Monday, January 27, 2014

The Morality of Acceptance

Trev left an important comment on my blog post yesterday: he said that to argue that "virtue is constructed of vice" is a "huge jump." And I agree with him. I think I need to clarify a bit what I mean here, and I've realized that the words I've been using to express this idea have been inadequate. So I'm going to clarify what I mean and delineate what I call "the morality of acceptance."

I think that "vice," specifically is the wrong word. It's not big enough. Vice is generally interpreted as a specific bad habit that leads to more suffering, and thus ought to be overcome. What I mean is that everything we view as negative literally constructs everything we view as positive. And also, everything we view as positive constructs what we view as negative.

This first began to occur to me when I read "The Great Divergence" by Kenneth Pomeranz. The book explores the question of why industrialization was sparked in Europe and not in Asia; China and India were both significantly more economically advanced than Europe prior to the nineteenth century. One of the important reasons Pomeranz discusses is slavery. Slavery enabled economic growth in such a way that encouraged industrialization (I'm not going to get into his argument as to why; you can see the book for more details.)

This was really profound to me. I thought about my entire life, which has been extremely comfortable in terms of material well-being. And I suddenly realized that none of that material ease or comfort would be possible if slavery hadn't have existed. Now this doesn't make me grateful for slavery, but it made me realize something profound--when you step out of the judging mind and look at life for what it is, you realize that every benefit comes associated with costs. And likewise, every cost brings along certain benefits.

I believe that the same principle can be applied to individual people. Every particle of suffering I've ever experienced has worked to make me more compassionate. My own inability to overcome my vice has constructed within me the virtue of empathy. My understanding of myself as essentially limited has led me to judge others much less. What I view to be my own greatest virtues have been constructed of what I know to be my greatest vices.

And so I advocate for a morality of acceptance. A morality of prescriptive injunctions, "I should...I ought...I have to...", seems to me to generate more suffering than not. On the other hand, mindful acceptance generates important changes. When we step out of the judging mind and stop thinking in terms of good and bad, we see things more clearly--we see that what bothers us most about other people is also what enables their good qualities. We see that what we hate most deeply in ourselves is what enables our best qualities.

From what I've been able to observe, this seeing changes things. Because as you accept life exactly for what it is and rejoice in it as it is, you develop equanimity. You react to all things the same. You're less bothered, less filled with hate, and more likely to be compassionate. Instead of wishing for people to be righteous, you just hope that they'll be free from suffering. Instead of getting down on yourself, you treat yourself with compassion.

And this is a great irony. Because as you begin to appreciate vice, it begins to dissipate. This is because you no longer judge it. Instead of talking and thinking about change, you become the change.

And this is the base of the morality of acceptance. instead of judging life, you accept it. This acceptance works within you the change you never could have done with judgment or prescription. To me religion is deeply symbolic of this reality. God is the great "I AM." He is the personification of existence itself. Scripture observes that as we accept God, he begins to change us through his grace. I believe that as we accept reality just as it is, we experience this phenomenon of grace. Life works inside of us to change our very nature. It changes us from beings of judgment and prescription to beings of acceptance and love.

And love itself is to accept. It is to embrace people just as they are and only have the best of wishes for them. There is no judgment or condemnation in love.

For anyone who desires to be more loving, I would ask this: how do you expect to cultivate love by the means of rejecting the reality that meets you? Acceptance is cultivated by accepting. It's counter-intuitive because there are many things we feel we should not accept. But practicing acceptance on the most difficult of issues (such as our own vice) builds the quality of acceptance, of love, within us and fundamentally changes the way we approach living.


  1. I can accept a person while simultaneously noting that their actions are leading them and others to suffering. Rejection of an idea is not rejection of the person who believes it.

    What you seem to be claiming here is that since virtue and vice, or good and evil, must both exist for either to exist, therefore vice is on par with virtue as to desirability.
    Then you follow it up with a hope that people will not suffer, a major contradiction, because as you state, one cannot exist without the other. In essence, you are hoping that only virtue will exist, while claiming that it is vice that we must embrace.

    God is good, all that comes from him is good, and through him we are all eventually able to overcome our vices and the suffering imposed on us if we are willing to continue to strive for the good.

