardation.
Being unable to accept acceptance has proven to be one of my biggest hurdles to recovery. It is my biggest hurdle to anything like god. And I suspect it’s ‘acceptance’ that makes people squeamish about 12 step programs, more than ‘god’ or ‘spirituality’.
We’re not brought up to think about these things very clearly, and it isn’t necessarily our fault. “The Problem of Evil” deflates all religions and most philosophies and there’s no decent way around it.
So I reject god. If there is evil in the world, than there isn’t a god, or at least not a god as we’ve been told there is.
Rejecting religion, though, like non-acceptance of anything, doesn’t solve the problem. The problem remains. Without the balm or promises of religion, it becomes an even bigger problem, swallowing the world. Everything becomes either pointless or tragically depressing, and I, a lucky one among the world’s billions, a self-centered unworthy glutton incapable of making a difference.
In early recovery, all I was capable of accepting was the disease of alcoholism and my utter loss of control. That was as much as I could do. For an alcoholic or addict struggling to get a few days clean, that is enough. It is, for most of us, the necessary beginning.
But beginnings are not endings. Acceptance doesn’t end simply. We aren’t meant to cow-tow to the powers that be, nor are we meant to ‘accept’ things that are wrong. We are not supposed to ‘accept’ people who hurt us, pushing ourselves to be more forgiving and open minded. We’re not meant to ‘accept’ what’s handed us in life, either, as being ‘good enough’. Humility is not a call to subordination. The limits of my acceptance when I was newly sober were only the beginning, a framework from which I could become an ever more intelligent, ever more poised, and ever more powerful human being.
Humility is a call to be better than lies.
The fact is, there is much evil in the world. There are things that should change. And there are people who hurt, steal, murder and commit acts of genocide.
The word “Islam” means submission. Buddhism is based upon the ideas of accepting things as they are. And the Christ of the beatitudes, I think, was not condoning suffering, poverty, or illness so much as he was acknowledging them, blessing them with reality. In each, ‘meekness’ or ‘acceptance’ can be read as indifference, hopelessness, surrender. But they wouldn’t be blessings, that way. They are blessed in their difficulty. Blessed in that we’re supposed to take them up, do the work, accept our power. In my current understanding of law and love and god and universe, I have to submit, I am an act of submission: I submit my best work, as much honesty as I can bear, as much righting the wrongs as I can handle.
Reality is hard.
The secret of acceptance is seeing things as they are. We accept that evil exists, and we accept that we can’t change anyone’s mind. We accept that there are starving millions, hostile borders, and growing disparities. If we’re ever going to heal, we have to accept where we have been abused and that we have hurt others. We have to accept the facts and consequences of alcohol – any amount of alcohol – just as we have to accept the facts of aging and death and other diseases.
How do we do this? How do we ‘accept’ cancer, or a relationship that just won’t seem to get better no matter what we try?
As best we can. And haltingly. And often with regret and confusion. I’d rather this relationship work out than leave and be alone. I’d rather be able to drink like anyone else. I’d rather be comfortable. But I accept who I am, and what is, and I do the best I can.