Alright, I’ve been working on the whole-assed life thing, and it turns out it can be really challenging. I think part of my distaste for resolutions is how they come in moments of inspiration and gusto, but they require incredible amounts of work long after the rush of the goose-bump minute of setting the goal is over. As it turns out – authenticity is something I find difficult.
Not impossible, just damn hard work.
Part of that, though, is that for most Januarys (and often February as well), I find almost everything really tough. It’s historically, typically, a time when I struggle a lot with depression. For me that means a withdrawal from the world, and an incredible amount of difficulty in getting daily tasks done. It also usually means poor physical health, and an almost doubling of the thought processes in my tiny brain.
But, at least it’s familiar, and I work through it, and it brings to me a helpful and honest, albeit harsh, view of life and what areas of my existence need cleaned up a bit. As such, I’ve been thinking so much about what it really means to actually stop being half-assed and go for that whole authentic and self-owned life. And for 2 weeks now I keep returning to what is apparently lesson #1 for me in this years’ resolution: I must embrace some acceptance of life the way it is; probably to a somewhat radical level.
OK, so what does that even mean? Something along the lines of opening my eyes wide enough to see past what I want people and situations to be, and start viewing them for who and what they actually are in this very moment. And acceptance, I think, means that I purposefully stay in the position of seeing things as they really presently are, and not allow myself to retreat back into imagining that the world is what I want it to be.
This is not to say that anything will stay exactly the same, because all things grow, change, evolve, decay, and move. I think real acceptance in life looks like embracing the world as it is in this moment, and then again as it is in the next – even if it’s suddenly different.
Even as I write this, I know what I mean, but it feels a little nebulous in description. Let’s try some specific examples…
Here’s an obvious one, and something I’ve been working on for over three years straight: Heather is gone. She died, and she is gone, and she isn’t coming back. Despite what anybody anywhere chooses to believe, nobody on this mortal earth actually knows where she is, or if she still exists, or if I’ll ever see or experience her again. So I and everyone else can make personal choices about all that, but in order to heal the best I can, grieve authentically, and continue through life fully, I can only do those things to the extent that I accept what IS right now – she is gone; she died.
In some moments, I accept that fact, and I hurt and ache, but life is, at least, real. Sometimes I’m still not good at accepting her gone-ness, and I imagine her walking through the door, or put off making decisions because I’m waiting to somehow find out what she would say or how she wants to weigh in on the matter. Of course, though, there is never anything but silence, or my own heart doing its best to recall her and construct the best idea of what she’d most likely say to me. However, the moments where I pretend she is still here can feel especially delicious and satisfying, as my incredibly visual and imaginative brain conjures up fantasies that I’m way too good at believing. It’s a wonderful escape from reality, it really is. The “escape” part of that, though, can’t be denied. I cannot live a full authentic life without accepting what is.
Clearly, that’s hard sometimes because I don’t want the pain and sorrow of the reality that is this life. Heather shouldn’t be gone, and her absence never feels anything close to good. But yet another type of challenge exists for me in accepting all things; I have a serious problem with super-hating (like super-de-duper hating) the experience of feeling stupid.
After Heather died, I waited too long to actually go see a counselor myself. I really wanted to, but kept convincing myself I couldn’t afford it. Really, I think it was one more way I was punishing and lashing out at my own self, but that’s a bit of a different topic. By the time I found myself a person to go see for some help and support, I was in sore need of it.
In the first couple of sessions I told my story. Some of my growing up, my various relationships with family and friends, my homosexuality, my marriage, my children, my inconsolable current grief, and, of course, the story of Heather’s cancer and subsequent death. As I spoke of her death, I recounted our religious and spiritual faith; how we knew with absolution that she would be healed, and the word and power of God were real and how for us a miracle was going to happen. I told the whole story clearly and painfully as it had happened up until my girl died lying in my arms.
It was sitting there, on a square hard couch surrounded by book shelves in a slightly too-warm room, four feet away from a silent man I barely knew, that I started getting some serious road-burn to the soul from acceptance. I told the story of our expected miracle, and I saw it. I saw the reality of cancer; of mortal dying bodies, of failing livers, of the literal non-stop deterioration of Heather through a year’s time, and I saw a young couple clinging desperately – oh so very desperately – to the idea that an unseen and unknown divine being, through the power of a puffed-up self aggrandizing church and also-desperate but loving regular human beings, was going to stop terminal cancer from doing what terminal cancer does.
And there, as I saw our story and accepted what had happened, and what we’d believed while Heather was unavoidably dying, I felt a sense of personal stupidity that almost consumed me. I became so embarrassed at our sheer inability to see clear and obvious reality, even despite the good excuse of our loving desire to not have Heather die, that I had to stop retelling our story several times, and bow my head in complete all-consuming shame. How? How could I have been so very very stupid?! Cancer kills people; it always has. How could I have truly believed she wouldn’t die? It was possibly the single most embarrassing moment of my life sitting in that counselors office and seeing the truth.
