Acceptance: the Unexpected Virtue

Let us begin by making sure we know what acceptance is not. It is not weak submission to the way things are. It is not passive, nor is it fatalism. It is not tolerance of evil or license sin. No, acceptance — if it is to be a virtue — is the humble recognition of where to begin. It is acknowledging what there is to work with. It is finding the only row of stepping stones crossing the creek. 

But acceptance is more than admitting the facts at hand. Acceptance is the meeting point with the Author of our faith, who did not remain aloof to our condition but embodied it for Himself, accepting the same harsh realities and human caprice we ourselves are subject to. He meets us on our stepping stones. We cross together, and “together” is why He created us in the first place. 

Only a motive of self-giving love would explain this. Only a wisdom that re-defines our limits as spaces for divine encounter. Without such providence, we are lost in a game of chance. This is why the Incarnation is such good news. It reveals His disposition toward us. We are not playthings or projects that must accept our lot from the arbitrary divine will or some other factor, be it visible or invisible. Instead, we are alive to discovering Him in the very places where acceptance is most difficult, that row of river stones the size of our feet. He wills to meet us there. 

Take our personalities, for example. We each are who we are and no one else. True, most people, myself included, are attracted to spending no small amount of energy resisting this state, packing our phones with life-hacking apps; studying how people went “from good to great”; perhaps even propagating an image ostensibly better than the “self” we have inherited: A well-rounded self. An efficient self. A self never caught off guard. A self that has mastered life unto 360 degrees. 

But if we fully succeed at cosmetic covers for our weaknesses, we kill all hope for authentic friendship, let alone authentic encounters with the Creator. This is because most encounters with Him are mustard-seed in size, noticeable only to eyes scanning the small patch of ground at creekside rather than the unreachable snowy peaks of our ideals. 

There is only one strand of stones given us: the specific assortment of strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities that are uniquely ours. The three go together. Always. We cannot reject the weaknesses and play the strengths or possibilities alone. We don’t have that choice.  Our greatest strengths are always, in some other element of our lives, our greatest weaknesses. 

Here is a personal example. I am told that at times I am able to sense the pain in others, something sometimes called empathy. When trying to comfort or counsel a person, this is a great strength, for I am with them in that moment, and the bond remains for prayer afterward. But now take that same sensitivity to another context: a loud noise I was not anticipating (sometimes not even a loud noise, just unexpected). A fumbled golden opportunity. A gruff text from a boss obliterating the year’s plans. In such situations, I cannot escape the sudden pain. I feel it. Deeply. Irrationally deeply. I am done in. It can take a long time, sometimes years, to fully recover. I need others to put me back together. I need others to hold me together. Now let us say that I appeal to the Lord, “Take this oversensitivity away from me! How ridiculous! I hate this weakness!” And let us say for the sake of argument that the Lord obliges my request. Do you know what would happen? The empathy would depart as well. The ability to carry people in spirit would evaporate. 

Only grace can make such a fragile pair live together in harmony inside a person. Only grace is sufficient to make such a combination powerful, useful, a prism refracting the colors of heaven. 

If I accept this, then I am freed up from the vain, miserable pursuit of covering up my weakness. God Himself must meet me in the gap. God Himself must cover me. And He does. 

What I have written is just an example of acceptance; there are as many variations of the threefold cord of strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities as there are people. Reflect on your own threefold inheritance, and you will discover your own dynamic in these things. They are woven together as bamboo reeds are woven together, fashioned by the One who knows you and the possibilities such a combination creates. Will you accept this?

Let us look beyond our personalities to the circumstances and people who surround us. If I accept what really has happened and what really is, then I have a foundation for being honest with people, with myself, and indeed with my God. Now you may ask, “What is the use of being honest with Him, since He knows everything already?” Good question. Certainly the purpose of honesty with God cannot be for the mere sake of data synchronization. (“I here on earth am synced with the One in the cloud[s].”) That is a parody, not a relationship. But rather, our journey of acceptance and honest confession is for the sake of drawing “awe and wonder” out of the “raw and blunder” of all we go through. In a word: glory. 

Honesty does have a price tag, though. It affects relationships, roles, and resources when we remain committed to it. It can be seen as a threat to friendships, alliances, and loyalties. Therefore to accept what truly has happened and is happening — and to give voice to it clearly — is to understand we will pay a price for honesty. This is a deeply courageous thing, for most people, myself included, invariably prefer to hear a desired narrative to the actual one. People, in general, prefer to listen to what they wish to be true, rather than what is, since truth is no respecter of persons and requires all to respond equally, portending our absolute accountability on the Last Day. 

Behind the virtue of acceptance is the faith that there is One who embodies self-giving love who is authorizing, orchestrating, or permitting everything to blend and bend toward glory at His own expense, not ours ultimately; One who is in solidarity with our sorrows and will grant corollary consolations at the Resurrection;  One who is not aloof to the consequences of living in a fallen world, but through the Incarnation willingly subjects Himself to it that He might meet us there and reveal to us that our destiny — that is to say, what He thought of when He willed us to be — cannot help but come to pass as we trust Him. And thus He holds our hand, crosses the creek with us, and we rejoice together on our way to the mountain snows. 

© Kurt Mähler

For a deeper reflection on the virtue of acceptance, read Romano Guardini’s commentary in Learning the Virtues that lead you to God, Sophia Institute Press, fourth edition, 1992. Pages 25-34.

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