Taking what is offered.

Lately I’ve been reading about “acceptance” as a spiritual practice.

To accept means to take what is offered.

Acceptance as a spiritual practice is about taking life as something offered, especially the parts of life we usually reject, deny, ignore, or struggle against.

The Old Testament begins with the story of the origins of human suffering.

In this story, human beings once existed in a world that was entirely good.

Eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil opened the first humans’ eyes to good and evil, ruptured their relationship with God and brought about suffering and death.

The orthodox interpretation is simple: human life and happiness lies in union with God. Yet the first humans ate from the tree against God’s explicit command. Regardless of the precise significance of the tree itself, the act of disobedience was enough to break the relationship with God and introduce suffering and death into human experience.

Obedience comes from the Latin obedire which literally means to listen, or to hear. It is fitting in this context that humanity fell from the paradise of communion with God because they ceased to listen to God and instead sought to be “like God” in their own right, through knowledge of good and evil.

Nor does the story say that they were wrong. They did become “like God”, and their eyes were opened to good and evil.

In our own experience, knowledge of good and evil doesn’t refer to an objective, theoretical understanding, but to an immediate, practical and subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. We see the world in terms of our own personal profit and loss.

One interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ is as the ultimate sign of how we can return to paradise – through a reversal of the fall.

The crucifixion that formed the central motif of Christianity for millennia denotes an act of faithful acceptance of suffering and death in direct opposition to the knowledge of good and evil that otherwise rules our lives.

In anticipation of his death, Christ’s words encapsulate the answer to the fall:

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Christ’s crucifixion and death is presented as the ultimate atonement on behalf of all humanity. Atone is a contraction of “at one”, its literal meaning is the same as union or communion.

The union of God and humanity was broken by the human pursuit of knowledge of good and evil. The path to re-union is indicated by Christ’s acceptance of God’s will for him. As the quotation above demonstrates, the answer to the fall is to accept God’s will in spite of our sorrow and suffering. Knowledge of good and evil is thus not extinguished or abandoned. It is still there, just as the tree of knowledge stood in the garden both before the fall and after. But putting the will of God ahead of the knowledge of good and evil means we no longer eat the fruit of that tree.

The way of the cross is the return to paradise, as Genesis tells us:

“at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way to paradise is guarded by a flaming sword, just as the way to eternal life is found through death on a cross. The way to the tree of life looks like death. In losing our life, we save it. We can’t return to the garden without passing through the fire.

What does all of this have to do with acceptance?

Acceptance means to willingly take what is offered, and if we apply it to the sufferings and struggles in life it implies not only that we willingly take them, but that we regard them as something offered.

Eden is not a literal garden; the paradise consists in union with God. This union cannot be attained if we adhere to our own subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. Acceptance of the life we are given does not mean pretending that everything is good. It means that we align our will with something greater than our own sense of good and evil, profit and loss.

That is the choice before us. If we adhere to our sense of good and evil we will continue to pursue a self-interest dictated by fear and desire, struggling against the reality before us. If we accept reality in spite of our fears and desires, then we are accepting the life that is offered us right now by God.

Maybe your first thought is “well God can keep that reality, I don’t want it”. But that’s pretty much the point here. Acceptance is a different state from our usual play of good and evil.

If you think it would be pretty bad to accept parts of your reality, then you’re operating from the knowledge of good and evil. If you think you can try accepting this bad reality just to see if it changes into a good reality, then you’re still operating from the knowledge of good and evil.

That’s why accepting reality is so hard. It’s hard because it transcends our usual measures of good and evil. It takes us to a place we almost never visit, a place where we are no longer ruled and burdened by obsessive self-interest.

But let me tell you again that it is hard. Really, really hard.

 

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Stress and the melancholic temperament

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Last week I was talking to a friend and fellow melancholic, stressed out in the middle of her Med exams, overwhelmed and fearing the worst.  Why do melancholics get so stressed and what can we do to alleviate stress?

Melancholics are always fearing the worst.  We’re haunted by thoughts of what could go wrong, as if by anticipating it we can avoid it.  But in practice we just end up plagued by worries, anxieties and an overriding pessimism.

It’s a lot like watching my toddler son in a new environment. I take it for granted that I have to watch him constantly. I literally cannot take my eyes off him for a moment. At the same time I’m hyper-vigilant for anything within reach that he might damage or that might damage him.

