Radical acceptance is the psychological term for learning to live with sorrow we cannot change. It’s not a new concept, and it’s only slightly less trite, perhaps, than the famous 1970s prayer asking for the courage to change that which we can change, serenity to accept that which we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. Ultimately, radical acceptance is about coming to grips with defeat. It is a concept that teaches the willing to accept defeat as a natural, albeit painful, consequence to a fully lived life. Life will not always be fair, and to expect it to be is, on some level, an invitation to greater pain than acceptance may inflict. Fairness is for Pollyannas and princesses. It is not a staple of the real world.
Radical acceptance is more sophisticated than the 1970s prayer; however, in its reliance on meditation principles. Radical acceptance must be practiced, and it relies on an ability to harness our thoughts away from rumination to a calming mantra, such as “This is my situation, which is out of my control, and while I may not be happy about it, I accept that I cannot change it.” The mantra works best when practiced as you would any meditation saying, by relying deeply on the physical reaction of releasing thoughts as they pass by in order to blunt them as one might partially block a blow.
Recently, I read with interest Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings article on Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Brain Pickings is a perpetually interesting outlet for literary philosophy, and West’s Grey Falcon is a haunting tribute to the art of radical acceptance. Describing people she met on several trips to Eastern Europe leading up to World War II, West details an interview she had with a woman walking along a mountain road in Montenegro. West asked the woman how she had come so far from her hometown and why.
She laughed a little, lifted her ball of wool to her mouth, sucked the thin thread between her lips, and stood rocking herself, her eyebrows arching in misery. “It is a long story. I am sixty now,” she said. “Before the war I was married over there, by Durmitor. I had a husband whom I liked very much, and I had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1914 my husband was killed by the Austrians. Not in battle. They took him out of our house and shot him. My son went off and was a soldier and was killed, and my daughter and I were sent to a camp. There she died. In the camp it was terrible, many people died. At the end of the war I came out and I was alone. So I married a man twenty years older than myself. I did not like him as I liked my first husband, but he was very kind to me, and I had two children of his. But they both died, as was natural, for he was too old, and I was too old, and also I was weak from the camp. And now my husband is eighty, and he has lost his wits, and he is not kind to me any more. He is angry with everybody; he sits in his house and rages, and I cannot do anything right for him. So I have nothing.
West next asked this woman with nothing left where she was headed, as she wandered along this elevated byway. Her response is chilling.
I am not going anywhere. I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened. If I had to live, why should my life have been like this? If I walk about up here where it is very high and grand it seems to me I am nearer to understanding it.” She put the ball of wool to her forehead and rubbed it backwards and forwards, while her eyes filled with painful speculation. “Good-bye,” she said, with distracted courtesy, as she moved away, “good-bye.”
This heart wrenching pilgrimage reminds us that, even as we practice the art of radical acceptance, there is a fundamental human need to understand the why of our despair. For West, this why explains our need for creativity and art.
This woman [was] the answer to my doubts. She took her destiny not as the beasts take it, nor as the plants and trees; she not only suffered it, she examined it. As the sword swept down on her through the darkness she threw out her hand and caught the blade as it fell, not caring if she cut her fingers so long as she could question its substance, where it had been forged, and who was the wielder. She wanted to understand … the mystery of process.
I knew that art and science were the instruments of this desire, and this was their sole justification, though in the Western world where I lived I had seen art debauched to ornament and science prostituted to the multiplication of gadgets. I knew that they were descended from man’s primitive necessities, that the cave man who had to hunt the aurochs drew him on the rock-face that he might better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting and was the ancestor of all artists, that the nomad who had to watch the length of shadows to know when he should move his herd to the summer pasture was the ancestor of all scientists. But I did not know these things thoroughly with my bowels as well as my mind. I knew them now, when I saw the desire for understanding move this woman. It might have been far otherwise with her, for she had been confined by her people’s past and present to a kind of destiny that might have stunned its victims into an inability to examine it. Nevertheless she desired neither peace nor gold, but simply knowledge of what her life might mean. The instrument used by the hunter and the nomad was not too blunt to turn to finer uses; it was not dismayed by complexity, and it could regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind and measure the diffuse shadows cast by history. And what was more, the human will did not forget its appetite for using it.
West shows us the aching need of humanity to understand the reasons we must bear unspeakable sorrow, the kind of sorrow that crushes us in heaviness, that makes us believe it would be better to have never lived at all. Radical acceptance teaches us not to feel peace, but to be peaceful in our sorrow. To end the thrashing about at our pain and realize that the pain will defeat us, will master us, will subjugate us to it. We may thrash about in defiance to the pain, but it will not release its hold and it will not explain why to us. There is, perhaps, a divine destiny waiting for the lonely pilgrim of Montenegro, but it is not one that reveals itself in the logic of this world. This logic, if it exists, is not accessible despite the high cost the pilgrim pays to try to find it. The why remains elusive, though we may build false paradigms in our attempts to justify the pain: that joy can only be recognized if we can define it through sadness, that through pain we learn perseverance and courage, or that great agony builds in us the capacity for great empathy. These beliefs are merely symptoms of grief for the pilgrim to pray to as she walks the mountain road of Montenegro searching for Why. Why must we accept radical acceptance, when every fiber of our being wishes to change that which we cannot change, when we would gladly deal with the devil if he would only give us the fleeting power to change what has cost us that which is most valuable to us? Why are some of us brought to excruciating pain, and why are we willing to walk that Montenegro road to understand the why of it when it risks our very sanity?
West is right, I believe, that it is this willingness to ask why that lifts us out of the existential void and creates soulfulness. I don’t pretend to believe that this soulfulness surely exists for a reason, or even that there is a redemptive power for the pilgrim walking the Montenegro road. But the act of walking that pilgrimage is, in itself, a radical acceptance that forces purpose, even if that purpose is merely concocted by the pilgrim in the limited temporal space of the Montenegro road. But when the pilgrim transforms that soulfulness into art, she breaks the temporal plane and creates a semi-permanent monument to unspeakable sorrow, in this small way bending radical acceptance to her will even if only for a brief moment in the span of time.