Wisdom of Positive Acceptance
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
We are constantly torn between the pull of reality
and the push towards ever rising expectations. The art of living
often revolves around how to manage this eternal conflict. Our well-being
depends on our capacity to achieve a proper balance between these
two opposing forces.
If we simply throw up our arms and capitulate
to circumstances, we will likely live out our lives in a self-made
prison of despair and depression. On the other hand, if we ignore
reality in pursuit of blind ambition, we may end up in disillusionment
or, worse still, in heart-breaking defeat.
Two kinds of inner voices constantly demand
One set of voices say:
- You have done too many bad things in your
life; you have hurt too many people. There is no more hope of
redemption for you.
- You have been a chronic drinker most of your
adult life. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. You will never
find complete recovery.
- Have a close-up look into the mirror, and
see the telltale signs of aging. Just admit that you are over
the hill and all washed-up. Better pack it in and retire.
- You have been suffering from depression,
your physical health is poor, and your academic record is not
good. You will never become a medical doctor.
- You have been defeated so many times. Your
political career is finished. Better forget about the idea of
running for President.
Another set of voices say:
- There is always hope of redemption for everyone,
- You can be completely delivered from alcohol,
only if you have enough faith and try hard enough.
- Never mind about age. You can always start
a new career, no matter how old you are.
- Forget about your past records and present
conditions. You can become anything you want, if you put your
heart into it.
- Remember Abraham Lincoln or Richard Nixon?
Just keep on trying and eventually you will fulfill your Presidential
Which set of voices do you pay more attention
to? The former is solidly based on facts and reality, but very demoralizing.
The later is very appealing and encouraging, but seems improbable.
What are the risks of listening to only one set of voices?
The risk of acceptance
Reality is rarely exciting. It is the drudgery
of chores, the boredom of sameness, the banality of evil, triumph
of the wicked, oppression of the weak, violent death of the innocent,
the constant drum beat of bad news, the burden of guilt and shame,
the black hole of aborted efforts, the silent scream, and the shadow
Life can be lonely and painful for both the
downtrodden and the rich and famous. There is nothing about the
world in which we live that brings joy to our hearts and solace
to our souls.
We may want to buy in the optimistic ideology
that human beings are good and resourceful, and that through our
ingenuity and technology, we can create a utopia. However, if we
live long enough, sooner or later, the sheen will be scrubbed out
of the glittering shams of progress, and we will be shocked to the
sober realization of evil.
Evil never dies. It only shows up in disguises
- the religious garbs of egomaniac spiritual leaders, the political
correctness of politically motivated social engineers, the wedding
game of money and lust, the displacement of the poor in the name
of progress, the constant whitewash of shameful deeds, the shell-game
of propriety, and the vast conspiracy of silence regarding the existence
All of a sudden, I catch myself spewing out
the above words of cynicism and pessimism. Is it because I have
experienced and witnessed too many bad things? Is this bleak picture
a true reflection of human history and human nature?
It can be disturbing and depressing to see oneself
stark naked and to gaze into one's own glaring faults. It can be
even more demoralizing to be confronted with the dark underbellies
of civilized life and the heart of darkness of humanity.
Such is the risk of accepting life in all its
sorrows, woes and dreariness.
Such is the risk of accepting ourselves, with all our handicaps,
flaws and brokenness.
Who can blame us for seeking distractions and addictions to reduce
our psychic pains? How can we resist the seduction of self-improvement?
The risk of self-improvement
Olivia Goldsmith, the 54-year old author of
The First Wives Club, died on Jan 7, 2004, after her facelift went
terribly wrong. She never regained consciousness from the anesthetic
used, while having plastic surgery to remove skin from under her
It is ironical that someone, who once declared:
"My sole goal in life is to change the culture so that older women
are perceived as full beings", at the end succumbed to the pressure
of a young-obsessed culture. She paid with her life for wanting
to look better than her age.
