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  • Writer's pictureHannah Neumann

Acceptance and Change

Imagine for a moment that pain is a dot; emotional pain, physical pain, all of it, a dot. You try to shrink your dot. It doesn’t work. You’re told: “Life is suffering.” The dot remains the same size.

Now imagine the things that matter most are spheres orbiting the dot. Maybe you have spheres for family, spirituality, knowledge acquisition, creativity, and health. Each person defines their own values uniquely; the spheres are yours to label as you want.

When you struggle to erase the dot — to numb it, will it away, sedate it, rage against it — the spheres shrink.

To expand them, you need to change your focus: stop trying to erase the dot; tend to the spheres instead. Doing so won’t actually shrink the dot. But the dot surrounded by large spheres seems smaller.

When we expand our lives, our tolerance for pain improves. This is a pleasant side-effect of pursuing our values. I call it a side-effect because the purpose isn’t to minimize the pain; the purpose is to maximize what matters.

Accept pain and move forward. It sounds so simple written out. But how do we accept what is and change it simultaneously? We always do the best we can with what we’re given (internal energy and skills, external resources). How can we do better when this is all we’ve got?

When two truths contradict each other, the solution lies in synthesis. This idea, of reconciling contradictory truths, is called a dialectic.

Take the following two equally true statements: “You’re doing the best you can,” and “You can improve your life.” The former statement acknowledges effort in the face of suffering, and the latter provides hope and motivation. But how can we improve upon our best? These statements, although both comforting and true, are mutually exclusive.

Embracing a dialectic is like looking at this picture and seeing both the vase and the two faces in profile. Dialectical thinking also acknowledges that the vase and the two faces are dependent on each other. Foreground and background must coexist by definition. The picture isn’t of a vase or two faces; it’s of a vase and two faces.

That word, "and," is key to embracing a dialectic. It creates a synthesis of the ideas it merges. "But," in contrast, diminishes one idea over another. Just listen for the differences in tone. “You’re doing the best you can but you can improve your life” sounds like someone arguing with their stuck friend. “You can improve your life but you’re doing the best you can” sounds like that same person excusing their friend’s inertia. “You’re doing the best you can and you can improve your life” is optimal, neither overbearing nor enabling. (For a more dramatic example of "and"s benefits over "but," try saying “I love you” and/but “you disappointed me.”) It’s how we must approach ourselves as well as others: combining compassion and accountability.

In summary, the key to growth is through both acceptance and change. Pain is inevitable and also manageable. Beyond pain, life is valuable; meaning is attainable. We can live contentedly even as we strive to exceed what we are now, ever-evolving.

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