On Acceptance: Setting a Face to Powerlessness

Autumn is a difficult time for me emotionally, mostly in that I have a lot of those things—what do you call them, emotions—which is something I’m still not entirely used to, and they take complex shades that resist easy categorization, the way a leaf is not just “orange” or “red” or even “brown” and never turns alone. This year, I have fresh anniversaries to contend with whenever I see a calendar, and the sensory-rich season threatens to evoke them with detritus-scented breezes and each crunched and rustled leaf. It is a time of feeling and loss, which is none of it bad, except that it threatens too to become a time of fear and anxiety, because I do not want to confront the past as past, loss as loss, pain as good. And so autumn is a season of acceptance.

“Acceptance” is a slippery word. Perhaps too often it takes a rather flimsy, semi-Stoical sense, as we accept a fact about the world, as I accepted at one point when I was young that I would never be played on stage by the Saturday Night Live Band and deliver the opening monologue. I didn’t take it hard; I just accepted it, like it flitted past my peripheral. Or, it sometimes takes a trite and oppressive meaning, as, “It was tragic, but you have to accept it and move on,” which is almost a way of saying, “Whether you accept this actually doesn’t matter, because the fact has already rolled over you and is two miles up the road and gaining, so better you just accept that your acceptance is irrelevant and be happy in your pancake world.” But between the acceptance you barely notice and the steamroller acceptance, I find there’s something in between more meaningful and more challenging. It’s the acceptance of facing and facing and facing. It’s an endless acceptance.

The first step of the 12-step program of recovery reads to the effect, “We admitted that we were powerless over addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s a step of acceptance. It’s rehearsed when I say, “Hi, my name is Brian, and I’m an addict.” Just so, I accept that I’m an addict, which means that I accept that I’m powerless over my addiction. Nobody likes this step, because to take it we don’t just have to say, “Hi, my name is . . .” We have to admit we don’t have all the control we want to believe; we can’t even fix ourselves. Nobody likes this step unless, like me, they enter the program thinking, “Admit powerlessness? Sure! Now I can finally have power over my addiction!” The problem is, 20-year vets of the program still say, “Hi, . . . I’m an addict.” Because each is still an addict. Because the idea of the program is that you don’t stop being an addict; you don’t stop being fundamentally powerless over the beast; you don’t stop recovering—recovering is recovery. Here, acceptance is something you confront, engage, live. In doing so, and only by doing so, the addict finds freedom.

I’ve thought of acceptance of powerlessness like accepting that the rules of a certain game are written so as to preclude your winning. You can “accept” that you’ve never won (0 for 10,0000 and counting), even that you can’t win, and you can still choose to keep playing. But if you really want to accept your sure and unchangeable defeat, you’ll stop playing and play something with rules that actually give you odds. Trying to beat addiction is like getting into the ring with an 800-pound gorilla. You will lose. 100% of the time. Do I know this for a prescient fact? No. (Maybe one day she’ll slip on one of her banana peels and knock herself out!) But if you don’t believe me, we can keep sending you in and see how that works out for you. I like to say, “Sure, maybe there’s a way for me to get the KO, but I haven’t discovered it yet, and I’m sick of getting laid out on the mat.” So we accept the loss, we take a humiliated bow, and we get out of the ring for a long-overdue retirement from the absurd sport of gorilla boxing. We learn to play a different game, an example of which the 12 steps provide the rules for. That’s freedom. At least, for my money, “You can go anywhere in the universe except inside one 25 x 25’ square that boxing ring sits on” is sufficient freedom for me.

I also think about the acceptance of death and powerlessness, namely as Jesus lived it and to which I believe all followers of his are called. The gospels indicate that it wasn’t necessarily an easy acceptance, not like the death of my SNL hosting dreams; nor was it an unwilling acceptance, like the advice to “move on, because time has.” Seized by soldiers in the garden, he acknowledged that he could save himself by legions of angels—were he only to call upon them—but he did not and let himself be led away. Only moments before he agonized over that very position he’d be in, saying, “Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.” (Dramatic pause to let the sentiment of that unmuddled, self-preserving desire sink in.) “But not what I will. What you will” (Mark 14:35). It was the culmination of an entire life defined by Jesus’ refusal (Matthew 4 and Luke 4) to go about his work by power and spectacle and kingdom-building, yet as the culmination of a life lived accepting a way of powerlessness that leads to suffering and death, it needed accepting again (and again and again) before confronting that suffering and death face-to-face. Jesus set his face to his cross, again and again.

I have to take that as my model—for confronting my mortality, for confronting the cost of choosing crosses over crowns, sure, but even for confronting this season’s senses of failure, shame, broken hope, the depths of my fallibility and maybe my foolishness when I look back on another rather awful year. All of these I’m afraid to live with, to face. Which is why the challenge, and the invitation to freedom, is to set my face to them. It is to accept them: That they are there and I have no power to change them—but that neither do I have to keep trying to. It is to find freedom in the OK-ness of that little defeat, as the freedom of the one who conquered death by passing decisively through its very jaws—who left Death the 800-pound gorilla lonely in the ring eating victory bananas until it will have no one left to fight, no one left to beat, and finally itself dies.

There is a mystery here, but in its practical application, I find the work before me to accept my vulnerability to everything I discover within me that scares me and wounds me in a season that has always stirred so very much inside of me, sometimes beyond my capacity to process it. I accept that I feel. I accept that there are many failures in my wake (or so I feel). I accept that this year has kicked my ass. And I accept that I can let it stop kicking my ass and do something else, like live. Or better, love.

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