She is simply one of the thousands of casualties
of the makeover mania that is sweeping across North America.
Even men can no longer resist the allure of a makeover. The so-called
"metrosexual" men have spent billions of dollars on aesthetic plastic
surgery, waxing, and colouring. The most notorious example is Michael
Jackson, who has totally reconstructed his face and changed the
pigmentation of his skin. Recently, the sudden disappearance of
horizontal lines on Senator John Kerry's forehead has raised queries
about Botox and its impact on his electability to be President.
Think about that -- a facelift can be an instant
ticket to radical self-improvement. It also has the potential of
changing your fortune. It allows you to fulfill your lifetime dream
of looking like a movie star. Some men want to have the check bones
of Johnny Depp or the lips of Jude Law. Many women would love to
have Audrey Heyburn's eyes, Nicole Kidman's nose or Jennifer Lopez's
curves. No problem. You can buy a brand new look specially designed
But there are always health risks, including
the risk of death. You may even end up looking like a weird freak.
Yet, an increasing number of women and men willingly
surrender themselves to plastic surgeons' knifes. Does a makeover
change their lives for the better? Can extreme and total makeovers
solve their personal problems? Can the high priests of plastic surgery
save them from suffering and aging?
The makeover mania is just a small part of the
huge self-improvement industry, which includes self-help gurus,
motivational speakers, Hollywood Moguls, religious preachers, counsellors,
psychologists, plastic surgeons and a wide array of supporting cast.
The self-improvement movement is actually the
product of a culture obsessed with progress and materialism. We
believe that everything is infinitely improvable. We need perpetual
innovation and progress to stay ahead of our competitions. We need
to create demands for better and newer products in order to fuel
the insatiable economy engine.
Yet the super-highway to the promised land of
progress is littered with broken dreams, wasted lives and displaced
victims. Worse still, in our relentless efforts to be richer, prettier,
faster, stronger, sexier and happier, we may lose our humanity.
We need to pause and ask ourselves: Is change
always good for us? Is progress always desirable? What are the dangers
of free market economy and unbridled consumerism? What are the risks
of positive psychology? What do we gain if we win the whole world
but lose our souls?
The wisdom of positive acceptance
It boils down to these fundament existential
questions: How shall we live? How do we resolve the conflict between
pessimism and optimism? How do we balance the competing voices clamoring
for our attention? How can we rise above the darkness that engulfs
The key to answering these questions is acceptance,
the right kind of acceptance.
When properly understood, acceptance is neither
fatalism, nor resignation; neither pessimism, nor helplessness.
It is the capacity to adapt to circumstances and live the best one
can within these constraints. It is the wisdom of expecting the
worst, hoping for the best, and being prepared for whatever may
come. It is the genius of embracing the bad, and discovering the
good hidden in it. It is the defiant human spirit to shine in the
This kind of acceptance is positive, because
it accepts the negative without losing faith in the positive. Dr.
Viktor Frankl, survivor of Nazi death camps, and founder of logotherapy,
has maintained that even in the most horrible circumstances, one
can still discover positive meanings, and maintain a sense of wonder
at the beauty of nature and the courage of the human spirit.
Lao Tzu in Tao
Te Ching (Chapter 8) observes: "Human virtue, at its best,
is like water, which nurtures all things quietly without contenting
with anything. It flows to places despised by all, yet by staying
there, it stays close to Tao."
picture in your mind a river quietly meandering through the war-ravaged
landscape. Life gradually springs up along the riverbanks, once
soaked in blood. Little wild flowers raise their heads in the midst
of debris, twisted metals and broken glasses. A sense wonder and
sacredness hovers over the mystic river as it flows into the glorious
setting sun. Life can roll like a river!
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, "In the
broadest sense, a Taoist attitude toward life can be seen in the
accepting and yielding, the joyful and carefree sides of the Chinese
character." We all can learn something from the Taoist way of acceptance.
