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 our attention.
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, including Hitler.
- 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 dream.
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 of death.
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 of evil.
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 neck.
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 for you.
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 us?
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 darkest night.
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.”
Just 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 pain
- 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 fulfilled
- 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 and improve
- 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 lives
- Enlightenment is available to those who seek it
- Grace is available to those who receive it by faith
- 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.