Sunday, May 30, 2010

Answer: Pair-o-Docs

Question: What do you call a couple of Microsoft Word files?

Here's the thing. Many of us have adopted the idea that helping others starts with acceptance. We believe that to love someone is to accept them and be happy with them. We believe that the best way to help children with autism is to follow their lead, to pursue a child-directed program. We believe that one can choose to be happy in any situation.

And yet... Many of us are not only open to change, but actively make change happen. We accept and love the people in our lives, but we also set boundaries and limits. We accept our special children, and yet we conduct elaborate programs designed to change them. We are happy in challenging situations, accepting them, even as we work diligently to change them.

We accept what we have and we don't.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
When I was a Christian, I often heard church leaders who seemed to be quite angry at others simultaneously tout unconditional love. Sometimes the anger would verge on (or become) hatred and I would ask about the apparent contradiction between word and deed. Typically, the person would explain that it's not hatred, it's righteous anger or something of that ilk. However, if I persisted (as I am want to do) in my assertion that 'it sure seemed like hatred', the leader would often say something like, "Well, the important thing is to love the sinner, but hate the sin!"

At that point, I would usually stop my pursuit wondering what exactly it meant to love someone while hating their actions.

In many ways, who we are is simply the amalgamation of our actions. We might insist that who we are is something other than that, but the other-than-that is inaccessible to anyone but the individual. So, say that I am loving you, but I am hating your actions, who exactly am I loving?

I think the answer would likely be some idealized you that hasn't been made manifest through action. A you made up by me.

As a parent loving a child acting out, you see past his immediate actions to a memory, or a rationalization (a set of beliefs of why he's acting out), or a projection (an image of who you want the him to become), or yourself at his age; you see someone other than the malevolent little monster before you. As a partner loving someone whose actions don't even closely resemble those of the one you first loved a decade before, you love a memory, or you love a dream, or you love only in the moments where the current and previous partners align.

In some cases, we abandon specific, focused love of the individual for a vague, general love that we can apply to anyone. However, in any of these cases, it's not clear to me that we're loving and accepting the actual person.

Counting on Change
One of the things that really clicked for me an Iris is that we both wanted to not have children together. I have three amazing grown kids and I feel quite complete in that area. Iris has no desire to have children of her own. It's perfect.

However, there are many couples for whom the question of having children or not is not a slam dunk. In Iris' previous relationship, her boyfriend of ten years simply assumed that she would eventually 'come around'. I know many guys who after divorcing decide that they are done with children. Then they meet someone really special who isn't done--isn't even started yet. The relationship moves ahead, each anticipating the other to change and often avoiding any discussion about children. At some point, one or the other 'comes around' or the relationship ends.

It seems that we sometimes offer a limited-time acceptance with a heavily loaded back-end payment.

Contextual and Temporal Acceptance
Over the past couple of days, Faith, Sree and I have been conversing a bit about this topic. Sree proposed an acceptance model that leap-frogs from moment of acceptance to moment of acceptance. In one comment, Sree offers:
As for the paradox, I guess what works best is when we totally accept what is in the present moment, and go wholeheartedly for what we want for the next moment. Then we arrive at that next moment, totally accept what is, and go for what we want in the 'next' moment, and so on. I suppose we can't want nothing, can we? Taking a breath = wanting to live. So we might as well be fully conscious of our wants and choose 'wisely', as in, in a congruent, integrated manner.
I like Sree's model in many ways. It accommodates both accepting you for who you are now and wanting you to be someone else in the future.

It also unearths something that we often confuse when talking about acceptance. We often assume that acceptance somehow comes with commitment or guarantees; it's almost as though we take the concept of accepting an agreement or a contract and we apply it to people. In reality, accepting someone for who she is in the moment doesn't intrinsically imply anything about whether or not you'll accept her five minutes from now. Acceptance is transitory and contextual.

I especially like Sree's model as it seems to closely resemble how we often operate.

To Love is to Not Accept
It then occurs to me that some of the most useful things that I've learned have come from people who absolutely did not accept my behavior and actions. My dad frequently "made" me do work that I absolutely did not want to do; I learned a lot from that work. My first saxophone teacher, Mr. Grimes, made completely unreasonable demands of my twelve-year-old mind and there were times when I absolutely hated going to lessons; and yet, it's the lessons that I most hated that served me the best.