The Serenity Prayer penned by Reinhold
Niebuhr, a Christian theologian, expresses a similar sentiment:
"God grant me -
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
Perhaps, the most powerful feature of the 12-step
program of Alcoholics Anonymous is its embrace of the Serenity Prayer:
accepting the fact that I am an alcoholic, that I have messed up
my life, and yet having the courage to affirm that through God's
help, I can make amends and choose a life of sobriety.
Indeed, blessed are those who accept what cannot
be changed and then move forward by faith. It is only through positive
acceptance that we can experience inner peace and contentment, even
in the midst of adversities and traumas. It is through accepting
life's suffering that we can gain enlightenment, as Buddha has taught
us. It is through realizing our own spiritual bankruptcy, that we
can find redemption in Christ, according to the Bible. It is through
confronting and embracing 'ground zero' that we can we erect the
twin towers of courage and hope out of the aches of death.
Acceptance without affirmation leads to depression,
whereas affirmation without acceptance leads to disillusionment.
Positive acceptance incorporates elements from both realistic acceptance
and idealistic affirmation - two key elements of tragic optimism.
Here are some examples of realistic acceptance:
- There are no answers to my suffering and
- Life is full of adversities and suffering
- Bad things happen to all of us
- Some people will hate us for no reasons
- Life is basically tragic
- Some of my needs may never be met
- Some of my cherished dreams may never be
- I have been dealt a few rotten cards, but
I must work with what I have got
- There will always be injustice and discrimination
- I know my limitations and weaknesses
- There will always be a gap between where
I am and where I want to be
- Human existence is full of meaninglessness,
alienation, despair, and fear of death
- Evil will be forever with us in this world
- No social, political reform can ever solve
the human problems of greed and selfishness
- The human heart is deceitful and beyond cure
Here are examples of idealistic affirmation:
- What cannot kill me makes me stronger
- Suffering is our best teacher
- I can learn wisdom from my misfortunes
- I can transcend pain and suffering
- With God, all things are possible
- God's strength is made perfect in my weakness
- Life can be tragically beautiful, full of
wonders and grace
- I am not perfect, but I know that I can learn
- I may never reach my destination, but it
is the direction and the journey that really count
- We can discover meaning, community, hope
and faith in spite of our existential anxieties
- Eventually, good will prevail over evil
- Love is stronger than death
- There is always a way out
- There is healing and redemption for broken
- Enlightenment is available to those who seek
- Grace is available to those who receive it
- Today can be the beginning of a new life
- Tomorrow can be a better day
- God can create a new heart in us
Once we understand our own limitations and the
human condition, acceptance is sure to follow. When we are able
to accept the unchangeable reality and yet affirm life's possibilities,
we begin to learn the wisdom of living and experiencing true freedom.
When we accept ourselves unconditionally, we will be at peace with
ourselves, with others and with God, free from all the fears and
defenses that have imprisoned us.
King Solomon declares: "Utterly meaninglessness!
Everything is meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Yet, after considering
everything under the sun, he concludes: "Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes, 11:13).This is
indeed the beginning of wisdom.
Acceptance, together with contentment and humility,
constitutes what I call the positive psychology of weakness. This
stands in stark contrast to the positive psychology of strength,
such as control, competence, and optimal functioning. Both Taoism
and Christianity teach the paradoxical truth that weakness can be
stronger than strength.
The psychology of weakness is equivalent to
Tai Chi in martial arts. An aging Tai Chi master, in spite of his
apparent frail old age, can defeat the strongest and the best Karate
expert. This has been demonstrated over and over again. Similarly,
we are more likely to overcome adversities and suffering, when we
have learned the positive existential psychology of acceptance,
contentment and humility.
Do you feel trapped by your circumstances? Are
you fed up with your own inadequacies? Are you sick and tired of
being exploited and used by others? Are you disillusioned by all
the false hopes? Then, listen to the whisper of wisdom: You
can discover the true strength for living only through confronting
and accepting your own weaknesses and limitations.