I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down with a friend (and blog reader) from Denver this weekend. In our time together, she asked me to say a little more about the concept of acceptance that I wrote about last week.
Let me begin by sharing the paragraph I had posted that was taken from a source called The Big Book from AA. I’ll highlight in bold italics the part that can be particularly tough to understand.
“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes” (page 417).
Let me start by putting those words into the context of an addiction. Then I’ll step back and see if those words might have anything to offer in other situations as well.
For many addicts, their lives are driven by a thing called expectations. They have a sense of how things are SUPPOSED to be. When things don’t turn out the way they want, those expectations produce something called resentments. It is those resentments that often cause an individual to use their circumstance as an excuse to engage in their compulsive behavior. Let me give you a couple examples.
A person might find her or himself trapped in a loveless or violent relationship. “This isn’t the way things were supposed to be. Everyone else has a good relationship, why don’t I?” They then resort to compulsive behaviors like drinking or eating in order to escape their misery.
Another person might find her or himself stuck in a dead-end job. “My career wasn’t supposed to unfold like this. I was supposed to be running a regional branch by now, not working a stupid desk job.” Their frustration and rage over their situation might get channel in the direction of a compulsive behavior and they act out to reward themselves for having to put up with this situation.
In each circumstance, the addictive cycle began when the individual focuses on how life was supposed to be: not how their life really was. This obsessive focus on their fantasy of how things SHOULD be causes them NOT to be present to their reality. Instead, they use a substance (or an expression of relationship) to numb the pain of their resentments.
It’s only when individuals can summon the strength to first look at – and then accept – their situation that the individual can be empowered to deal with their situation in a head on fashion. Let me return to the examples I used to show you what I mean.
The person in a loveless or violent relationship might say, “The relationship in which I find myself is the product of the decisions I’ve made. So, what is it that caused me to be enter into the relationship (or causes me to remain stuck in the relationship) – and how might I make different choices in order to find myself in a different circumstance?”
Similarly, the person in the dead-end job might say, “Why do I find myself in this unsatisfying situation? What could I do to address my dissatisfaction in my current job – or what would it take to pursue another opportunity that would be more fulfilling?”
You’ll notice that in both instances I laid out, neither individual focused on the other party in processing the circumstance. The person in the loveless or violent relationship, for instance, didn’t focus on their partner; nor did the person in the dead-end job blame her or his supervisor or corporate culture. Instead, the 12 Steps work challenges individuals to honestly focus on the situation and the role she or he played in creating the situation.
“Okay, I can see the value in acknowledge the reality of a situation,” you might be thinking, “but why do they have to take it the next step and say things are SUPPOSED to be the way they are? Is anyone SUPPOSED to be in a loveless or violent relationship? Is anyone supposed to be miserable in a dead-end job?”
On the surface, the obvious answer would be, “Of course not!” But here’s the thing about life. Many of us are unable to learn lessons when the circumstances of our lives are easy. It’s only when the bottom starts to drop out in our lives that we are forced to look at things that we would otherwise NEVER look at. In the 12-Step movement, they call these moments when the bottom drops out “hitting bottom”.
Many program participants come to see those moments of pain and agony as the best thing that ever happened to them: for hitting bottom caused them to first face, and then deal with things they would have otherwise never dealt with. They will say shocking things like, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when I lost my job due to my drinking?” or “My life began to take on meaning when my loved one said, ‘Either you deal with your eating problem, or I’m out of here.’ Those moments forced me to do the work that I would have otherwise NEVER done!”
That’s why the 12-Step literature suggests things are the way they are supposed to be: even when the circumstances of our lives are awful.
As a Christian, I recognize that concept as it sounds a lot like the dynamics of Holy Week. You can’t just run to the Resurrection energies of new life on your spiritual journey. If you truly want to understand and appreciate those resurrection energies of Easter, you have to live through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (i.e. the pain, the suffering, and expressions of death) first. THEN it’s possible to know new life.
I hope my ramblings this morning helped you better understand those words about acceptance. And if they didn’t resonate completely with you, you can follow the advice of many 12-Step participants: “Take what works for you and leave the rest.”