June 1, 2016
Acceptance: A Lesson in the Virtue of Realism
"Serenity comes when you trade expectations for acceptance" Author unknown
By Eugene Hemrick
As we come to our last chapter, what does acceptance have to do with the previous chapters? It goes without saying that acceptance prompts us to be realistic and authentic: two essential qualities behind every friendship and community spirit. Moreover, acceptance complements patience, stillness, and deeper understanding generated by reading body language and research; it opens us up and makes us more receptive, all of which is part of the good life. As we will see, it especially fulfills a critical role in enabling us to be the true person we should be.
It was my first encounter with death as my grandfather took my hand and walked me into the funeral home. Viewing Uncle George DiSylvester's lifeless body was difficult to comprehend as a child. He was a feisty Italian immigrant who was always arguing with Jim Vacco, the proprietor of the corner grocery store; how Uncle George loved a good fight.
My grandfather turned to me and said, "Gini, Uncle George has finished his journey on earth, now it's time for him to return home to God. As he must go home, so will I return home one day, and so does everyone."
Although Uncle George's family was filled with sorrow, calmness prevailed. Like my grandfather, these Italian immigrants came to expect and accept death. No uncontrollable weeping, no crying out why God allowed this, just quiet resignation: it was time to go.
Like many of us, I have lost my beloved parents, close friends and dear acquaintances. Each loss hurt deeply, but thanks to my grandfather I accepted them with peace of mind. I would be untruthful if I didn't confide there are times I wonder why God causes us to love so deeply and then ultimately separates us from our most beloved.
What is the essence of acceptance?
In his book The Virtues, Guardini gives us one answer by beginning with the question: "What is the presupposition for all moral effort if it is to be effective, to change what is amiss, to strengthen what is feeble and to balance what is uneven? . . . It is the acceptance of what is, the acceptance of reality, your own and that of the people around you and of the time in which you live.
"This may sound somewhat theoretical, yet it is not only correct but deserves the special attention of everyone who is making an honest effort; for it is by no means self-evident that we accept what is, accept it interiorly as well, with a ready heart. Someone might object again and say, 'But this is affectation. What is, is, whether we accept it or not, quite apart from the fact that such a disposition is very convenient and must lead to passivity.' So we must make it clear at once that we are not dealing with a weak submissiveness but with seeing the truth and taking one's stand upon it, resolved, of course, to work for it, and, if necessary, to fight for it."
From Guardini's depiction of acceptance we learn it is at the heart of facing reality by encouraging us to submit to the truth of the matter when we would like to avoid it more often than not. Acceptance is especially difficult when facing life's woes: death, sickness, weakness, disturbing events, and all that goes against the grain. Acceptance is not so much conceding we can't win, rather it is freely letting go and exhaling after having held our breath too long.
Acceptance is often envisioned as being passive. It is anything but passive; it is pro-active, encouraging us to take decisive action. Just before he died, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin did just this in meeting with the renowned spiritual writer, Father Henri Nouwen to discuss his upcoming death. In their conversation, Nouwen counseled Cardinal Bernardin --
"It is very simple [to accept death] if you have fear and anxiety and you talk to a friend, then those fears and anxieties are minimized and could even disappear. If you see them as an enemy, then you go into a state of denial and try to get as far away as possible from them. People of faith who believe that death is the transition from this life to life eternal should see it as a friend."
Nouwen's advice to Cardinal Bernardin is ironic because we tend to run from a foe, especially death. And yet he calls for embracing it, pointing out the best way to accomplish this is to walk side by side with it. In this case, acceptance encourages us to put our cards on the table so everyone, and especially ourselves, can see what they are --- to air out fears rather than put them under the covers.
Accepting growing older is one of the most feared foes of life most people would rather avoid. In an effort to remain young, we invest enormous amounts of time in exercising and purchasing expensive cosmetics. Maintaining a youthful spirit has great merit, but acceptance would tell us, "believing we can find Juan Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth is as foolish now as it was in his time."
A side of acceptance we would also like to avoid is its ability to cut through our world of unrealistic phantasms we don't desire to disturb. When this is actually achieved, there is often a feeling of relief, but why is this so? It is because we know down deep that as inviting as is a fictitious life, it is empty. Living in a world of phantasms may be fun for the moment, but in the end it is harmful because of the way it takes possession of us and goes contrary to the principle, the truth will set you free.
In previous chapters, I mentioned my running experiences. I must confess that as I grew older, I fostered boyhood dreams --- phantasms --- of maintaining my speed by practicing wise running tips I had learned over time. I believed smart training would do the trick of remaining a youthful runner forever. Instead of this fantasy tricking life, it tricked me into not wanting to accept the fact that as we age, flexibility and endurance aren't what they used to be. When I finally owed up to this, I reduced my pace and no longer ended up killing myself. As a consequence of accepting this reality, I now sing the first verse of a favorite song while looking into the mirror, "You're so vain; I bet you thought this song is about you", reminding me to stop looking in the mirror for signs of youthfulness.
French philosopher Denis De Rougamont states, "Happiness can exist only in acceptance." One way to interpret this is to see acceptance as a means of creating conversion.
I have worked with prominent men who were recovering alcoholics. When they gained control over their addiction, they would confide, "For the first time, I am truly happy! I am free of the monkey on my back!" Two reasons in particular helped them recover: accepting their powerlessness over alcohol, and accepting the need for a higher power than they possessed to regain a normal life. They had had a conversion experience: they had gone from being unrealistic to becoming a realist.