When working with a stroke victim or a child struggling with his sensory systems, the best therapy is often the one least wanted; we restrain the stroke victim's working hand to force the use of the less-than-working hand; we provide a combination sensory stimulation that is difficult for the child to process to help him develop his sensory processing capabilities.

To love involves helping someone to shore up his weaknesses, not to simply build on his strengths. Shoring up weaknesses is often not pleasant or desired.

Agenda and Manner
One of the things that I've learned from my friend Kat is how important it is to distinguish curriculum from method (or manner). She performs and helps others to perform miracles with children with autism. She always begins with very clear notion of where a child is developmentally and where she wants to take him developmentally, and with a clear outline of all the steps along the way: a developmental curriculum. From that perspective, her approach is structured and directed. And yet, her manner when working with a child has no hint of being controlling or directive or non-accepting or agenda-driven.

She is able to simultaneously maintain a strong vision of where she wants to go while meandering wherever the road takes her. She's strong in her desire for something different and yet easy and comfortable with what is. She's completely aware of context and plan while being totally present and in the moment.

In a Word
Maybe acceptance is the wrong word to describe how we embrace others in love. Maybe it's simply being at ease with them, being comfortable and wanting the best for them. Usually, it's our concept of best and sometimes our concept of best aligns with that of the person we're loving. Sometimes, our concept of best may serve a person in achieving what they want better than there own; in other times, not.

I believe that we often tout acceptance while (covertly or overtly) wanting something other than what we have. When we do this, we muddy the water. Perhaps the answer is to be easy and comfortable with a situation or with another person even as we actively seek to change the situation or the person. Rather than feigning acceptance while silently hoping that change will happen, we can avoid the apparent paradox by comfortably, lovingly and openly wanting and moving towards change.

What do you think?

Happy Sunday!


  1. Teflon,

    Maybe the word "accept" needs to be better defined. Merriam-Webster's many definitions are in, of which my pick for the most relevant is "to recognize as true". What I want is distinct from what is happening. I think we have problems when what we want prevents us from recognizing what is happening. I'm so attached to my desire for a peaceful evening that when my son starts a tantrum at the dinner table, I get unhappy. The faster I recognize the hard reality of the tantrum, the sooner I can move on to resolving his issue and making that peaceful evening possible again. The paradox resolves neatly once we make that distinction.

    You cover a lot of ground here. One thing in particular piqued my interest. One of your subheadings is "To Love is to Not Accept", but I'm not seeing it specifically referenced. You quote examples where others wanted you to change your behavior, but it is not clear if they refused to recognize it as true, or if they had any discomfort with your state at that moment. Also, you don't state if their actions represented love towards you. They certainly seemed to have helped you, which you later propose is one of the components of love. So I'm not clear if "To Love is to Not Accept" is always true, sometimes true or ever true.

    In your last section, you write:
    "Maybe acceptance is the wrong word to describe how we embrace others in love. Maybe it's simply being at ease with them, being comfortable and wanting the best for them."
    "Wanting the best for them" deals with the future, but I presume "being at ease with" deals with them *as they are now*? I think one way to assess that would be to ask Bears' famous question: if this situation never gets any better, how would you feel?

    Acceptance, in whatever way makes sense to us, is huge. HUGE.

  2. Teflon: just wanted to say something else too. As I look back over some of our recent exchanges, it would be very easy to interpret them as an academic exercise. But I gotta tell you, having these concepts clearly defined, structured and understood in my head is the reason why I've been able to stay comfortable in the face of that tantrum, that bop in the head, that trip to the ER (with different kids at different times), etc. I've also found myself marveling at how wound up others have gotten in the same situation that I've read and reacted to differently. Different pair o' dimes, different actions and feelings.

    I love working on my "ease and comfort in what is", though I could certainly use some more "strength in my desire for something different".

  3. Sree, you're really inspiring me to greater clarity. I'm realizing that my resistance to the word ACCEPT has to do with its so often meaning RESIGNED TO: accepting one's lot in life, accepting that you'll never be as smart as Einstein, accepting that you'll never play golf as well as Tiger Woods, accepting that your kid will never talk.

