*NOT HER REAL NAME
At some point in my very recent past this word scared the living daylights out of me. I was in fight mode, battling the difficult and frightening circumstances that had appeared in my life without warning or invitation – and I was fighting hard. I was desperately trying to control (as much as I could) the circumstances, the responses of my loved ones and the future outcomes of these storms. I couldn’t even begin to contemplate what role (if any) acceptance would have in my life. Accept what? For the why? For the who? I was like “Bye, Felicia!” This wasn’t supposed to be my life and I really wasn’t interested in even thinking about accepting it.
But through the raging storms, the concept of acceptance kept coming up, again and again. Instinctively, it felt like it would be the panacea for many of my anxiety-induced ills (the insomnia, the headaches, that innate sorrowful feeling that I carried around every day, etc.). But what was acceptance, actually? What would it mean in my life? How could I achieve it? What would be the benefits? With time and reflection some of the answers to these questions became apparent and life-changing and I want to share them with you.
I am sure you have heard of the term ‘adulting’. If you haven’t, I really don’t know which rock you have been living under, LOL. The urban dictionary defines ‘adulting’ as ‘to carry out one or more of the duties and responsibilities expected of fully developed individuals (paying off that credit card debt, settling beef without blasting social media, etc.). Exclusively used by those who adult less than 50% of the time.’ I have had numerous conversations with a number of my friends regarding how WE WERE NEVER READY. Never ready for the reality called adulting. Never ready for the responsibilities, the seemingly unending grind, the crazy CURVE-BALLS that life would throw and the difficulties of maintaining healthy thriving relationships. Why weren’t we warned about the reality called L.I.F.E.? Why did our parents allow us to live in lala-land? That world where one’s life consists of a white picket fence, 1.5 kids and a cute dog called Buddy. Okay, so maybe your lala-land life was somewhat different and although I had never really thought about mine, I can only imagine it would have at least included the proverbial white picket fence.
So here I was in the midst of a raging adult size storm that consisted of hectic family financial challenges, serious health issues, a work stress melt down – ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Let me repeat – ALL AT THE SAME TIME. How was I supposed to cope? I really hadn’t signed up for any of it. It was surreal. Being the person that I am – a go-getter, take the bull by the horn, type A personality, I immediately went into action mode. I mapped out how the situations would be sorted out, what all the parties involved needed to do and by when. It gave me a sense of control.
Humour me for a little bit. Wouldn’t it be great if we could control stuff and people, if we could map out our lives? If we could determine from where and when we would graduate (Yale with no failed courses of course), who our first employer would be (a blue chip company), when and where we would meet our BAE (at age 23 on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean), what BAE would look like (think Dr Avery from Grey’s), when BAE would propose (I ain’t dating you for 7 years!), the gender of our kids (a ‘perfect pigeon pair’ of course), etc. You get the picture? Unfortunately, that’s not real life. If you are on the wrong side of 25 you have probably started understanding how real life actually works. It’s peppered with break-ups, divorces and loneliness, infertility and miscarriages, cancer and accidents, dead-end jobs and horrible bosses, budgets that refuse to budget and a stagnant economy. Sigh.
Now back to me and my stormy life, I had one slight problem – okay not so slight – one HUGE challenge – I wasn’t in control of any of it except for my own responses. BOO. And boy it did it become apparent. The work colleagues that I hoped would be supportive and help me with my many deadlines offered no assistance; they actually made things worse. The business ventures that I hoped would bring relief financially were not working out. The health issues got worse and came with more bills to be paid. Argh. I was stumped. Now what? The fussing and fighting weren’t working. The jumping and shouting didn’t do the trick either. People weren’t doing what I wanted them to do and my stress and anxiety levels were sky high. In the midst of this melee snuck in the idea of acceptance: God, 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.
I realised I needed to figure out what acceptance was. I had an inkling that perhaps my understanding of acceptance was somewhat warped, which made me resistant to the notion. Did acceptance mean getting over the emotions I was feeling – the fear, anxiety or sadness? Did it mean placing silver linings on obviously dark clouds? Did it mean minimizing the significance of what I was going through and denying how I was feeling about it? Did it mean approving of others’ bad behaviour? Did it mean doing nothing at all about anything that was going on? No. With time, I began to realise that acceptance actually looked more like being willing to acknowledge what was, without resisting or denying it. It meant acknowledging what had happened and also accepting that certain individuals in my life had specific traits (desirable or not). Acceptance meant facing the reality as it was being presented to me so that I could make decisions on how to respond to this reality. Whatever was happening was happening; whatever had happened had already happened and resisting my reality wouldn’t make it go away. It meant knowing exactly what I could change and what I couldn’t and accepting this.
Why was it so hard though? Why did it seem so impossible? Firstly, it went against my nature – I am a fighter by nature. I want to fix stuff and take charge of situations (and people). I am also opinionated as heck and I’m ashamed to admit it, but pretty judgmental too (yeah, I’m one of those judgey types). Ultimately, it’s hard for me not to jump into a situation to try and change it, I want people to do what I want them to do and to respond the way I would have them at the time that I think is best. Now these things go against the very concept of acceptance. How could I say I accepted someone when ultimately, I was trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do regardless of how they felt about it?
Although I realised how hard it would be to gain and maintain acceptance, I inherently knew that it would be good for me. I had gotten to a point of being completely emotionally drained. I was in fight mode all the time and it wasn’t doing me any good. Acceptance would mean I would focus on the aspects I could actually control instead of wasting time and energy fighting the realities that I couldn’t change no matter how hard I tried. An example of these realities was the fact that one of my colleagues has dangerously low EQ levels. She literally doesn’t know how to treat people – along the lines of the boss lady in the devil wears Prada. The reality is I couldn’t and can never change her. I had a choice to continue to stew and mull angrily over her ‘cray cray’ or I could accept her for who she actually is and I could rather focus my energy on working on my response to her behaviour and praying for strength and the presence of mind to treat her respectfully while asserting my boundaries.
