Some things in life are difficult to understand. People who have family members with severe health problems or disabilities often say that their lives are enriched and their family member is a blessing. Internationally renowned scientist, theorist, and author Stephen Hawking suffered from a debilitating neurological disease that confined him to a wheelchair and forced him to speak using a computerized voice. Yet, many consider him the greatest scientist of our time. We also hear of people who have confronted other challenges and life setbacks and have gone on to build successful careers, live fulfilling lives, and find peace with what they have experienced.
In a more temporal context, this has been a challenging, stressful, and disorienting year. At times it is even difficult to clearly recall what life was like at the beginning of 2020 since so much has happened in the interim. We are living through a worldwide pandemic. The political landscape has been unusually divisive. And for a large portion of the population, economic survival has been a challenge. The list could go on.
For many of us, the statement “I just want my life back.” might sound familiar. Certainly, the life we have experienced in the past year and continue to experience may not be what we would have chosen. We also do not know what the future holds and how long the current situation will last. The key question is: How should we respond?
Mental health professionals point to a single action that can make a dramatic difference in our attitude and lives. It is also the secret Stephen Hawking knew and is shared by individuals and families who have lived through and with hardships. That secret is acceptance.
The English Oxford Dictionary defines acceptance as a willingness to tolerate a difficult situation. We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we do not have to allow them to control or change us. Acceptance gives us the power to make choices about our path forward.
The element of choice and what we do with it can be crucial to our mental health. If we allow ourselves to become resentful, disengaged, disconnected, and directionless, our situation can negatively affect our mental state and even our physical health. If we choose to accept the reality of what we face, we can free ourselves from preoccupation, disconnect from its power over us, and choose to move forward despite its presence.
We can cling to behaviors, routines, and perceptions that used to work, but no longer fit our circumstances. We can resent the ways in which we now have to engage in social behavior to avoid significant health risks. We can despair with daily schedules that often must flex in response to circumstances that determine whether we are instructing students in-person or remotely. Or, we can choose another path.
We can let go of “what used to be” and deal with what is. Acceptance can be a strategic response that opens options and positions us to move forward productively. We did not cause the pandemic, trigger political turmoil, or create current economic conditions. They do not have to determine who we are and what we do.
Rather than allow life’s disruptions to exhaust and depress us, we can choose to find meaning, purpose, and productivity in them. Obviously, each of us has experiences unique to us and what we choose may vary. Nevertheless, there are some places and touch points where we can begin:
- Take some time to inventory and become clear about areas of your life where you are struggling most. Understanding the source and focus of your frustration and disappointment may offer insights into changes you might make and actions you can take.
- Commit to take control. Once you understand that your circumstances do not have to confine you, you can choose what to do.
- Identify changes you might make despite the circumstances you face. Might learning a new skill, pursuing a new interest, developing a new hobby, and reconnecting with friends be places to start?
- Clarify initial steps in the direction you have chosen. Schedule a time to get started. Collect the resources you will need. Invite others who might take the journey with you.
- Give yourself permission to “let go” of feelings and thoughts that may hold you back or paralyze you from taking action.
Each of us will have our own path, but we all can start by experiencing the value and freeing power of acceptance.