Acceptance vs. “Loving what’s true”

Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time are the two roles we ask the word “acceptance” to play, as in, accepting something difficult or problematic in your life. There are times we mean “acceptance” as in “I accept that there’s nothing I can do about this.” And then there’s “acceptance” as in “I accept that this is the way it is right now,” purely on the level of wanting to believe things that are true. To elide the distinction is to think that your only options are resignation and denial.

I was recently reading Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book “Burnout,” on recognizing and overcoming its causes in yourself and society, and near the end they touch on this very issue:

Know what’s true. And, if you can, love what’s true. But the first step is knowing what’s true—all of it. Even the parts that make you uncomfortable. It is perhaps the most potent “active ingredient” in mindfulness.

Sometimes you’ll hear this experience described as “acceptance,” as in discussions of certain aspects of Buddhist meditation practice. We don’t prefer that word, because it carries an unintended connotation of helplessness—as in “Just accept that this is true…and therefore abandon any hope that you can change it.” So instead we use the term “observational distance.”

“Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” Emily and Amelia Nagoski. p. 204

With the “…and therefore,” they point out how easily you can slip from acceptance-as-knowledge to acceptance-as-resignation — though of course to improve any bad situation requires facing it.

“Know what’s true” really resonates with me. I have a little more trouble with the line, “And, if you can, love what’s true.” I know certain stoic schools of thought really push the idea that you should try to love even the awful things about life, because of what they can teach you and help you grow in, but I think I would rather call awful things awful and try to change them.

So ultimately, going on in this passage are several different ways of relating to reality:

  1. What is true.
  2. What you think is true.
  3. What you think could be true sometime in the future.
  4. What you want to be true.

“Acceptance,” meaning facing reality with accurate beliefs, means that what you think is true (#2) is actually true (#1).

“Acceptance” as resignation means that what you think could ever be true (#3) is only what you think is true now (#2 or #1). That’s “Give up hope of any change.”

And if your beliefs (#2) are swayed away from reality (#1) toward what you want to be true (#4) instead, that’s wishful thinking.

My personal goal is to have #1 = #2 (“Know what’s true”) and to have #3 = #4 (“Believe that change is possible”). But since I don’t want #2 to have to equal #3 or #4, I don’t want to commit to #1 equalling #4 either — in other words, I don’t want to have to “love what’s true.”

How about you? Do you have a way of understanding “Love what’s true” in a way that makes more sense to you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Acceptance vs. “Loving what’s true”

  1. My most charitable interpretation of “love what’s true” comes from my experience doing math research, where I often have to reconcile my hopes about what is true of the mathematical objects I study, with the reality they eventually reveal to me (or, all too often, that they don’t). I try to remember that if I think, even hope, something is true, and then it isn’t, that that’s the most interesting outcome of all, because I’ve learned that the scope of mathematical possibility is richer than I had imagined.

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  2. oh man this inspires so many thoughts… so I apologize in advance for this very long comment…
    The biggest thing that comes to mind for me is the serenity prayer, which I prayed a LOT the past several years…
    Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    An the wisdom to know the difference.

    When I was younger, I always thought the hardest part of the prayer was accepting the things you couldn’t change. The last decade has taught me that the much harder part (for me at least!) is finding the wisdom to know the difference.
    so similar to your charitable interpretation of loving what is true- that seems to me like radical acceptance of the things you cannot change. The mathematical and scientific constructs of the universe seem a pretty solid starting point. Death. Being 5’2 when you wished your genetics had given you a 6 foot frame.
    But if we don’t have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we truly can’t, it’s so easy to look at the big problems of the world that we CAN have a small piece in changing and just shrug our shoulders and say “well, it is what it is…”

    I also think there’s something about radical self acceptance accepting what is true about you or a situation FOR NOW or IN THIS MOMENT but that need not always be true. If a person with a broken bone tries to reject the truth of the broken bone it will never get better, but if they can choose to love that they KNOW they have a broken bone, even though that fact sucks, then hopefully they can start on the path to healing it and move toward a truth where their bone is no longer broken…

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    1. No apology necessary — I love these thoughts! I nearly referenced the serenity prayer in the opening; it was on my mind while writing as well. It’s like it’s saying, “Help me mentally move on from all and *only* the things I really *can’t* do anything about,” invoking that same dilemma between facing the truth and giving up agency.

      I think the broken bone analogy is a really good one: the way to actually get better is to recognize that (a) there really is a problem, (b) you need the help of others to get it on the mend, and (c) in the meantime you’ll just have to ask less of yourself while it heals. No amount of positive “I can do it! Just have to power through!” thinking will actually fix the problem.

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