The Doctrine of Radical Acceptance

One of my core organizing principles is that the only way is forward. When you’re tired, keep going. When it gets hard, keep going. When you fail, start over. Keep going. Sometimes this is difficult, but it’s the only way. This is true on the trail, and it’s true in life.

In light of this basic idea, self-pity is one of my worst vices. In different times, I rode the downward spiral of self-pity into some serious psycho-emotional trauma. Self-inflicted defeats. Maudlin inertia. Long term depression.

Fortunately, I know better now. The siren song of self-pity still rings in my ears occasionally, but I ignore it.

What changed?

I don’t want to bore you with the long, torturous tale of my recovery from addiction, although I probably will at some point. But, 12-step programs have to deal with self-pity as a primary character defect of self-destructive people, and there is a particular passage, in the vast cannon of recovery lit, that I have turned to more than any other to aid my ability to move forward through life. It goes like this (edited by me for brevity and to omit some stuff I don’t buy):

“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...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.”

I have not ever read a more complete and succinct statement of how to live a good life. This is The Doctrine of Radical Acceptance, applicable to any and every moment in my life, if only I could apply it in all those moments instead of thinking of it after the fact, once I’ve already detoured down the road of self-pity and magical thinking.

On the trail, at the thin end of my resources, when the sweat is running down my shins and my heart rate refuses to plane, I get angry. I wish myself someplace else, or better, someone else, someone stronger, someone more patient, more stoic, more experienced, or even just someone sitting in a chair. That’s when I engage in fervent magical thinking, trying to will my heart to a more settled place. That’s when I wish the sun would fall from the sky and leave me in a cooler, drier place. In those moments, I could implode.

But if the only way is forward, then I have to accept it all and go on.

Listen, life is non-linear. Sometimes you’re living your best life, and then things take a hard turn for the worse. Loved ones get sick, maybe die. Your kids struggle. Depression sets in, from nowhere, and it takes everything you’ve got to get back on track. That’s how it goes.

The Doctrine of Radical Acceptance says, so what? What are you going to do about it? If you can’t do something about it, acknowledge it and move on. The only way is forward.