And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. … Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy.
— page 417, Alcoholics Anonymous
I’ve been thinking about the difference between resignation and acceptance lately as a result of my therapy and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve let resignation masquerade as acceptance in my life for too long.
For years, I believed that I’d accepted my birth father’s suicide when, in reality, I’d resigned myself to the facts. While I knew in my heart that he had suffered from severe depression, that he’d been mentally ill, and that this was the root cause of his suicide, I still felt betrayed and abandoned. I wanted things to have been different. I didn’t, and may not ever, understand why he’d ended his own life.
I didn’t even know that his death had been a suicide until I was in the fourth grade, about nine or ten. I’d been told that there had been something wrong with his brain. I thought of it like a disease, like cancer.
Losing a loved one to suicide often leaves the family with a sense of survivor’s guilt. Sometimes it manifests as the sense that they should have done more to save their relative. Sometimes it comes up as a sense that they don’t deserve to be alive, that it should have been them instead of the person who is gone.
At the tender age of five I didn’t recognize these things in myself. Nor did I recognize them when I learned the facts behind his death. Until that point I blamed the doctors for not doing enough to save his life and I remember suddenly realizing that it had not be negligence on the part of the doctors.
I don’t remember if I blamed myself, or wished that it had been me instead of him. What I do remember is that I suddenly worried that he hadn’t loved me enough to stay — that maybe I had been the reason that he took his own life. Or maybe it was my brother or my mother, or all of us. In a word, I felt confused and abandoned — left behind.
I don’t know if I ever expressed these feelings. Probably not. I held them deep inside and I was angry. And I’ve remained angry for 43 years.
And this anger was only compounded when my step father, who I call my father, died suddenly when I was 29. It was a chilling blow. He and I were very close and I had many plans for us as Dad moved into his later stages of life. I imagined us hunting and fishing together. I imagined him bouncing my unborn son on his knee. I imagined him taking my son to the firehouse and letting him sit behind the wheel of the engines. None of those things happened. They couldn’t because he was gone. I resigned myself to theses facts as well.
Resignation may be a form of acceptance, but if so, resignation holds a grudge and includes a resentment. Resignation holds on, and wishes for things to be different. Resignation breeds anger and provides no relief.
Over my many years I have often said, “I have accepted this, but I can’t let go,” or “I don’t know how to let go of this,” — I have come to understand that this is the fundamental difference between resignation and acceptance. When I can’t let something go, I have resigned myself to it rather than accepted it.
And that underlying anger has often spilt over into other parts of my life. I’ve long had a history of explosive anger, fits of rage even. Only recently have I come to understand that my anger is not the same as other people’s anger. It comes on quickly and my blood boils in split second.
It is not something I am proud of and it is something that I am working on. I’ve been working on it for a long time actually. But just as I often said that I couldn’t let go, I’ve frequently said, “I don’t know how to control this anger.” Sure, I have cognitively known about many tools to cool the flames, but in the instant I frequently fail to access those tools.
Often the event that has set me off has not been that big of a deal — the trigger has very little or even nothing at all to do with my anger. And the anger has been disproportionate to the trigger.
Knowing the underlying roots of this anger is helpful. Knowing that I’ve been clinging to anger deeply rooted in childhood trauma helps me to recognize more quickly that the overwhelming emotions I am feeling in the moment have little to do with the actual moment.
I’ve come to believe that the key to ending this cycle lies in the full acceptance of my fathers’ deaths. And I am not sure exactly what that looks like, but I know it will be more peaceful, and more serene than how I’ve “accepted” things in the past.
Recently, I received some unwelcome news. News that will fundamentally impact our family and will require some changes in our lives. Nothing that is earth shattering, nothing life threatening, and in some ways fully anticipated — but still news that is not easy to accept.
And yet, upon receiving the news, digesting it, and forming the very beginning of a plan, I have felt relaxed with the news. I’m not angry about it. While unwelcome, it had brought a certain sense of relief. It has already changed me and my responses to situations which used to baffle me. I’m less angry and can deal with certain difficulties with greater calm and ease.
That is what acceptance looks like.