It may seem strange, but often the first step we need to take towards making any inner or outer change is acceptance. Usually we are stuck in some way because we are not willing to accept the reality of our situation, our limitations, past failings, or the consequences of what we think we desire. Too often we see acceptance as passive and weak. But if this is so, why is acceptance so hard to do?
Active acceptance is actually a very positive higher quality that requires a strong and skillful will. Recently, I had a woman come to see me who was struggling with her relationship with her younger sister. While growing up as the eldest daughter in a large family of nine children, Ann (not her real name) often played the role of mother to her siblings. This was especially true with her sister Liz who was 10 years younger.
Both women are now married with children of their own and living in Germany, far from their native home of Kenya. Since Liz is Ann’s only relative living near by, she particularly longed to have a relationship with her. But the two had different friends and interests, and Liz did not really share Ann’s desire to be close. Ann would invite Liz’s little girl to spend the weekend, but Liz never invited Ann’s little boy. Ann would have Liz and her family over for birthday celebrations, but Liz never reciprocated this exchange. On top of this, Ann felt that Liz was never happy for her success or interested in her well-being.
All of this had led to their barely speaking for more than six months. Naturally, Ann felt sad and a bit angry about this. She was also upset because not having contact with her sister also meant that her son was no longer in contact with his little cousin. When I asked Ann what she ultimately wanted, she spoke about having a strong and loving relationship with her sister, one that fostered mutual respect and care. We then explored all the ways Ann could reach out to her sister and reestablish a relationship. But every possibility that Ann thought of seemed to lead to her being hurt by her sister again. At least for now, Ann decided that it might be better to not reach out to her sister.
So what did Ann want? Ann missed her niece and wanted to at least see her. So now we explored how Ann might engage with her sister’s daughter. Could she try to have the daughter come over once a month? This would mean going to Liz’s home and coming in for tea and a chat, once more putting Ann in an uncomfortable position. Could Ann accept having tea and superficial chit-chat for the sake of her family spending time with the little girl? No, Ann could not. At least not for now…
So there was nothing left to do, but to accept the situation. Ann had to also accept her feelings, her decisions, and the consequences of her decision. The way of acceptance takes patience, courage and a deep sincerity. None of these are weak or passive qualities!
To help with this, I guided Ann as she meditated on the word acceptance. I then asked her to allow an image to come to her that might embody this word. “Take the first image that comes to you,” I said. “Don’t push it away. Don’t try to change it.” Ann actually had trouble accepting the first image that popped into her head! But the image was so strong that she finally did accept it.
She saw herself sitting next to a beautiful Kenyan river. The sunlight was dancing on the slowly moving ripples. As Ann sat under a tree, she watched the river linger by. “Sometimes the river is full of fish,” she said, “and sometimes it has rubbish floating in it. But for now, all I need to do is watch it float by me and disappear downstream. Nothing more and nothing less.”
Assagioli wrote about acceptance after he spent time in prison in 1940 under the fascist regime. He said that acceptance begins with a conscious, generous recognition of the reality of our lives. He wrote:
“Everything must be accepted only as raw life material to be worked upon, transmuted, utilized… A spiritual attitude when faced with difficulties is to accept the trial with benevolence. To ask what its message is and try to see its significance. Ask: ‘What can I build on top of this?’”
The message of Ann’s “River of Acceptance” seemed to be: Trust your own feelings, protect yourself from negativity, and learn to surrender the things that you cannot personally change.
Special thanks to Ann for letting me share her story.