    As I read and re-read your comments, I realized that there's something about the combination of "true" and time that makes a big difference.

    I really like the idea of accepting what's happening in the moment as true. It's empowering allowing me to act quickly rather than dodging about mentally thinking "this can't be happening" or "why is this happening?" or "how can this be happening?" You simply accept what is as what is and start doing whatever it is you need to do.

    I think the problem for me is when accepting the IMPLICATIONS of what is happening starts to get confused with accepting WHAT is happening, when we start to "futurize" and make the potential implications integral to what is true.

    This is where everything goes awry.

    So, there's accepting what is and there is accepting what is implied by what is. I like the former and would avoid the latter.

    With this model, then, how you feel about what is happening becomes independent. I can accept what is happening as true and still feel shitty about it or I can accept what is happening as true and feel great about it. How I feel is still meaningful and affects my response, yet it is still independent of acceptance.

    So, to love is to NOT accept would involve accepting what is, but not going all fatalistic over it regardless of what you've been told: to not accept that you'll never be able to play music while accepting that you can't play music at this moment.

    How's that sound?

    I agree completely, this is anything but an intellectual or theoretical exercise; it's immensely practical.

  4. Ah, good point there, Teflon. You say "there's accepting what is and there is accepting what is implied by what is". One could say what is is 'out there', whereas its implications are not - any implication is made up in my head, generated by me. If I hear the following words "you'll never play golf as well as Tiger Woods", I'll make up different implications depending on whether the words were uttered by a passer-by on the golf course, or my golf coach or if I'm a tribesman deep in the Amazon rainforest. But the thing to accept (recognize as true) is that those 9 words were spoken; everything else is for me to generate.

    To put a finer point on it, 'what is' is a misnomer too. In the milliseconds where those sound waves hit our eardrum and travel up to our brain as electrical impulses and get translated to words, 'what is' has already become 'what was', giving us zero power to affect it. It happened, whether I like it or not. But we have infinite power in choosing what we do in the next infinitesimal moment, and the next, and so on.

    In your example of accepting that your kid will never talk, the only things to actually accept are that a doctor said "your kid will never talk", or that he hasn't talked yet after 5 years of intensely working with him, etc. "Your kid will never talk" is not a 'what is' or 'what was', it is merely a possibility. So I could completely accept that my kid is not talking currently, the 'experts' say he will never talk, and indeed he *may* never talk in the future, but what I do and how I feel in the next moments/hours/days is for me to choose.

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  6. To love is NOT to accept - does that imply "Love can only exsist in the present"

    Does it mean that to love is to accept what is true now and NOT accepting what is true now will also be true tomorrow?
    Then what about tomorrow, I can decide to accept what is true now - but not accepting it to be true in the future of tomorrow?

    To me loving does not include wanting to change a person but it could includ wanting the for the person to want to change, does that make sense?

  7. Joy: It might be more helpful to use the more complete form of that statement:
    To love X is to not accept X (the same X, as it is now).
    Other statements:
    2. To love X now is to accept X as it is now
    3. To love X now is to not accept that X in the future will stay identical to the X of today
    4. To love X now is to accept (acknowledge) that X is not what I want X to be

    It's easier to now test them, say for X = spouse, son, life, current situation, etc.

    Re your last question, yes, wanting for someone to want to change seems more respectful to them than just wanting them to change. In fact, I'd say it's more practical.

  8. Definitely more practical to want someone to want to change that to simply want them to change. I'm now thinking that love and acceptance are independent (maybe that's why we so often talk both in the same phrase.)

    I can accept what is now as what is and still not accept that it will be so tomorrow. I can feel good about it, I can feel bad about it, I can love it, I can hate it.

    When I say to love is to NOT accept, I'm referring to the idea of resigning oneself to fate or prophecy or prognosis. I believe that when we see someone who's been told that they'll never... or that they'll always... and we love them, then we don't accept that fortune or the fate. We decide that we will not accept and we help.

    In some cases, the person we're helping may themselves have accepted their "fate", and yet we don't.

    Hmmm... Unconditional love, myth or fiction?

    I think that if love=acceptance (in the now), then there are times when we simply cease to love. If we're beaten and decide to no longer accept being beaten (now or in the future), then is it no longer love? Or, perhaps, the two are often coincidental and yet independent.


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