I’m not very good at acceptance. I’m one who has made a practice of swimming against the tide.
The good news is that my unwillingness to accept (or “settle” as I often think of it) stems from my firm belief that I’m in the driver’s seat of my life, that if I don’t like the circumstances I find myself in, I can change them. Consequently, I rarely feel like a victim, I hardly ever feel helpless, and while I can rail against the Universe as well as the next (wronged) person, I don’t tend to stay in that railing space. I’m really good at plotting courses and executing plans and getting the hell out of Dodge when Dodge is making me unhappy.
The bad news is that that strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes Dodge isn’t a place you can exit, and you are forced to accept a new reality, and in those situations, I just plain suck. Instead of acceptance, I lose myself in an endless parade of “if only things weren’t this way” thoughts. I ache for a different reality, and I waste incredible amounts of energy imagining it, longing for it, pining for a thing that simply does not exist. If only Chad’s start-up were further along. If only money weren’t such a constant issue. If only I’d been brave enough to build a career around my art 10 (20, 30) years ago. If only The Boy weren’t two thousand miles away. If only my sister-in-law (who is not the problem) didn’t need to live with us right now. If only my parents weren’t getting older (and for that matter, me too). If only things were not the way they are.
I’m reminded of another diving story. Funny how many lessons I learned from my scuba certification training, especially since, in the end, I was the only one in the class who didn’t get certified. Before we’d ever moved out of the pool and into the ocean, my ear started painfully plugging. No amount of careful descent or ear-unplugging techniques seemed to help. Halfway through the course, I went to the doctor and he diagnosed me with a “malfunctioning eustachian tube.” He said it would be dangerous to dive if I couldn’t get my ear unplugged, and he assured me I would not be able to get my ear unplugged.
“There must be something we can do,” I said, “something we can try.”
He said, “I don’t know any voodoo magic.”
On the night before the big dive, I brought all my equipment to the hotel, and all through the night, I kept getting up and checking on my ear. It wasn’t cleared, but in the morning I dragged all my equipment down to the beach. I put on my wet suit. I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t going to do the thing I’d set out to do, or, more accurately, conquer the fear I’d set out to conquer. (In fact, some part of me believed that I’d conjured the ear trouble out of thin air because I was deathly afraid to dive in the ocean. Doctor’s diagnosis be damned.) The instructor (rightfully) turned me away at the shoreline, and I watched all my classmates (including Chad and The Boy) get certified without me.
I was furious. I found it hard to celebrate with everyone afterward. I felt cheated, and for weeks, I couldn’t let it go. The class was over and done, but I could not stop thinking about it. I’d failed spectacularly, and all I could think of was “if only I hadn’t.” If only my ear had been okay. If only I’d done a better job of clearing it in the pool. If only I weren’t panicky every time I got underwater. Ultimately, it was THAT reality I had to accept. Even with a perfect eustachian tube, I’d be terrified and prone to panicky mistakes. Thirty feet underwater is not a smart place for someone like me to be. When (about a year after the fact) I finally accepted that, things got better. The reality of my not being a diver was something I could live with, and I found other fears to conquer.
Obviously, a lot of what we have to accept in life isn’t that easy – medical realities, the absences of people we love, financial hardship, relationships that drain us. Not all of it is fixable and when it’s not, acceptance is the key to moving on. I think that’s the part I’ve always missed before – that, in the words of Michael J. Fox, acceptance is not resignation. I’m learning (slowly, and with the pain that comes from stupidly knocking my head against the same damn wall) that acceptance is often the first step of evolution. Things are what they are; now how do I thrive when things are like this?
That’s my question these days, because swimming against the tide is exhausting, and I don’t want to waste any more energy doing it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the fine line between accepting what can’t be changed, and becoming complacent with less than you deserve. Recognizing the difference, I think, is the key to my getting better at the art of acceptance.