My wife is the opposite.  She finds herself easily distracted, and is often taken by surprise when our son reaches some precarious object or takes a tumble over an obstacle.

It’s not that she’s any less caring, in fact she’s much more caring than I am, but she doesn’t have the same lifelong practice of expecting things to go horribly wrong.

I’ve found I can’t really help it, but my mind is almost always preoccupied with thoughts of how things could go wrong, have gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s partly a side-effect of trying to understand how things work: if you know how something works you’re immediately much more conscious of how it might cease to work.

But it’s also because melancholics are a little slower at forming impressions and reaching conclusions compared to some of the other temperaments. In practice it might mean that a conversation with a choleric, a sanguine or phlegmatic unfolds with the melancholic experiencing a definite but incomplete sense of something wrong with the other person’s logic or intentions.  It might take days or weeks for the melancholic to unravel the errors and clearly define the problems in the other person’s proposal.

This increasingly wary attitude to human interaction seeps into everyday life. Whether I’m driving, working, going to the shops, not going to the shops, talking to people, cooking, exercising, reading, or just sitting still – I can’t help but be acutely aware of the possibility of error, an awareness of all the possible threats, dangers or pitfalls in what I am doing, not doing, or planning to do.  The resulting hyper-vigilance is a little like having PTSD but without the flashbacks.

I’ve found it is possible to ‘switch off’ this wariness, but it requires a concerted effort. Doing nothing is hard work.

In times of acute stress it’s not the fear per se that makes life unbearable, it’s the effort to avoid the feared outcome within a condition of uncertainty.  What stresses us is the effort to, for example, avoid failing an exam when the precise requirements for avoiding such an outcome are unclear.  ‘Study hard’ is the obvious answer, but how hard is hard enough?  For a melancholic these situations become a terrible trap because we tend to err on the side of excess, downplaying the costs of stress, and demanding of ourselves an impossible effort as though feeling stressed and exhausted is itself the only valid evidence that we have worked ‘hard enough’.

Unfortunately this extreme and idealistic approach actually blinds us to more creative, considered, and efficient methods.  It doesn’t allow us the space to reflect on how best to prepare, and is especially difficult for young melancholics who are as yet unaware that their most efficient methods of studying might differ markedly from the mainstream approach.  It takes a great deal of experience before we learn to rely on our own idiosyncratic ways of learning.

The best way to make space for reflection is to embrace the underlying fear of failure: to identify the worst, most humiliating outcome, and embrace it as a possible reality.  If you fail your exams you will indeed be humiliated and set back a year, but as undesirable as such an outcome would be, it would at least bring certainty and with certainty an end to the stress.

Taking time to really face such fears soon shows that they are not as dire as they seem.  Remember: it’s not so much the feared outcome that causes stress, it’s the self-imposed effort to avoid the outcome without really knowing whether one’s efforts are efficacious.

Another way to diminish the uncertainty is to build a sense of context, or a set of parameters which might give at least an approximate sense of certainty.  For example, you may not know if you’ve studied hard enough to avoid failure because you expect that studying ‘enough’ should bring with it some magical sense of competence and sufficiency.  But you can start to build a context by asking yourself whether you have consciously chosen or allowed yourself to not study as much as you usually would, ie. are you slacking off according to your own usual standards?

Alternatively, you can imagine what it would be like if you were trying to fail.  How different would that be from your current level of work?  It’s often reassuring to realise that you would find it hard to do nothing; you would struggle to really give up and let yourself fail.

There’s a measure of self-honesty required here, but I think for melancholics self-honesty is not a problem, rather the problem is knowing what questions to ask ourselves, or the broader context we need in order to put our problems in perspective.

The ultimate perspective for a melancholic is the idea that we are all going to die one day, and that nearly every stress we face in life pales in comparison to our final destination.  As morbid as it might seem to other temperaments, the thought of death can help a melancholic regain a healthy perspective on otherwise stressful situations.  The fear of failing an exam is ultimately misguided once we realise that no exam result, medical or other career, nor most of the things that cause us daily anxiety and stress will matter at all when we are gone.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.

And:

Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

As idealists and perfectionists, life for a melancholic is never straightforward or easy.  We need these creative and eccentric approaches to help us navigate a complex world replete with sources of anxiety and stress, a world increasingly dominated by the worst tendencies of other temperaments.