Penned by Rienhold Niebuhr and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, the Serenity Prayer has been guiding people for decades. The most commonly used version of it goes like this: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
The wisdom contained in this succinct but powerful invocation is timeless, and its central premise resonates with almost everyone. On some level, we all know how important it is to accept the things we cannot change. What the research shows, and most of our experiences validate, is that our willingness to accept the unchangeable has a great deal to do with our emotional and psychological well-being. Whether we’re talking about a financial crisis, a health diagnosis, the loss of an important relationship, or any other unanticipated, unpleasant event, fighting what is won’t make it not so. Instead, when we do battle with reality, we cripple our capacity to cope with the situation and manage all the emotions we experience in response to it.
A big part of healing and recovering from the painful parts of life is accepting what’s taken place. In order to move on, we must first acknowledge what’s happening now. But, as all of us know, this is much easier said than done. Despite being one of the most important life hacks any of us can master, the practice of acceptance is enduringly difficult.
Where many of us get stuck is that we start out with a warped understanding of what acceptance is and how it works. We think that accepting something means getting over it. But this isn’t the case. Being willing to accept that someone we love has died, for example, doesn’t mean skipping the grief process or seeking to place a silver lining on an obviously dark cloud. It doesn’t mean minimizing the significance of what happened or how you’re feeling about it. It simply means being willing to acknowledge what is, without resisting or denying it.
Another major source of confusion shows up when whatever we’re accepting involves somebody else. Let’s say, for instance, that your partner has a temperament that can be terrifying. He loses his cool easily and often, and you frequently end up being the target of his rage. You know from things his mother has shared with you that he’s always been this way, and his friends tell a similar story. Whenever you speak to him about it, he always seems to justify his behavior, saying, “That’s the way I’ve always been. It’s never going to change.”
You know that what’s happening doesn’t feel right, but you keep convincing yourself to stick it out, hoping that things will change. Acceptance, in this example, would be a necessary step toward deciding whether or not this relationship is right for you. If you fail to accept this undesirable quality in your partner, you’ll suffer deeply every time it rears its ugly head. You’ll experience confusion, frustration, and anger, and your desire for things to be different will make it difficult for you to connect with what’s happening here and now.
Did the suggestion that you should accept a partner’s pattern of explosive episodes make you uncomfortable? If that’s the case, you might be confusing acceptance with approval. And, you see, the two are not the same. Acceptance is acknowledging what’s already happened; approval is consenting to more of it in the future. To accept that the person you’re in a committed relationship with has a side to him that causes harm to you doesn’t mean that you’re okay with it or want it to keep happening. It simply means that you’re facing reality as it’s being presented to you so you can make a decision about how to proceed.
Failing to accept reality creates suffering where there’s already pain. It creates confusion where there can be clarity, anguish where there can be peace. We don’t accept things in order to change what’s happening, nor do we do it in order to feel better about it. We accept because it’s the only logical thing to do. Whatever is happening is happening; whatever occurred already occurred. We embrace reality because it’s already here, right now, and resisting it won’t make it go away.
Learning acceptance is a lifelong process, and we’re guaranteed to be given plenty of opportunities to practice. With clarity about what it means to accept and what effect it has on our well-being, we can approach our experiences differently, perhaps experiencing different results. What becomes possible when you release your ideas about what should be and embrace what is instead? I invite you to explore what new and unexpected things happen when you start accepting reality on reality’s terms.