Image by Katie Moum

A Meditation on the Virtue of Acceptance

JULY 16, 2012 BY MSGR. CHARLES POPE

On the great virtues to cultivate in life is acceptance. And while it is true that not everything ought to be accepted, it is often a virtue and a step toward serenity to understand that not everything can be changed, and that unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.

Acceptance, which is not the same as approval, is a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, wherein we come to recognize a situation (often a negative or uncomfortable) for what it is, without attempting to change it, protest, or leave it.  The word is derived from the Latin roots ac (to) + ceptus (take or receive). The concept is also close in meaning to ‘acquiescence’, which is derived from the Latin ‘acquiēscere‘ (to find rest in). 

Again, note that acceptance does not connote approval. In fact it usually connotes that there is something in the situation that is less than appealing, less than ideal. Yet, for wider reasons, such as the overall value of a relationship, or situation, we tolerate or assent to the imperfection. While perfection and improvement are surely ideals for which to strive, inordinately demanding them in every situation or instantly is usually a recipe for resentment, frustration, disappointment, and even strife.

Last week on the blog we meditated on the value and virtue of stability, one of the four vows taken by the Benedictines. We do well to recall the following insights from the manual of a Benedictine community:

We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.

For it frequently happens that when one seeks that which is ideal, if there is any ordeal, they seek for a new deal. And the process tends to repeat and repeat, such that a person like this never attains true and deeper relations with real people in a real world, but is ever off seeking that which is unreal, which does not exist. In effect they miss real life, in search of fantasy.

In the Gospel from this past Sunday Jesus counsels:

Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. (Mk 6:10)

In other words, stay put, don’t looking for a better meal, better lodgings, better company. Work with what you’ve got rather than waste time constantly looking for a better deal.

Acceptance is the capacity, to work with what is, and thereby make modest improvements. It is the resourcefulness to discover gifts in the present, and imperfect moment, and use them lovingly and skillfully. It is   the ability to rejoice and delight in the quirkiness, even the inconsistency of the people we know, and to realize that many of the struggles they have are strongly related to their strengths.

For, yes, competent and organized people are often anxious and controlling, artistic people are often moody, intellectual people are overly analytical, and kind people may make too many compromises. But acceptance rests in the insight that we are all mixed bags and that strength and struggles are often intertwined. Thus, search and destroy missions regarding negative traits are usually less effective than identifying the nearby gift and helping to refine and clarify it.

Acceptance also means working your own stuff. For while we often demand perfection or the ideal outside of ourselves, we easily forget how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we fulfill the old saying: Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord, there are none in me.

Beyond this we also go to the other end of the spectrum and unrealistically demand perfection of our selves. We can be our own worst critic. It’s all just a strange twist on pride wherein we implicitly presume to be above imperfection. The fact is we’re a mixed bag just like everyone else.

I can hear some of the objectors now: “Are you saying we should just settle for the mediocre?!” No, there is an important place and time in life to strive for improvement and increasing perfection. But along the way, accepting what is, right here and now, is a very important virtue. For if I cannot bear to live in what is now, I cannot ultimately inherit what could be better. If I will not stay put to improve and grow what is how can I reap what might be better? What can be better later, must be built on what is now. Acceptance helps me stay put and work with what is, rather than endlessly wait for something better to come, something which almost never comes.

A couple of sayings from the Desert Fathers (I know not who) :

To a disciple who was forever complaining about others the Master said, “If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.”

(For acceptance and serenity are deeply interior gifts. And when I get better, other people get better too).

A disciple once said to the Master, “How can I be a great man like you?” “Why be a great man?” said the Master. “Being a man is a great enough achievement.”

(For it sometimes happens that, in seeking what is great, we neglect what is most real and essential, our very selves. Greatness is not so much achieved as it is received when we come to accept ourselves as we really are, from the hand of God. Simply becoming the man or woman God made us to be is great enough. To compare is to despair and no matter how tall your father is, you have to do your own growing).