    1. I didn't say that my hope was that people don't suffer. I said my hope is that people would be free from suffering. This is very different. To be free from suffering is to cease identifying in suffering; it doesn't mean that pain doesn't continue. These are two very different things. We find freedom from suffering in accepting it, not rejecting it. My hope, therefore, is that everyone accepts their pain.

      I honestly don't think this little online discussion is leading anywhere. I feel like we're communicating past each other. Based on your comments I don't feel like you're understanding what I mean at all, and I think you reject what I'm saying so quickly that you're not putting the time into actually endeavoring to understand what I mean.

      If you really want to engage with the ideas I'm expressing, then I would love to chat in person or on the phone sometime. I just don't feel like these comments are very productive. Feel free to text or call me

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  3. Wow, how gratifying being the impetus for a whole post like this! Thanks for the follow-up. This makes MUCH more sense. I think the terminology you used in the original post is a little different from how it is normally used (though consistent with your explanation here), so it jarred.

    The last paragraph here hit me pretty hard. I think you're right. What's frightening about it is that those who most insist on not accepting use this same logic to defend against further acceptance (e.g. gays marrying will lead to polygamy will lead to...). It can feel threatening to one's morality to try to "accept" (as you define the action--not exactly condoning which is usually conflated with the word; I think I get what you're saying) things one sees as 'bad.'

    However, this refusal to "accept" (again, not condone, but as I think your using it) is very much only just has an internal effect--a negative one--just like anger or resentment. Anger can be justified and resentment can result from legitimately being hurt, but even though it may feel good, it only works against the person harboring it. So, similarly, whether or not I condone something--let's use an extreme example--like murder, if I accept and come to terms that it happens then I do not have to take on me "society's guilt" as it were (and I think that particularly "liberal types" may sometimes feel in the face of societal negative things they feel powerless to substantively fight against) and I can act freely without having to justify my negative feelings. That's extreme example has a bit of an abstract quality to it, but it makes sense.

    I actually want to write more, but it's getting late

    1. You're right that I'm not using the word "accept" with the meaning of "condone." But I really dislike the word "condone" to begin with. Why is it someone's obligation to decide which behaviors they do and do not condone? Condoning or not condoning someone else's behavior changes nothing in the world. In fact, it generally makes them feel more isolated.

      What I'm saying goes beyond the concept of condoning, because condoning comes from the prescriptive mind--it is judgment-thinking. I'm presenting a morality that functions on description, not prescription. As we think deeply about the nature of reality and people and accept it just as it is, something inside of us changes. The poet Hafiz says "something has happened to my understanding of existence that now makes my heart always full of kindness and wonder." The something that happened to him was that he learned to accept reality just the way it was, and not just accept it, but consider it holy.

      Something happens to the mind when we stop judging or thinking in terms of condoning and not condoning. Instead of thinking about the changes the world needs, we become that change. Instead of focusing on what people ought and ought not do, we start to consider why it is they act as they do.

      And when we do this, we come from a place of empathy and start to truly understand why people do what they do. Everyone just wants to be happy. Everyone just wants to find peace. But they think that their suffering is an obstacle to that happiness and peace. And suffering will never go on in silence--it always expresses itself. People do negative, harmful things generally because of their own suffering. When you see this clearly, you no longer think in terms of condoning or not condoning a person's action. You see that condoning is just the flip side of condemning, and neither is our obligation.

      Instead, our obligation is love and understanding. The root of condone is "donare"--to give. The root of "condemn" is "damnare"--to take away. We don't get to choose who gets and from whom it is taken away. Our one obligation is loving acceptance of people the way they are.

      Think of Jesus--he healed the lepers by touching them. He was willing to touch their extremity where other people cast them out. The way to true change is to be willing to touch our own and other people's extremities without judgment, either condoning or condemning. It is to look someone in the eyes and say, "you are no dirty thing. I accept you just as you are." Accepting people exactly as they are changes something about them.

      I'm going to link to an incredible video about using this approach to people who are suicidal. It seems utterly counter intuitive. But I feel like it resonates truth deeply.

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  5. I found your blog through an online skop hotch of sorts through differing blogs, and I have to say I'm glad I found it! This particular entry I find very thought provoking and in a more intellectual regard, aligns with many of the things I've come/coming to understand. Thank you for your insight!