I had a long talk last night with a good friend. We were sharing insights about growing through prolonged health challenges. The word “acceptance” came up and soon we were deep in shades of meaning.
Some definitions of “acceptance” are starkly polarized. Definitions like “submission” or “resignation” have a flavor of settling for a reduced existence. Others -- like “adoption” and “endorsement” -- suggest that acceptance is the first step in welcoming a new, larger purpose -- a bigger life.
First a disclaimer: I don’t believe that health complications are an inevitable part of getting older. How would that belief serve me? A severe or terminal condition is not something I anticipate, but if this is what shows up, a regimen of acceptance is what I’ll prescribe for myself.
Why? Because not to accept what is happening carries a twofold threat:
*One, the resulting withdrawal from social connections, new experiences, sometimes even from going outside is also a withdrawal from serendipitous moments of insight and wonder.
*Two, I would be deflecting energy from recovery to anxiety.
The struggle to recover from something like Lee’s heart transplant has meant accepting pain, massive doses of toxic medications, extreme weight loss and muscle weakness, loss of mobility, loss of privacy and loss of income. Acceptance in the context of any major health hurdle means acknowledging that it’s going to take longer to recover than anticipated and there will be some lifelong compromises required. Lee has scaled this heart-transplant mountain to the peak, but there are still many foothills to conquer before he’s on level ground and his health is considered stable.
Just now, Lee explained that the struggle to make his own breakfast this morning -- with his hands shaking from the steroids -- requires acceptance, because if he didn’t accept the struggle -- if he succumbed and let me do it for him -- he would opt out on the improvement. He said, “You can’t stand still.” Once again, acceptance put him on the starting blocks to recovery and reclaiming his life.
If Lee chose not to accept what is happening -- if he sank into cursing the fates and an endless “Why me?” litany -- I believe that he would be compromising his recovery and forfeiting joy in the moment over and over and over again.
I remember someone telling me once that it is important to tell myself a new story -- if I don’t like the one I’m living. If the story I tell myself is a dead-end story full of complaint and despair, then I am, indeed, at a dead end in my life. Conversely, if I persist in telling myself a story of new doors opening and new discoveries to make, those doors will eventually open and I will learn much about my capacity to grow and to give.
WE ARE CONSTRUCTED OF WHAT WE OVERCOME. This is probably my favorite truism. But first I have to overcome. I can’t lie down and give up. I can’t acquiesce to my circumstances.
All change and improvement begins by acknowledging my point of departure. This acceptance is the step that unlocks the emergency brakes and frees me to move forward -- that frees me to overcome rather than be overcome by my circumstances.
Sometimes it’s damn hard, There have been many times when Lee has wept in discouragement. He’s felt impatient, angry and defeated all at the same time. He believes it’s not only inevitable but crucial to allow himself to feel all of these things. This is the fog of frustration obscuring the pass through the mountains. This fog starts to burn off when he's ready to get back up, voice gratitude for the slightest progress already logged and acknowledge/accept the distance still to cover.
Innumerable times I’ve watched Lee ask himself: How do I put a positive spin on this?
On feeling weak and helpless?
On taking 22 medications in the morning and 19 at night?
On being confined to a city when I love wild places?
On never venturing into the sunlight again without protection?
On not being able to feel touch at several incision sites?
How do I learn from this?
Adjust my course?
Decide on a new trajectory coming out of the spin?
Reach out to people in a similar life struggle to help them accept and overcome?
How do I come out of this with more gratitude, more substance, more allies, more purpose, and more moments of wonder?
Wayne Dyer said that acceptance is the key to enlightenment. Not surrender, but acceptance. I think of it as being at peace with the present without surrendering a wide screen vision for the future
I can consent to receive a new life, a fresh self, even a new mission. I can undertake something that is offered and trust that this undertaking will become clear -- as long as I accept what is and -- embrace what is offered.
Most people equate accumulating -- more clothes, more gigabytes, more square footage, more STUFF -- with stepping up in the world.
It makes sense. When we see someone with nothing but the clothes on his/her back, no shelter from the weather and no idea where the next meal is coming from, most of us feel pity or compassion or disdain. This is someone who has fallen into a less than human existence. Dignity, health and self-respect are often sacrificed. Certainly, this is a step down.
One might argue that the antithesis must also be true. When I have a continually expanding and updated supply of stuff -- maybe a second home, a third car, a walk-in closet, the latest iPhone-- I am elevated to a higher status. Not only are my basic needs satisfied but I am cushioned from need by layers and layers of possessions. I am seen as a productive and successful adult.
