What No One Told me About Acceptance

At least once a week (my best guess), I hear someone refer to and quote parts of Acceptance Was the Answer.

“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.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

— Paul O, Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 417, Big Book, 4th edition

If you are reading this, you may be a skeptic like me. I tend to gravitate towards aphorisms such as “… It is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it…”, (Hunter S. Thompson, Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967.) My parents sometimes claimed that my first words were, ‘yeah but’. 

What I initially heard at my first AA meeting was useful, I would even argue, necessary for me to take at face value in order to see the harsh reality of my psychological dependence on alcohol to cope with a life that often felt painful. Acceptance was the answer to all of my problems today, that day, April 21, 2007, suggested to me that: I had become dependent on drinking alcohol; it hindered me from making reasonable choices; I was hurting myself and those around me by continuing to behave in the ways that I had; I had become someone that likely could not ever drink alcohol again without harming myself or others; and that I needed help to stop drinking alcohol.

It was only after a few months sober that I paid closer attention to phrases such as “…Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake… and … 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…”.

The first part of that quote is counter to how I see and experience the universe around me. The second part of that quote is not how I am willing to experience relationships. I do not accept others that intentionally or knowingly continue to harm others. I’ve experienced too many harmful, dysfunctional relationships to pretend that accepting others as how they are supposed to be is a healthy choice for me. In some cases, I do accept that the person’s behavior stems from circumstances and mental health issues, addiction, etc. For some, I’ve been part of their recovery. For others, I ended those relationships, cutting toxic people out of my life.

Al Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, helped me immensely in this regard. I believe possibly, even more so than AA at the time. Again, I do not wish to counter the original author of the Acceptance Was The Answer story. His story, like mine, is true for each of us. I want to reiterate that Acceptance Was the Answer was quite helpful for me to see and accept my own dependency on alcohol.

However, I’ve recently begun to see that the message is incomplete and for some of us, possibly detrimental to our growth in recovery. For almost 2 years now,  I’ve helped facilitate an AA meeting at a correctional institution. What I’ve seen frequently is the prison that shame creates in lives, including my own.

Acceptance was the answer quoted, read, paraphrased in 1st Step meetings, often reminds me of how bad I was, how many people that I harmed. I’ve done several iterations of steps 4-10 throughout recovery, and yet, I habitually sink back into a sense of worthlessness, of shame, of being an alcoholic complete with all of the commensurate stereotypes.

I easily forget that for most of my time sober,  even for most of my life, I have not been dependent on alcohol. For most of my life, I have been honest, loving, kind, generous, intelligent, creative, successful, useful, helpful, nurturing, etc. For most of my life, I was a good son, a good brother, dad, spouse, friend, employer, employee, colleague, etc. I had in total about 6 years of unchecked and clearly harmful, untreated anxiety, depression and dependency on alcohol.

So how is it that at 63 years of age, 13 years sober, a loving spouse, a dad, a grampa to 5 that only knows me sober, an academic nearing the end of a career, that I describe my alcoholism with shame and caveats?

My spouse reminds me that I was and am a good spouse. My son and daughter remind me that I’m a good dad, and they remind me that I’m a wonderful grampa. Today, we can talk freely and honestly about what a 4-year and a 2-year period of my dependence on alcohol was like for them. But mostly, we talk about what it has been like the past 13 years and what it was like before I had become dependent on alcoholic in a desperate attempt to cope with anxiety and depression.

 So today, as part of my gratitude and what I hope to share with others, especially newcomers and those struggling to sustain sobriety, is that it is important that I accept all of me as part of me. I take things personally. Unreasonable fear sometimes has too much influence on my behavior. I procrastinate more than I’d like. My actions harmed some in the past. With the exception of one “…except when doing so would cause further harm…”, I’ve made direct amends and continue to make living amends daily. I’ve recovered from psychological dependence on alcohol. I show up consistently for the people in my life. I almost always do my best. I no longer avoid or ignore painful awareness. Today, I’ve no need for alcohol, nor for shame.

Addendum

I wrote a first draft of this a few months ago. Since that time, I’ve now been living, like most of us, in an absolute shit-swirl that is all that goes with COVID-19 pandemic. Though challenging in ever so many ways, personally, financially, professionally, socially (especially my recovering communities), circumstances have afforded me considerable opportunities for solitude and reflection. Related to this particular reflection on acceptance, a new and for me, profound aha was a way to codify and operationalize my personal definition of acceptance.

Amidst all of my unease, dis-ease, angst, anger, fear, sadness about things that I refuse to accept in the ways that AA sometimes seems to suggest, an idea emerged after several weeks of distracted meditation. I continued to lose focus on the present moment in my living room with my teapot, teacup, writing journal day after day. The distractions were many and yet most came back to itchy, scratchy, nagging, emotions.

One morning, recently, I saw acceptance for what it could be for me – awareness. Awareness wherein, I see things just as they are in that moment. That is a form of acceptance that I can practice, that I can use, and that I can learn from as I live my life day by day. For a moment, sometimes ever so briefly, I can choose to see a thing as it is, letting go of my oft urgent need to label it good or bad, assess it, evaluate it, pull it towards me or push it away. I think that is acceptance that I can live with today.


About the Author

Robert B. is a sober alcoholic in Madison, WI participating in AA and AlAnon at Fitchburg Serenity Club. He has been sober since April 21, 2007. He also began writing and sharing poetry on Facebook during his first year sober as part of his recovery from alcohol dependency, acute anxiety and chronic depression. He has found that creativity expressed primarily through writing poetry and playing various stringed instruments helped him heal and thrive.  

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Pat N.

    Happy almost birthday!

