Changing My Mind: Radical Acceptance

I used to be really against the notion of radical acceptance.  Or, indeed, any kind of philosophy that counseled not getting upset about bad things or not stressing out over your own flaws.

The reason why is that I don’t like the loss of distinctions.  “Science” means “to split.”

If you dichotomize  “justice vs. mercy”, “intense vs. relaxed”, “logic vs. intuition”, and so on, I’m more attracted to the first category. I identify with Inspector Javert and Toby Ziegler. I admire adherence to principle.

And there’s a long tradition of maligning “intense” people like me, often with anti-Semitic or ableist overtones, and I tend to be suspicious of rhetoric that pattern-matches to those associations.  There’s a pattern that either frames intense people as cruel, in a sort of “Mean Old Testament vs. Nice New Testament” way, or as pathetic (“rigid”, “obsessive”, “high need for cognitive closure”, etc).  “Just relax and don’t sweat the small stuff” can be used to excuse backing out of one’s commitments, stretching the truth, or belittling others’ concerns.

There’s also an aesthetic dimension to this. One can prefer crispness and sharpness and intensity to gooey softness.  I think of James Joyce, an atheist with obvious affection for the Jesuitical tradition that taught him.

So, from where I stand, “radical acceptance” sounds extremely unappealing. Whenever I heard “You shouldn’t get mad at reality for being the way it is”, I interpreted it as “You shouldn’t care about the things you care about, you shouldn’t try to change the world, you shouldn’t stand up for yourself, you shouldn’t hold yourself to high standards.  You’re a weird little girl and you don’t matter.”

And of course I reject that. I’m still passionate, still intense, still trying to have integrity, and I don’t ever want to stop caring about the difference between true and false.

But I do finally grok some things about acceptance.

  • It’s just not objectively true that anything short of perfection is worth scrapping.  I can be a person with flaws and my life is still on net extremely worthwhile.  That’s not “bending the rules”, it’s understanding cost-benefit analysis.
  • There’s a sense in which imperfections are both not good and completely okay.  For example: I have a friend that I’ve often had trouble communicating with. Sometimes I’ve hurt his feelings, sometimes he’s hurt mine, pretty much always through misunderstanding.  My Javertian instinct would be to feel like “This friendship is flawed, I’ve sullied it, I need to wipe the slate clean.” But that’s impossible.  The insight is that the friendship is not necessarily supposed to be unsullied.  Friction and disagreement are what happens when you’re trying to connect deeply to people who aren’t exactly like you.  The friendship isn’t falling short of perfection, it’s something rough I’m building from scratch.
  • “Roughness” is a sign that you’re at a frontier. “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”  Even the most admirable people have experienced disappointment and tried things that didn’t work.  Life doesn’t have to be glossy or free of trouble to be glorious.  Getting through hard times, or making yourself a better person, are legitimate achievements.  Optimizing for “build something” is life-giving; optimizing for “have no flaws” is sterile.
  • Hating injustice, or hating death, is only a starting point. Yes, bad things really are bad, and it’s important to validate that.  Sometimes you have to mourn, or rage, or protest. But what then?  How do you fix the problem?  Once you’ve expressed your grief or anger, once you’ve made people understand that it’s really not all right, what are you going to do?  It becomes a question to investigate, not a flag to raise.  And sometimes people seem less angry, not because they care less, but because they’ve already moved on to the investigation and strategy-building phase of the work.
  • One idea that allows me to grok this is the Jewish idea that G-d chooses not to destroy the world.  Is the world flawed? Heck yes! Is it swarming with human beings who screw up every day?  You bet!  Is it worth wiping out?  No, and there’s a rainbow to prove it.  Which means that the world, in all its messy glory, is net good.  It beats hell out of hard vacuum.