Tag Archives: is/ought

understanding acceptance

last month we had a conversation about acceptance, and i’d like to continue it.

evan said, “i think changing the world can be valuable, too.”

maybe there is no either/or between acceptance and making changes.

to accept comes from the latin, meaning to receive (as in “UPS delivered a parcel for you, and i accepted it”.) if we agree with that meaning, acceptance is about the past. changing the world (or ourselves, or our marriage, etc.) is about the future.

there is absolutely nothing we can do about the past (assuming, as i will for now, that we use the concepts of past, present and future in the ordinary, linear sense). the sun did shine five minutes ago, and i my father did die on august 21.

acceptance does not equate liking or condoning. i don’t have to like the fact that there was a time when i smoked two packs a day. and there is also no point in berating myself for having harmed myself that way, or in lying about it. yes, i used to smoke, sometimes a lot. yes, it made my hand shaky and my friends rolled their eyes when i absolutely had to go out to buy a pack at 11:30 at night. it’s not pretty but i accept it – that’s what the reality of it was. so there’s a strong connection between honesty and acceptance.

acceptance is not the same as fatalism. that relates to the idea that acceptance is about the past not the future. for example: “it used to be okay for teachers to beat students. that was a fact, and we can’t change it. it’s NOT ok for them to keep doing it.”

a common trap that we fall into in our thinking is when we jump without reflection between what is and what should (ought) be. in philosophy, that has been referred to as the “is/ought” problem (for those of you interested in the more intricate points of why this is referred to as a problem rather than a logical fallacy, see the meatyard). just because i say that yes, teachers used to beat students, and yes, i used to smoke (the “is”) does not mean that teachers ought to beat students and people ought to smoke.

from a logical point of view, that makes sense but emotionally it’s not that easy. in teaching, childraising, training, psychotherapy and other such tasks we rely heavily on modelling. we want people to look at what is and infer from it what they ought to do. we don’t swear in front of our 2-year-olds, and we encourage university students to read biographies – that’s modelling.

i believe the trick lies in the reflection. we can go from is to ought. but let’s not jump.

let’s accept what is, the reality we see right in front of us, as unfiltered as possible.

then stop. breathe. ask yourself the question: “inasmuch as i can, should i support and nurture a repetition of this reality, or should and can i do something to change it?”

if you can and want to do something about it, do something.

if not, don’t fret.

that’s acceptance, too.