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        We Should Accept Others Wherever They Are

 

All the passages below are taken from John Powell and Loretta Brady’s book “Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?” published in 1985.

 

Life itself is a process and we are all "beings in process." None of us has yet come to full maturity; none of us has arrived at completion. We are all fractions on our way to becoming whole numbers. I remember once seeing this sign on a button a woman was wearing: "Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet." God is not finished with any of us yet. We are all en route to our full personal growth and potential. And certainly we all need a lot of patience during the process---patience from ourselves and patience from others.

In the recent research on death and dying, it has emerged that the dying person usually goes through five stages on the way to the peaceful acceptance of death. These stages could be characterized as:

 

1. Denial (No, not me!)

2. Anger (Dammit! Why me?)

3. Bargaining (Yes me, but what if ...?)

4. Depressed Resignation (Yes, I am going to die, but I feel very sad about having to leave this world.)

5. Peaceful Acceptance (My work is done. I am ready now to go through the door of death.)

 

Death and dying counselors warn us that this gradual movement toward a peaceful acceptance of death is a process. They caution us that if we try to move the dying from the stage where they actually are to the stage where we would like them to be, we will probably shut down the whole process. People have to be allowed to move through the dying process at their own pace. True acceptance of a dying person implies that we also accept the pace and the feelings of that person at each stage.

One such counselor tells the story of a dying woman who asked her, "Is there a screaming room in this hospital?" The counselor calmly replied, "No, but there is a chapel where you can pray." The dying person exploded. "If I had wanted to pray, I would have asked for the chapel. I want to scream!" She was obviously in the second stage, and the counselor admitted to the mistake of trying to move her away from her anger. The counselor was uncomfortable with the anger and would have preferred a peaceful acceptance. When we try to accelerate the process, it is often because we mistakenly think it will be helpful. Also, when someone has moved into a peaceful acceptance, it is much easier for us to deal with that person.

The process of human development and growth is much like this process of accepting death. We humans have to move at our own pace, and all during the process we need to be accepted wherever we are. We know, for example, that we cannot insist on consistently mature behavior from small children. We must let them be children and we must accept them as such. We also know that we cannot demand a rigid conformity from adolescents who are trying to learn how to think for themselves and become their own independent persons.

Actually, from conception to death each of us is involved in a continually spiraling process of change and growth: birth-death-new birth in all the phases of our personhood. Every stage of life has in it certain developmental tasks. To accomplish each task and so to further our personal development we must constantly be involved in changing. Obviously, changing always involves giving up the old and comfortable behaviors in order to embrace new and more mature behaviors.

There is a death and a birth in every change. And each death, however small or great, seems to require that we go through the five stages of dying before we can accept and experience new life. If those who love us will only accept us "in process," that will be the greatest gift of their love to us. The journey through life has many valleys that we just can't skip over, and also many mountains to climb that we just can't jump over. It is also true that we need the space and the freedom to make our own mistakes. Trial and error seem to be the only way we can learn and grow. Life is first and foremost a process. And this process is a zigzag process at that.

Consequently, there are no more intolerable tyrants than those who demand that we march to their drums, that we conform to their ideas for us. Sometimes such keepers of the collective conscience seem to be willing to accept us only if we are at a place designated by them. They do not seem willing to accept us in the human condition of process, which always involves trial and error. They have no patience with us "mistake makers." Like an army drill sergeant, they will accept only: "Yes, Yessir!"

All of us have some idea about how frightening self-disclosure can be. Sometimes it feels as though we are crawling out from behind old walls that have hidden and protected us. It feels as though we are ripping off the masks and shedding the roles that have been our only defense. We hold out in trembling hands the gift of our openness and honesty. We are hoping that our self disclosure will be accepted gently and appreciatively. Of course, we try not to let our insecurity show. While waiting for the signs of acceptance we may even affect a casual, I-don't-care nonchalance. But deep inside we are holding our breath, and crossing our fingers.

When someone refuses to accept us where we are in the great life process, it is as though such a person is saying to us, "I do not accept you or your gift. I had something else in mind, something different, something better and more advanced than you are. I cannot possibly approve or accept you as you are."

Of course, we don't make speeches like this to one another. When we do not accept another wherever that person happens to be, we simply look impatient and disappointed. Then we leap in with unasked advice, which is usually overloaded with suggestions for change and improvement. It is obvious that we accept only what the other person can become, not what that person actually is right now. As Charlie Brown once moaned, "The greatest burden in life is to have a great potential."

Why do we find it so hard to accept others at their place in the life process? Why do we try to move them to a place where we would prefer to find them? I'm sure that different people have different reasons. However, one that probably motivates most of us is this: We fear self-complacency in others. I reason that if I accept you where you are, you may just want to stay there. You will become self-satisfied. You will not seek to improve yourself. Somehow this temptation seems to make logical sense, but the human, psychological truth is quite different. The human truth is that, faced with nonacceptance and disapproval, you and I are much more likely to stay fixed in a stagnant place. We will have little desire or strength for self-improvement and growth. We are somehow stripped of our strength if others continue to show disappointment and constantly offer advice about changing us.

