I have been having a hard time reconciling two pieces of accepted wisdom. The first is to “be the change you want to see in the world”, to work towards improving the world and the lives of others. The second is the idea of acceptance as can be found in Stoicism, Buddhism, and other religions and philosophies. This idea of learning to accept the world as it is seems like a key to happiness, but if we accept the world as it is, why work to improve it? Conversely, if there is something we think ought to be changed about the world, how can we accept it as it is?
In his podcast episode on Acceptance vs Resignation, Noah Rasheta addresses this seeming contradiction with the excellent analogy of tetris. In a game of tetris, there is little point in wanting specific pieces to come next or to becoming upset when a certain piece arrives. A player is better served just observing the pieces as they arise and finding the best use for them in that moment. Analogously, Noah argues, we should learn to in any given situation to first observe the world as it is and our thoughts therein, and then take action.
I’ve found a useful exercise for achieving this is adapting the meme phrase “this is my life now”. Whenever something surprising or upsetting occurs in my life, I’ll take a breath and repeat the phrase “this is my life now”. As I do so, I imagine that I’ve been born anew in that precise moment, still equipped with my previous memories, abilities, and experiences, but without any expectations I might have had in the past. How would I react? Given that this is my life, what will I do with it? In those moments, taking stock of this new life I’ve found myself living, I often find my first reaction is gratitude rather than the upset I was feeling before. I recognize all of the pieces of my life that give me joy and see that there is usually a path forward from whatever crisis (minor or major) I was facing.
A lot of the unhappy moments in my life stem from a gap between my expectations and the reality of the moment. I find this exercise useful because it resets those expectations, cutting away the echoes of past expectations that often unfortunately carry forward far past their expiry date, and grounding myself in the realism of the present. And in assessing the present, I induce a state of mindfulness, empathy, and gratitude.
With this analogy and exercise in hand, I do feel like there is less tension between striving and acceptance. There is no point in railing against the world as it is or expecting it to change in a day or a year. But, if we accept the world in its current state, we can often figure out how best to act in it. There is a gap here, though, that I’ll turn into a prompt for you. Even when we find acceptance, how do we decide how to act? What goals do we set for ourselves? Are there general rules or does that fall into the trap of expectations and should we judge each situation for ourselves?