  2. Teresa J

    Robert, thank you so much for your thoughtful share. I connect with much of what you had to say. Awareness, yes. I learned in Al-Anon, awareness, acceptance, action. Sometimes action is the next right thing, and sometimes acceptance of things as they are (not, in my opinion the way they “are supposed to be”) is where I continue to have awarenesses arise, sometimes leading to action, sometimes to letting go. Letting go of shame and guilt of things in my long ago past certainly allows for a more present moment to moment sober living experience.
    Teresa J

  3. PJ

    Paul O’s ‘Acceptance Was the Answer’ quote has just about had its day as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t heard it quoted in a long time as I predominately attend Secular A.A. meetings where it just doesn’t get the same ‘shame driven’ life support needed for its survival that is provided by theistic A.A. I agree that it can be detrimental to my sobriety if I take it too literally and remain stuck in situations and relationships (particularly in A.A.) that are a hinderance to my personal growth. My early years of sobriety involved figuring out who in A.A. was hindering me, deciding I wasn’t prepared to ‘accept’ their behaviour and then distancing myself from them.

    I do agree that acceptance was an important and necessary element in coming to terms with the fact that I was an alcoholic but I don’t see that god had anything to do with it. Once I began to think for myself and question what I heard I could see the flaws in the quote that you have nicely outlined in your article, Robert.

    I love the way you have described how your family remind you that you are a good spouse, dad and grandpa. That is feedback well worth accepting.

    Thanks again Robert.

  4. Jen

    At meetings, I often hear two sayings with which I can never agree :
    (1) Everything happens for a reason.
    and
    (2) Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in the world by mistake.
    Those ideas presume that we humans are the most important beings on earth.
    Things go on without any reference to us at all.
    Mankind wants every question answered and this is just not possible………THAT’S when acceptance comes in.

  5. MarySusan

    When I hear people ascribe something individuals in an AA meeting say as being AA says… it catches my attention. First No One has the Authority to speak for AA as a whole. Second even if a majority of people sitting in AA halls agree with any approach or belief it still does not make it AA. Doctrine. The literature itself are stories and anecdotal experiences transcribed but greatly contested even as the BB was being written. The essays about the steps which are merely suggested to begin with were written by Bill Wilson for the Grapevine. Birds of a feather tend to flock together but that does not make them the Voice of AA. The most important voice in AA is the minority voice. Check it out. Now there are many who like to push their way as THE WAY.. it is the nature of group organization in general. But that does not make it AA. In fact AA advises people to start up their own meeting. As long as your group is not affiliated with any other enterprise and as long as your group is inclusive of any/all alcoholics who wish to belong for the purpose of getting sober that is what constitutes an AA meeting. I am not the voice of AA either. I am just another recovered alcoholic who has something to say. Personally I do not view acceptance as resignation or submission to what is unacceptable to me. I “accept” that I can try to change what I can about myself, others, the world around me but I may not be able to. I accept that what may be good and helpful for me might be harmful even deadly for someone else. I also accept that I do not have to allow harm to myself or others but I may not be able to prevent it. I accept that I need to stay sober whether or not I like my circumstances or others. All of this came little by slow but it began by putting the plug in the jug. As long as I am alive people and circumstances will change and be revealed to me. I can not always see or know what is right there in plain sight. And somethings are hidden and not known. This is just the way life rolls itself out. I need help to navigate the blurry times. But that is just me. If you are the same then I am not alone and I welcome knowing you.

  6. Joe C

    I loved this essay and it finds me nostalgic.

    I grew up in an AA era that wasn’t book-based. It was an oral-tradition AA community in Montreal, Canada. I neither read the Big Book nor was it encouraged. I knew someone had read it but I couldn’t tell you who. The third edition came out so now the chairperson’s table had a newer, less tobacco-stained book. It was used as a sign because it said “Alcoholics Anonymous” on it-so newcomers wandering in late would know what was going on there, I guess.

    No one was anti-Big Book. It was a history of early AA if anyone wanted it. If you wanted to explore the Steps, you would do what so did, ask around about individual experiences. Some meetings would read “How It Works” the pamphlet instead of just the Steps. The dated language and religious grandiosity of those few paragraphs never enticed me to read more. I wondered how and why it took five chapters to get to “How It Works.” I knew from the red ink corrections on my English assignments that this was no way to organize a thesis.

    That’s a long trip down memory lane to say, “You know what was quoted out of the Big Book more than anything else I heard in my first ten years?” It was “Doctor, Addict, Alcoholic (which is what the story was called before the fundamentalists petitioned The fourth edition architects to take that ‘bad’ word out that drug addicts were using to rebut demands to stop identifying as an addict)” and it wasn’t the Whole whiten story – just this quote. I couldn’t see how a medical doctor wouldn’t be ashamed to hold such a position. Would he tell this story to the loved ones of surgeries that went wrong? I could see a Zen master being all about acceptance but not a scientist. I was sure at the time (but wrong) that no Canadian medical professionals would ever hold or boast such religious and passive views.

    Now this wasn’t the evidence that someone I knew had read the book… I’m pretty sure they were quoting someone from Grapevine, who, I guess had read the whole story. All anyone in Montreal’s meetings we’re familiar with – as far as I knew – was this quote. As a philosophical tool, the acceptance idea was very helpful. As an explanation of how the word was unfolding, I thought it displayed an assumptive over-familiarity with the unknown and unknowable.

    Someone else in this comment stream suggested that the era of Dr Paul O as an AA sage has passed. That would t surprise me. But for We who were regularly wee audience to its recitation, it left an impression.

    Again , thanks for a thoughtful essay.

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