In this country, we’ve been conditioned -- even indoctrinated-- to keep accumulating through massive advertising campaigns in every category from shoes to cars to video games to bigger and bigger TV screens. Ridiculously inflated prices and product obsolescence that is not just planned but accelerating dramatically does not deter us.
As a nation, we accumulate so much that we have to rent storage space to put all the things that we often never look at again. On our travels throughout the Western United States Lee and I see these extensive storage bin “cities” thriving within the smallest towns. “First month FREE!”
Lee and I were looking for a better way. Not a lesser way, but a better way -- for us. Not a step down, but a step up into a wide screen life.
It seems a lot of other people are thinking this way too. People who are weary of working most of their lives away just to pay the rent or mortgage. People who want to spend more time with those they love than those they work with. People who want to grab some happiness and new experiences before they run out of life.
As evidence, there’s the “tiny house” movement which is a flouishing part of a broader minimalistic movement. Another sign of this shift is the number of people deciding to live on wheels -- as modern day nomads -- which has climbed rapidly into the millions. These are not just retirees living on their social security income (although this lifestyle makes that fiscally possible). These are people of all ages -- some with 8 to 5 “virtual” jobs, some with children, some planning their adventures around bi-annuals work camping jobs at places like Amazon and the sugar beet harvest.
Some just want to live on the cheap -- and camping in Walmart parking lots and truck stops fills the bill. Some even live in cars or converted cargo vans and sleep on city streets. The name for this strategy is “stealth camping.” On the other end of the spectrum are people wheeling from resort to resort in 50 foot luxury coaches with a dishwasher, washer and dryer, second bathroom and half a dozen big screen TVs. More are like us -- people with more moderate RVs and almost all the comforts of a brick and stick home -- people who are determined to add more peak experiences to our days. Hike to those places that take our breath away with natural beauty that defies description. Sit and stare mindlessly into a campfire until a kind of primal peace lands in our hearts. Surprise ourselves by heading down a road on a whim just to see where it leads. I remember fondly the trip where we decided to see how many spectacular waterfall experiences we could collect within five days in the Pacific Northwest.
Enter “full-time RV living” into the YouTube website and take in the sheer number and astounding diversity of people deciding to step up into a life where a sense of wonder is the driving force -- and stress takes a backseat. Their video blogs have titles like “Less Junk/More Journey,” “Less Stuff/More Joy,” “Live Small/Dream Big” and “Long Long Honeymoon.” They take pride in showing others how to reduce encumbrances and squeeze the most out of the moments of their days.
The process of selling, gifting, donating and discarding two lifetimes of accumulation was enlightening. Once the decision was made, everything became much simpler. We would use this, wear that, find a space for that -- or we would not. The contents of a three bedroom house, of a large office plus two cars, a truck and garden gear departed one item at a time. The heirlooms and the treasures that I thought I could never part with? This was the biggest revelation; these treasures are the most fun to give away. As our load of possessions got smaller and smaller, we really did feel lighter and lighter. It was if we were lifting a heavy load off our backs and skipping away.
We know as we become acclimated to this new way of living -- like those who made the leap before us - we will find more and more things that do not enhance the adventure and will therefore be left behind.
In our previous land-bound life, whenever I proposed donating anything from clothing to electronics, Lee would often comment, “But it’s still good.” And I would respond, “ Yes, it’s still good -- good for someone else. They’ll feel like they’ve stumbled on a treasure.” Yes, we might have used some of these things later, but I’d wager that way more than half the time, extra items just continue to idly take up space.
This divestment is patently different than “downsizing” one’s life. This is not confining. This is liberating. Yes, we’re sleeping, eating and showering in smaller spaces -- but our “yard” is now as wide and long as a continent and includes mountain ranges, canyons and rugged shorelines. Instead of putting in overtime to pay the bills, we put in miles to soak in spectacular sunsets in Furnace Creek Wash for a few days or to hike around Eagle Lake at dawn.
I agree that this lifestyle is not for everyone. My purpose in writing today is not to evangelize but to clarify. To clarify that we are not “stepping down.” We’re not settling for slumming it in a trailer park We are stepping up to a life where each new day holds an unexpected treasure. It will take an adjustment. There are ways in which it will be a less certain, a less comfortable life, but we are confident that this is a way -- for us -- to be more present, to capture the magic as we go -- to step into a wide screen life.
We had set out on this journey six weeks before Lee’s former heart started to deteriorate in earnest. Now nine months later -- with a strong heart for Lee and a stronger determination than ever, we return to the road with a fierce longing to roam and explore.
Susan is a published writer and motivational speaker with 30 years of experience, dedicated to guiding people to a life of financial invincibility and peace of mind.