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.


  1. A problem that one could run into is people who have a negative behavior, say “I did (fill in the blank) so it does not matter anymore because (fill in the blank) so no need to change. In effect the past behavior is perpetuated because of acceptance.

    On the other hand, acceptance can be liberating, letting go of the energy, moving away from the past and doing what you have control of in the present. Leaving the past where it belongs, and living in the present moment allows you to make decisions not tied to a past behavior and thus making a positive change.
    .-= Angelina´s last blog ..Alarming but True =-.

  2. Hi Isabella,

    for example, a smoker might say, “I know someone who lived well into their eighties and smoked two packs a day.” Thus this gives them the justification they need to continue smoking. In effect accepting their current behavior as reasonable.

    I’m not sure if I am being clear. To put it another way, we almost need to understand that the behavior either in the past or present is destructive either to one’s self or to others before a positive change is possible.

    I agree, when you say “let’s accept what is, the reality we see right in front of us, as unfiltered as possible.” The question becomes whose reality?

  3. Hi Isabella, I really like the distinction between accepting the past and making choices for our future.

    I’d be interested if you have more to say about the move from the is to the ought. This is a big one for me. What is, it seems to me, does have limitations – and so sets a limit on what is possible. Does what is possible limit the ought? If I can’t do something does this mean that the ought has no claim on me. (Leaving aside, for the moment and perhaps illegitimately, how we establish what is possible). This is quite a tangle for me; I would like to hear anything you have to say.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..How to be Productive and Still be Kind to Yourself =-.

  4. great conversation!

    @angelina – you say

    a smoker might say, “I know someone who lived well into their eighties and smoked two packs a day.” Thus this gives them the justification they need to continue smoking.

    the problem, i’d say, lies in the “thus”. this is exactly the problem of jumping from the “is” (this is what happened) to the “ought” (therefore that is what SHOULD happen). what i’m saying (and what david hume said when he first pointed this out) is that there is nothing intrinnsic that forces us to jump from the “is” to the “ought”.

    when you say “whose reality” – i think in this context it may not matter so much. “this guy lived well into his eighties and yet smoked like a chimney” is a statement that was made in such a way as to imply that that statement was believed to be true (ie reality).

    @evan, i hope i understand you – can we use this as an example?

    “i can walk 4 miles an hour. since i believe this to be true, how can i believe that i could walk 5 miles and hour?”

    which brings up the question – are we talking about the “could” or the “ought”, or is it the sequence – is – could – ought?
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..understanding acceptance =-.

  5. I think part of it is the nuance of the word “accept”. In my lexicon, it does connote an “and I’m ok with it” sense. So I cannot accept the Residential Schools, for example. I can acknowledge that they existed, but will go to my grave with the tension of inwardly resisting that they existed. Is that a wasted energy? Or maybe it’s healthy to carry that tension?
    .-= nancy (aka moneycoach)´s last blog ..Econ 101: First the music industry. Then the media. Now, watches? =-.

  6. Hi Isabella, yes I’m asking about the ‘could’ and it’s ethical status and the relationship between it and the is and the ought. You put it well – better than I did.

    The bigger question I guess is how this move occurs and does this is affect the ought. I find there are a cluster of difficult issues (for me) here.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..How to be Productive and Still be Kind to Yourself =-.

  7. I think this is a really important concept – to be really clear what it means to accept something (the is v the should/should not).

    Putting energy into ‘not accepting something’ is often fighting with reality (I fight the ‘is’). It happened / is happening – that is the reality and if I don’t agree that it is reality then I’m going to get stressed in some way (angry, guilty, whatever).

    Much better to put my energy into closing the gap between what is and what I would like to happen. I don’t like ‘should’ as it implies there’s something ‘wrong’ with reality. I prefer to say I’d prefer something different.

    @Nancy – I don’t know who First Nation people are or what Residential Schools are but it sounds like you do agree (or accept) that they exist/existed. You’d have strongly preferred that they didn’t, feel sad about the pain they caused and that you’d really like to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
    .-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..The miracle of birth =-.

  8. Thanks for the link. However, just because the is-ought problem is called a problem doesn’t mean that you can’t say that people who make unwarranted jumps from is to ought are committing a fallacy. The term fallacy when refering to is-ought jumps has been used in at least one academic journal article: http://www.springerlink.com/content/h7n7w630r1l42547/ Hence, it is perfectly reasonable to call a misconception resulting from a relevant argument an “is-ought fallacy”. The reason it is called a problem is probably because it (if true) prevents us from making statements about morality that are based on reality which is jarring! For a definition of fallacy see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy
    .-= Dwielz Camauf Descartes´s last blog ..My Errors =-.

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