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Accept or Change?

David Spero

January 5, 2011

You probably know the Serenity Prayer — “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Talk about easier said than done! I guess that’s why people ask God for help with it.

I try to live the Serenity Prayer every day. Really. In living with my chronic illness (multiple sclerosis), or in coping with the discouraging news on wars, poverty, and the environment, I need all the serenity I can get. But I’m not good at it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and spend 30 minutes lying in bed thinking about bad things before I start stretching.

I know that’s the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to do. I should think of all the good things that are going to happen and all the things I need to do, the things I can look forward to, the people I’m going to see that day. Instead, most of my discouraging thoughts are about things that I cannot change.

Most people with chronic conditions like diabetes do the best they can to live well and protect themselves from complications. Check your sugars; count your carbs; exercise! These are things that we can change to a certain extent. But some things we cannot change — our genes, our age, perhaps the stresses we are under, or the pollution we’re exposed to.

Sometimes a crisis comes up — a spouse loses her job, your house is burglarized or foreclosed, or something. Blows like this can throw off anyone’s control. Sometimes blood glucose or blood pressure go up, and neither we nor our doctors can explain why. How do you keep the serenity to accept such things? It doesn’t always work for me, I can tell you.

Then there are things we maybe could change, but we don’t, like a sweet tooth, or an unwillingness to exercise, or an Internet addiction. Is it just that we need more courage, or “willpower”? Or is it something else?

In my life, it seems that most things are much less changeable than I wish or thought they were. I’ve tried all kinds of diets, exercise, relaxation, therapies, herbs, and medicines, without seeing much change in my MS. I’ve worked for peace for 40 years, and been beaten by war-promoters most of the time. I’m still playing computer games and surfing the Internet when I know such activities wear me out. Change is hard!

So I think accepting is at least as important as changing. My friend Alf Adams, who also has MS, says that accepting himself has been the biggest and most rewarding challenge of his life, and that his illness actually helped him accept. As a result, he feels he has achieved a level of inner peace that most of his healthier friends still seek. By accepting his various faults and foibles, he has been able to transcend them — meaning he can look at himself without judging and more easily change behaviors that aren’t working.

But for Alf to get to his current enlightened state, he has suffered huge losses and disabilities. Acceptance isn’t much easier than change. On a Web site for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), psychologist Frederick Penzel, PhD, lists 15 different things a person with OCD needs to accept. Fifteen!

Dr. Penzel says we don’t have to like something to accept it. “Acceptance means agreeing to something, believing in it, and viewing it as true or real. Accepting something doesn’t mean liking it or grudgingly giving in to it. There are many things whose existence we accept that we do not like.”

Diabetes self-management training tends to be all about changing behavior. We rarely learn about the power of accepting things as they are. As I write this, I realize that my work has been mostly about helping people change. I wonder if this work has been as helpful as I imagined. Maybe they would have been better off accepting themselves. Maybe, as psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, we have to accept a thing before we can change it.

I wonder how acceptance and change work for in your life. Have you accepted diabetes? Have you accepted yourself? How did you do that, and has it helped?

I have similar questions about change. Do you have the courage to make the changes you desire? What else stops you? Would acceptance help things change? And wisdom: How do you know what you can change and what you can’t? Thanks in advance for any help you can give.



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