The most inspiring talks I have ever experienced were by recovering alcoholics! Why is this so? It is because they openly admitted their problem, and when they spoke their openness, realism and truthfulness also spoke. They were authentic: no phoniness or pretenses, only refreshing humility, sincerity, directness and openness.
Why is openness so refreshing? It is because openness smacks upon honesty. The Book of Proverbs states, "Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value a man who speaks the truth." Although we aren't kings, we do love honest lips that speak truth.
Another awesome power of acceptance is its power to create lasting I-thou relationships. How does this occur? It happens because the basis of I-thou relationships is openness, honesty and realism. These qualities open the heart, and once opened with another, hearts bond together as one. In psychology we call this bonding an I-thou relationship, and in theology it is a sacramental union.
A singular virtue like acceptance never stands on its own; it is always intertwined with other virtues. For example, if you have kindness, you also have respect and understanding. In the case of acceptance it goes hand-and-hand with courage. In his description of acceptance Guardini states that acceptance is "seeing the truth and taking one's stand upon it." Implied in "taking a stand" is the need to have the courage to accomplish it. The Swiss physician and author Paul Tournier expands this idea in stating, "Acceptance of one's life has nothing to do with resignation; it does not mean running away from the struggle. On the contrary, it means accepting it as it comes, with all the handicaps of heredity, of suffering, of psychological complexes and injustices."
Anyone who has endured handicaps, suffered chronic pain or cruel injustices knows all too well the difficulty of accepting these fates; they literally take the very spirit out of us, causing us to lose heart. The word courage contains the Latin word cor, meaning heart. One very important role acceptance fulfills is imploring us to confront that which causes us to get down on our self and lose heart. I have met numerous people in my ministry who have lost heart because of a poor self-image; they just couldn't accept who they are.
I remember a mother mournfully telling me her daughter hated her because she was born too short. Her daughter was crestfallen in not being the person she desired to be. I met the daughter, and to be honest, I didn't think she was that short. Unfortunately, she, like many people, go through their lives with poor self-images, lacking the gumption to accept themselves as they are. On the other hand, there are those who accept themselves and end up being beautiful people even though physical beauty or talent is not part of their makeup.
In stating "Acknowledging and accepting whatever stuff you may have to let go comes easier when you love yourself." Author Darren L. Johnson teaches us the best way to maintain a cheerful heart. He echoes Christ's admonition, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Love starts with grateful self-love before it can extend to others. Some might think that self-love boarders on pride. On the contrary, taking grateful pride in our self, frees us from warring against our self; it generates kindness, which is being well disposed toward self, the world and God.
Yet another attribute of acceptance is its power to overcome debilitating paralysis created by depression.
Today there is an alarming increase in depressed people. When it hits, it often stops a person in his or her tracks. I remember a severely depressed person telling me he would sit and gaze out the window all day long; he was unable "to move an inch." Another person told me she would awake in the morning desiring to go back to sleep in hopes of getting up and feeling less depressed. When this occurs, getting back into motion is imperative. Thanks to improved medicines, many depressed persons have been able to mobilize themselves again. They don't necessarily like taking pills, but they will do anything to be released from the darkness of mind depression causes.
Although depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance, it can also be caused by a mental state of mind gone awry: some people can no longer accept what they see in life; it no longer means anything. In many ways these people are like the man with the unclear spirit before he is healed by Christ; they lack an inner cohesiveness and are torn apart by a twisted mind.
Here acceptance would counsel, "You need to be in motion and enjoy the vitality that comes from socializing. Take a closer look at the life you can no longer accept. Try and accept the facts of life within it. Also, reflect on the facts of life found in the history of humanity, and especially in the bible. Most of them weren't to the liking of the people facing them, yet they accepted them, and in doing so, were able to move on. Accepting life for what it is might just be the help you need to overcome your paralyzing darkness of mind. And don't forget to pray even though you have no desire to do so; prayer possesses healing powers for restoring inner cohesiveness."
For acceptance to truly succeed, what must be the ultimate motivating force behind it? Guardini answers this in stating: "When we considered that we cannot construct our own existence but receive it, the next question should have been, 'From whom?' And the answer would have been, 'From our parents, from the historical situation, from our ancestors. But ultimately and through all the intermediaries --- from God.' So we cannot attain to a true acceptance if we do not clearly understand from where we receive our existence: is it from the blind course of nature, the senselessness of chance, the malice of a demon --- or is it from the pure wisdom and love of God."
In this advice we are reminded to go beyond our reasoning powers and to accept God's reason for the circumstances of our life. The proverb "the providence of God never fails us" prompts us to look beyond our self and this world and to accept that everything in life is in the hands of God who sees every moment of our life.
Like all virtues, acceptance needs yet another virtue to succeed: a good sense of humor.
When I lived with the well-known labor priest, Msgr. George Higgins, we had a birthday party for him.
Someone asked, "Well George, how do you feel about being another year older?"
George replied, "You know you are getting old when you send out invitations and the people who receive them say, "Is he still alive?"
Everyone roared with laughter. As hilarious as George was, he personified realism. His remarks contained two beautiful lessons: realists who accept life as it is are a joy to be around, and as laughter loosened us, so can acceptance and its handmaid realism maintain our sense of humor.
Actress Ethel Barrymore wrote: "You grow up the day you have your first laugh at yourself." Paraphrasing Barrymore leads to the wise maxim, "A good sense of humor contains one of our best means for leaving our childish world behind and advancing into the world of adulthood."