My new strategy of accepting this colleague would actually make a lot of sense as acceptance is an important step in building meaningful relationships with others and promoting peace (and God knows I needed peace). As humans, we are sometimes quick to make judgements about whether we can or cannot forge a friendship or relationship with others because of one or two of their traits that rub us the wrong way. Perhaps the first time you met this person they were having a bad day or their annoying brashness overshadowed their other awesome characteristics. Shoving them away may therefore mean missing an opportunity to make a meaningful connection with them. You don’t want to miss out on a relationship with someone just because you can’t get past something trivial (if you are lucky) and sometimes not so trivial (which just makes taking them for who they are all the more difficult).
Acceptance would also mean living more in the moment and as a result being more grateful. The problem with fighting things you can’t control is you spend so much time in the past (“What could I have done differently to make sure this situation didn’t happen?”) or in the future (strategizing next moves to change things) and you spend too little time in the moment, soaking in and allowing yourself to enjoy and to be grateful for the NOW. It’s hard to be grateful when you are so focused on the past and the future that you barely have a moment to be thankful for what you have and be present in the now. I have realised that outside of this particularly painful season, I have generally spent too much of my life not allowing myself to enjoy the now. There has always been (and always will be) stuff to regret and stuff to worry about, that I have in a sense felt guilty for actually enjoying the moment. An example of this would be struggling to enjoy a cute thing that my kid did because in that moment of enjoyment I would perhaps think of a friend who is struggling to conceive and I would immediately feel guilty. In a way, I had told myself that I could only truly enjoy my kids if all my loved ones who wanted kids, had kids. Another sigh. I also see now that acceptance doesn’t only lie at the centre of just ‘being’, being at peace and living in the now. It doesn’t only matter when we are dealing with difficult people or life circumstances. No. It is so critical to a successful inner life that it ought to be a basic tenet of our life philosophy. There are some things that are removed from our daily life that still require us to accept them. They may be in the past or they may relate to the fact that life is generally, unfair and cruel. And just because these things don’t all happen to us, it doesn’t mean we don’t feel sad or empathise with those to whom they happen. But sometimes, there is such a thing as too much empathy. It’s a characteristic of us ‘feelers’. We feel everything too much, too deeply and too critically. It can bog us down and we start down the dangerous rabbit hole of the whys and the inequitableness of life. And well, the problem with that expedition is that a lot of those questions just don’t have satisfactory answers to them. We often do not find them and are left feeling even more out of whack and defeated.
And so, acceptance sometimes also means or involves carefully managing our admirable and necessary altruism for our own peace and wellbeing, which (like it or not) always ought to come first on our list of priorities. Because it is true that we are less efficient and useful to the world when our inner life is in a constant tumble and spin. Number one matters most. I do feel sad that I have wasted many moments of joy because of this trait. I can’t fix the world and the stars will never be completely aligned – mine is just to accept reality but ALSO choose to enjoy the parts of that reality that are actually enjoyable!
I am looking forward to healing and recovering from the painful parts of my life by accepting what has taken place and there is unfortunately so much to accept, LOL (not). An example of a situation or reality I sadly have to ‘move past’ and accept is relationships with cousins that I grew up so close to that have gone completely left field. If you are like me (an African with a big extended family), you probably have ‘cousin brothers’ and ‘cousin sisters’ who you spent school holidays with at your Gogo’s house. These peeps were like your siblings (the word cousin was taboo in our family) and you shared many experiences together as they were your original day ones. That’s how things were with these cousins of mine; we were so tight. I would never have imagined that in our thirties, years could roll by with absolutely no contact. Like zero. That’s literally what happened with us. From out of the blue, all contact was cut and the crazy thing is I still don’t know why. How could things have gotten to this point? Where was the future I had taken for granted – a future where we would continue to share our hopes and dreams, and be each other’s biggest cheerleaders? It’s a difficult pill to swallow and reality to accept because there was (and still is) so much love there, and the childhood experiences consist of a number of wonderful life-defining moments whose significance can not be diminished or memory erased. And so I guess that what I’m also learning is that a large part of acceptance is letting go. We have to learn to let go of bad (or even good) things that have gone on. Sometimes, we want to keep flogging a dead horse or force something to work so hard, much to our own detriment, even when objectively speaking, the thing is dead. Dead. We have to let go of the hopes and dreams we had for it, and sometimes, of the hope and quest even for (much important) closure. Sometimes, we have to find and give ourselves our own closure. This can be a very difficult kind or aspect of acceptance. But it’s part of adulting. Grieving a death (any kind) is difficult. From afar, acceptance can be such a daunting thing, because who wants to accept that something or someone we cherish and love has died? No one. No one wants to accept that. But when we allow ourselves to, acceptance has a strange way of working its magic to not only firmly root us in (an often painful) reality but also restore much-needed peace and eventually, even joy. There is power and liberation in surrendering to the ebbs and flows of life because you cannot sustain always fighting it. You just can’t.
I know learning and choosing acceptance is going to be a lifelong process and I will be given plenty of opportunities to practice. With clarity about what it means to accept and what effect it has on my well-being, I am looking forward to approaching my life experiences differently. I am looking forward to more peace and gratitude and enjoying my present. I hope the same for you too.