What we might be overlooking is the fact that every person has a natural, built-in tendency to grow. Personal growth is something like physical growth. When we look at the body of a small child, we know that all the child needs is time and the proper nourishment. In time the small child's body will grow into its full development. Likewise, when we find another human being somewhere in the course of his or her personal process and progress, we have to have faith that with time and the proper nourishment that person will grow into full maturity.

The proper nourishment for personal growth is a loving acceptance and encouragement by others, not rejection and impatient suggestions for improvement. Human beings, like plants, grow in the soil of acceptance, not in the atmosphere of rejection. We have said that personal growth resembles physical growth: all the energies and tendencies are there. But there is in most of us a civil war that stunts our personal growth. It is our inner struggle for self-acceptance.

The noise and clamor, the push and pull between self acceptance and self rejection, produce the emotional parasites that drain off all our energies. These lost energies were designed to promote and produce growth. Every one of us experiences some struggle with inner anxiety, insecurity, fears of inadequacy, and feelings of inferiority and guilt. These negative forces increase in fury when we are criticized and rejected by others. And the stronger they become, the more painful the civil war becomes. The vision of our ideals is clouded by the dust of this inner conflict. The psychic energies that were meant to be directed to the pursuit of growth are wilted in the heat of the interior struggle.

We are all affected by this human condition of insecurity. Whenever we try to open ourselves up, no matter how nonchalant we pretend to be about it, deep within ourselves we are scared. Every effort to be totally honest and open seems to have a frightening price. What we need most of all is a gentle and reassuring acceptance. We need someone to assure us that it is all right for us to be whoever and wherever we are.

When we detect signs that our listener is closing us out, when we detect the signs of impatience and disappointment, the civil war of our inner fears heats up. The demons of insecurity and inferiority that haunt us begin to move in for the kill. Aware of our dangerous position, we will probably choose prudence as the better part of valor. We will slowly crawl back behind our walls of protection. We will find our discarded masks and decide that it is safer to wear them. It will seem better to pretend rather than to run the risk of being real.

On the other hand, if you will accept me wherever I am, all my energies and desires to grow will be released. If you will reassure me that it is all right to be where I am now, I will have the courage to move beyond where I am. But I will also begin to learn that I can be authentic in my communication without being punished for my openness or rejected for my honesty.

I (John) teach theology in a university setting. It is not at all unusual on this scene that the students should challenge the validity of religious faith. For years I yielded to the temptation to argue, to persuade, to refute, and to counterbalance the doubts expressed by students with my own sense of certainty. When I was finally struck by the insight that this was a form of nonacceptance, and contrary to everything I truly believe, I couldn't wait for the next occasion. When it came, the old and standard objections sounded mild. They were presented in a manner that was somewhat quizzical rather than bitter and belligerent. A tall, handsome kid remarked that he didn't experience God in his life, and that he wondered about others who said they did. Maybe they did, he conceded, but maybe they just had overheated imaginations.

I almost jumped at the chance. "Hey, Joe, that's really honest of you. Thanks for sharing yourself so openly with the rest of us. You know where I am, Joe. I'm up here talking about it all the time. Obviously you are not where I am, and that's good. You're not supposed to be where I am. But I would like to know where you are. I would like to go to your place and walk along with you for a while."

And so, right there in the classroom, Joe spun out his whole story of doubts and certainties, then doubts about his doubts, and so forth. At the conclusion of his story, I again thanked him. I tried to say as clearly as I could that I thought it was good for him to be where he was, and that I accepted him there. I also mentioned that I remember being in a similar place when I was his age. "You're asking thoughtful questions, Joe, and that is good. You're being honest about your doubts, and that is good, too. In fact, Joe, you're a pretty good guy. I hope you know that."

It proved to be the beginning of a long and treasured friendship. In the course of our subsequent sharing with each other, we have both moved far beyond where we were on that day in the classroom. And I think that part of our progress is due to the fact that he knows I accept him wherever he is, and he in turn lets me be me.

One last word on the subject. We have been discussing the importance of accepting others wherever they are. Our context has been that of communication. It is obvious that there are times when parents will have to discipline their growing children. They will have to forbid certain destructive behaviors. They will have to love their kids with what has been called "tough love." Also, there are times in the course of mature friendships when we have to challenge our friends in a loving way. Challenge is certainly a valid part of true love. There are likewise situations that call for us to confront those we love. For example, if a friend or family member is becoming chemically dependent, true love demands confrontation. We can't sit comfortably in our box seats watching those we love destroy themselves.

But the discipline, the tough love, the challenge, and the confrontation will all backfire if they are not built on the foundation of acceptance. At certain times in all our relationships we will need to balance an occasional nonacceptance of behavior with a clear and continued acceptance of the person. It is always absolutely essential that we accept the other person wherever he or she is in the great process of becoming a mature human being.

 

So whoever and wherever you are in your life process: We accept and love you! [90-98]

 

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