Grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
The wisdom to know the difference …
Many of us know this old prayer ; it is a remarkably solid piece of wisdom. Yet, as with all solid pieces of wisdom, it is subtle. It indicates a level of responsibility and mastery that requires careful cultivation.
Acceptance is often confused with an exaggerated passivity, with a nearly defeatist outlook on circumstances however they arise, with idly and stupidly putting up with whatever one is supposed to be “accepting”. This is in truth neither acceptance nor is it humility : it is the other extreme of egotism, the “the Universe wants it this way” hallucination.
The Universe, the Force, what have you, doesn't 'want' anything in particular. There is desire, but any or all desires we ourselves as individuals may have are part of the universal desire, as well as all the fears associated with those desires compound in the collective tension that gives the Universe its equilibrium and the Force its balance. We have evolved in this way, as as with other evolutionary developments, it is not useless. And insofar as any individual contributes to the Nature of the whole, then also the whole determines the nature of the part.
Our nature is not simply that of the 'isolated Self', for we are indeed the 'organism-environment' to which Watts made reference. Much of the Self we have come to know is sculpted by and from our whole World – and I mean everything – which has ever surrounded us at any given moment. And this is as much biology as it is cultural or spiritual (each of these 'divisions' being concepts). We have come out of this World according to its development, our ancestors of every preceding species we've been have grown and matured in the measure of our capacity to act upon the environment in order to satisfy our needs. The three principal desires being material or those oriented to Self-conservation, sexual for 'self' – rather, the species – propagation or continuity, and evolutionary, that which gives rise to new forms, new psychological and physical capacities.
Among the new forms that have emerged in us the transformation, or perhaps the enlargement, of these three causes, the material and sexual impulses toward social and affective expressions. The evolutionary impulse continues even through these, becoming, as it were, the spiritual aspect. It is this which harmonises the multiple and often conflicting desires wrought by the others.
And it is this harmony that is necessary for us to find fulfilment, it is the essential desire. (cf. Paul Deil) Without this, one or another elemental aspect of ourselves – individual or collective – would remain unsatisfied. One may not ignore affective needs for professional success, nor more mundane ones for intellectual or hypothetical ones. This engenders a warping of the psyche, resulting either in the perpetual, though negligent, search for fulfilment through personal empowerment. Thus, since the reconciliation of the essential desire is of an enormous investment (hardly congruent to the acceptance as we tend to understand it), we resist. And from this resistance, defects of character may arise which dissimulate the otherwise qualities of that character. For instance, behind vanity lies one's self-esteem ; behind guilt, one finds humility ; within maudlin sentimentality, one's capacity to Love is embedded and ; accusation disguises tolerance and compassion.
So, what we must consider with appreciation of acceptance is how are we accepting what ? Our entire evolution as a species has been through acting to modify our environment, to inter-act with it in order to bring about the satisfaction of our needs. Those needs have since been modified throughout the course of our development, but we still have the basic needs to which we must attend – both individually and collectively.
Therein resides the demand for courage and wisdom. If one can act to change things to favour the satisfaction of needs then one must. Of course, these needs must as well not be unethical ones, nor selfish in the sense that they cause un-due problems (and thus generate subsequent un-warranted needs) for others. For this, one must call upon wisdom : the fruit of focus and knowledge. Therefore, acceptance is as much recognising the need to act, as much, perhaps even more, than simply accepting things the way they are. Accepting things the way they are, in their “as-such” as it were, is the starting point only, not the finality.
As has been emphasised in the many essays in which I have touched on the subject of wô-wei, 'non-action', this does not mean “doing nothing”. Wô-wei stresses no 'inappropriate' action. When we can act to change something, this is also the way of the Force. Watercourses do indeed 'flow', they nourish that which is nearby and they alter landscapes – over time carving out large valleys and even canyons. It is often soft, does not insist much, but by its natural action does cause remarkable changes. Sometimes it is violent and causes huge changes very rapidly. It really all depends on the appropriate conditions.
Ergo – wisdom in any matter may tell us to stay our course. Be patient, be simple, be compassionate and accept to change the things that one has to do.
This was actually written in response to something else, but my friend Wescli suggested that it could be a good Sermon. So, here it is :