It hurt. It hurt hard.
But as much as I’d do almost anything to avoid feeling the stupidity that can come with clarity when looking at life and the world more clearly, it helped me heal. Only because I saw a much bigger slice of what really happened, did I finally have the ability to step out of worldviews that would love to fool me all over again, if I’d let them.
Oh how I hate feeling stupid. Oh how it’s often part of the acceptance process, though. And acceptance is required to evolve through life.
See, for me becoming authentic and free and living my own life isn’t a constant thrill. In my experience, it’s very much like discovering that I lived my whole life trapped in an underground bunker surrounded by wall-sized flat screen televisions. The small space looked big, and claimed to be all things, because the televisions could show pictures of vast expanse and the illusion of being in the real wide open was easy to perpetuate. Then Heather’s passing was like an earthquake that cracked the floor and broke the wall screens, and I climbed up and out of the bunker to discover an entire universe of reality and actual expanse outside. In the movie of my life, the moment where I bloodily fought through the rubble and broke through to see my first glimpse of true daylight (remind anyone of The Truman Show?) came with a brilliant building score, and a first glorious breath of fresh air, and I stood on the outside above ground in the breeze with the camera circling around. I’m free! It’s glorious! I’m authentic! I see I was in a box, and I never want to go back inside it!
But then the camera turned off, the crew went home, and I looked around, and realized: I’m stuck in a vast desert of nothing with a broken down bunker that was my entire former life below me. I can climb down and try to get the TVs to work, I can close my eyes and imagine I’m back where I was, or I can ACCEPT that this is what real life looks like, and that I’d better damn well start walking because I need food, I need water, I need love, and nothing upon nothing in this life lasts forever, so I’d better find my moment and accept it for what it is.
Acceptance – kind of vital to authenticity. Right?!
But even when I’m not feeling stupid about not having realized things that seem so obvious now, it’s very difficult to accept that whole “nothing lasts forever” thing. Maybe we do live on after this life, but that’s something different, something changed; THIS life and everything in it in the way that it is, will end. And people; I find it very difficult to accept people as they are. I don’t like saying that, because I want to be the guy who really does take human beings just as they are, but when they aren’t what I want them to be, it’s just so goddam upsetting! Right??!!
I mean, right?! I’m telling you – there is nobody out there that doesn’t know, in some way, what I’m talking about. We just want to be able to change other people, and make them into what we want and need them to be through either our valiant efforts, or our diligent wishing and refusal to accept that they, in fact, are NOT what we are fantasizing them to be in this moment.
OK, maybe some of y’all don’t wish anybody in your life is different anymore, because you’ve totally mastered the acceptance thing. Shout out of praise to you.
Meanwhile, it’s still a fairly big struggle for me.
My longest and greatest struggle with this kind of acceptance is with my mother. I think that’s actually a common thing, because for most people, their parental relationship is the longest and most primal. I have simply always wanted my mother to be a particular kind of parent and person that she has never ever EVER been. She’s loving and wonderful in a million ways, but I wanted things much more particular. In a grand waste of time (though understandable from the perspective of being an evolving soul) I have raged through a great many years of my life, because she simply would not be that particular cut and mold I wanted; I screamed and fought for her to behave, communicate, feel, and be the kind of mother I felt certain I needed. Instead, she was purely and simply her. Like it or not. But ooohhhhh how I refused to accept that.
Until I had Heather.
In Heather I found the relationship and person I needed for me. Our relationship gave me space to look back at my parents and begin accepting them for what they gave to me, how they loved me, and who they are. Usually, I think the process of living authentically goes in the order of accepting that the people in our lives are who they are in any given moment, and then because of that acceptance, we can take from them what is nourishing, and not begrudge them the fact that we cannot get what they don’t have to give; acceptance empowers us to get what we may further need from someone else. In my case, I had a little bit of a reverse experience; I finally got the kind of love and relationship I needed from Heather, which allowed me to stop being so angry that I wasn’t getting it from somewhere else (my parents), and finally really accept and appreciate them for what beauty and love they WERE bringing to our relationship.
However, Heather died. And I found myself primally flung backwards, and grasping with claws towards the place I thought should be the source of nurturance I was suddenly missing. Suddenly my acceptance of people and things (particularly my parents) as they actually are from moment to moment was gone like so much vapor in the sun. And I raged.
But raging, it turns out, doesn’t change that which we will not accept into what we want. It’s a very natural part of the grieving process as long as it’s fluid and in motion; a river of tears flowing towards the gentle and harsh reality of accepting life as it is. So rage and anger aren’t bad, but they can only subside with acceptance.
So I’ve been working on that, and doing OK; until I got a serious curve-ball to the head this week. Or, rather, the reality of many months actually came to a head.
