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A Buddhist friend of mine and I recently were discussing the concept of “acceptance.”  Our discussion led me to think about the confusion that surrounds this concept.  We toss around the term acceptance a lot.  There is the Serenity Prayer which asks for the serenity to “accept” the things one cannot change.  There are articles written about practicing acceptance, and you’ll even find that phrase on bumper stickers.  But what does it really mean?

At first glance, the practice of acceptance seems to demand a very passive approach to life.  It appears that if one practices acceptance, you simply accept life as it is.  You don’t bother to change what doesn’t work.  And if people treat you poorly, you just take it.  Fortunately, that kind of passivity isn’t what is meant by practicing acceptance.  The practice of acceptance is, in fact, the precursor to action.  It is the first step in changing our lives for the better.

When we practice acceptance, we make needed changes more quickly because we don’t get stuck in our own misguided thinking.  What kinds of thinking keep us stuck?  Well, expecting that life should be fair is one way that we get stuck.  For many of us, when something bad happens, our first thought is, “Why me?  This isn’t fair.”  Then we latch on to that thought like a small dog with a bone.  We think about all our friends and family members who “have it easy,” while we are struggling.  We think about the person who wronged us and wonder why they haven’t suffered for their actions.  And all of that thinking about fairness is a complete waste of time.

We also get stuck in “right versus wrong” thinking, e.g. I was right, and what he or she did to me was wrong.  Then we meditate on and obsess over how wrong that other person was.  Have you ever known people like that?  They got divorced decades ago, and they are still talking about all the bad things their spouse did, as though these events happened yesterday.  Or they were fired from their jobs years ago, and they will tell you today in perfect detail how poorly they were treated.  I am not minimizing those experiences.  They are painful.  But it does not benefit us to continue to fret about those who have treated us poorly.

When we practice acceptance, we take a different approach to handling difficult situations.  We first acknowledge what has happened and accept that we cannot change (1) the past or (2) other people.   Once we accept what we can’t change, then we can move forward to deal with what we can change.

So, if someone has treated you poorly, you don’t need to waste your time griping about how wrong they were.  You simply have to accept that their behavior is a past act that can never be changed.  And you have to accept that you can’t change them.  Once you’ve accepted what cannot be changed, then you can make a decision regarding what you can change – whether or not to remain in a relationship with that person.

If you have a job at which you are poorly paid, there is no point in lamenting that fact.  You need to accept that you are underpaid and recognize that you personally don’t have the power to change that.  Once you accept the fact of the situation, then you can make the decision as to whether you are going to stay with your employer and accept working for lower pay, whether you are going to ask for a raise, or whether you are going to look for another job.  Those are the actions that you do have the power to take.

I once met a woman who had been diagnosed with Lupus.  It is a disease that can afflict someone for years, and its symptoms include extreme fatigue and joint pain.  She said that when she was given the diagnosis, she went straight from acceptance to action.  She skipped the “Why me?” and “This is so unfair!” stages, accepted her diagnosis and immediately consulted with her doctor about what she could do to lessen the symptoms and overcome the disease.  That is the power of acceptance.

When we want to improve our lives, the key is to accept our circumstances without getting stuck in the disappointment that we feel over what we think our circumstances “should be.”  By practicing acceptance, we understand that the past cannot be changed.  Only then are we positioned to act to make our lives better for the future.

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