It’s hard to know if I mistake the reality of other people with true personal innocence, or if I put hopeful expectations on them from the beginning that aren’t fair, and I should know better. In other words, sometimes in life we catch a firefly in a jar, and it is beautiful. It can light up the space around it, and in dark times, when I hold my face very close to a jar with a firefly in it, (does anybody else do this, metaphorically speaking?), I successfully start convincing myself that I’ve caught a star. A source of light that is large and practically everlasting. It’s so pretty, and such a contrast to the surrounding dark, that it surely must be a billion-year star. And one of the things about fireflies, is that they’ll almost never fly to the edge of the jar and whisper to you “hey, I’m not a star, I’m a temporary source of light that you’ll have to let go of pretty soon”.
Annoying, right?! I mean, the nerve of them not telling us our idea that they’re an eternal star is folly. Rude firefly!
Or, stupid Eldon.
This week it became time to accept that I’d made a star out of someone in my life that is really a beautiful bright firefly – one who flew away. And I got all hurt, and destroyed. I wanted to talk about it; they didn’t. I’ve been begging this relationship for months now to shine like a star for me. (I think most of us are stars for some, and fireflies for others.) I gave myself like a star, and kept asking for the same in return. Then, when, like when Heather actually died, I could no longer pretend that this person would not or could not be what I wanted, I started toxic acceptance.
I mean, I accepted that reality was in front of my face, and I felt embarrassed and stupid. I accepted that reality was before my eyes, and I tried to look away again because it isn’t how I want life to be! But if I’d left it there, I could have let authenticity happen sooner, and real acceptance begin doing it’s healing work of preparing me to grow through the experience. But noooooo, I engaged in this old other awful habit.
I started it long long ago with my parental relationship. I couldn’t get them to change for me and be what I wanted, so instead of accepting what really is, and living in the light of reality, I began accepting something else – the idea that my parents wouldn’t change because there was something truly inherently wrong with me. It was my fault. This isn’t true embracing of personal responsibility, this is inhaling the idea that my relationships go bad because I need more than the light of a firefly, and if I’d just not be so flawed as to actually need more than that, there would be no problem.
Toxic acceptance allows me to internalize all relationship problems, and be in control of the blame and the punishment. It multiplies the feeling of being stupid almost a hundred-fold. In this state of being, when someone doesn’t have time or energy for me, I “recognize” (notice the quotation marks) that the problem is just that I’m being too dramatic and needy, and when someone says they don’t understand me or invalidates my emotions or words, I “accept” this as meaning my personal experience IS of no value.
But TRUE acceptance, the kind that fosters the difficult but nevertheless desirable authenticity I want to cloak myself with, doesn’t just accept other people for where they are and who they are in this very moment, it also accepts ME! There is nothing wrong with another human being refusing to offer anything further to me than the light level of a firefly – even when I know they offer star quality light to others. Accepting that someone, for whatever reason, will not be what I wish they would be is not looking down upon them, it is simply releasing them from my expectations, and moving myself on to find what I need from someone who will give it. There IS something VERY wrong, however, with believing that there is a problem with needing what I need.
I do that all the time – accept that there is just something wrong with me, and that is the problem. This is both because I have a bad habit of completely devaluing myself, and also because other people, in defense of their own ego, will perpetuate that idea.
Sadly, I’ve experienced that there are many people who only want to offer the light of a firefly, but get very defensive and lash out when I (or any of us) point out they’re not offering a star. This is because they aren’t accepting their own self, and want credit for shining brighter in particular relationships than they really are. Some people aren’t willing to see their reality, and therefore can’t be accepting of it. This is partially because many people’s toxic acceptance isn’t internalized like mine, it’s completely external; they choose to accept that it’s everybody else fault BUT theirs when life isn’t right.
Either way, folks, it’s toxic and it’s not right. (And for the record, I can pull of both internal AND external toxic acceptance pretty well. It’s a sick talent.)
So here I am, walking through the desert with the crashed bunker way behind me, and trying to accept that this really is life. I stop way too often, cover my eyes, and pretend things aren’t what they are. (Hello personal depression, I just kind of defined what you do to me right there.) Because acceptance hurts. When I desire and deserve stars, I don’t want to accept that it’s time to let the firefly out of the jar and move on. Plus, Heather was the brightest and noblest and most lasting star I have ever known; and she is gone. Not even stars are forever.
But for those strong sources of light that do exist, I have to have eyes open to see them and stay close to them for as long as this life will let me have them. That requires acceptance.
So I’m working on it, already.
Turns out it kind of sucks. Then it’s good. Then it’s awful. Then I’m doing the fake toxic accepting and not realizing it, and have to shift over to real acceptance which is hard but good. Then it sucks. Then… well, you know the story.
And this is life.
I’m working on accepting that.