The Courage to Accept Acceptance
There is a basic principle in theology which states that faith or Scripture contains the answer to the deepest questions of the human heart. Faith is about life, my life. Faith is like x-raying my human existence. It helps me to live better, to be more human, to be more integrated. Faith is to discover that there is only a oneness: God is the deepest Ground of my being.
One of the deepest needs of the human heart is the need to be appreciated. Every human being wants to be valued. This is not to say that everybody wants to be told by others how wonderful he is. No doubt there is that desire, too, but that is not fundamental. We could say that every human being wants to be loved. But even this admits of ambiguity. There are as many varieties of love as there are species of flowers. For some people, love is something passionate; for others, it is something romantic; for others, love is something merely sexual. There is, however, a deeper love, a love of acceptance. Every human being craves to be accepted, accepted for what he is. Nothing in human life has such a lasting and fatal effect as the experience of not being completely accepted. When I am not accepted, then something in me is broken. A baby who is not welcome is ruined at the roots of his existence. A student who does not feel accepted by his teacher will not learn. A man who does not feel accepted by his colleagues on the job will suffer from ulcers, and be a nuisance at home. Many of the life histories of prisoners reveal that somewhere along the way they went astray because there was no one who really accepted them. Likewise, when a religious does not feel accepted by her community, she cannot be happy. A life without acceptance is a life in which a most basic human need goes unfulfilled.
Acceptance means that the people with whom I live give me a feeling of self-respect, a feeling that I am worthwhile. They are happy that I am who I am. Acceptance means that I am welcome to be myself. Acceptance means that though there is need for growth, I am not forced. I do not have to be the person I am not! Neither am I locked in by my past or present. Rather I am given room to unfold, to outgrow the mistakes of the past. In a way we can say that acceptance is an unveiling. Every one of us is born with many potentialities. But unless they are drawn out by the warm touch of another's acceptance they will remain dormant. Acceptance liberates everything that is in me. Only when I am loved in that deep sense of complete acceptance can I become myself. The love, the acceptance of other persons, makes me the unique person that I am meant to be. When a person is appreciated for what he does, he is not unique; someone else can do the same work perhaps even better than he. But when a person is loved for what he is, then he becomes a unique and irreplaceable personality. So indeed, I need that acceptance in order to be myself. When I am not accepted, I am a nobody. I cannot come to fulfillment. An accepted person is a happy person because he is opened up, because he can grow.
To accept a person does not mean that I deny his defects, that I gloss over them or try to explain them away. Neither does acceptance mean to say that everything the person does is beautiful and fine. Just the opposite is true. When I deny the defects of the person, then I certainly do not accept him. I have not touched the depth of that person. Only when I accept a person can I truly face his defects.
To express it in a negative way: acceptance means that I never give a person the feeling that he doesn't count. Not to expect anything from a person is tantamount to killing him, making him sterile. He cannot do anything. It is said that children with rickets scratch lime from the walls. People who are not accepted scratch acceptance from the walls. And what are the symptoms?
- boasting: in a subtle or obvious way they provide themselves with the praise they want so badly.
- rigidity: a lack of acceptance causes a lack of security on the path of life and, a fortiori, lack of courage to risk one step to either side of the path.
- inferiority complex: this simply defines the above conditions.
- masturbation or any other superficial joy: deep down there is so much lacking that they endeavor to get whatever they can out of life in an easy way.
- the desire to assert themselves, the frightful power to impose themselves, the excessive need for attention, the tendency to feel threatened, to exaggerate, to gossip, to suspect others: these are other symptoms of lack of acceptance.
The really balanced person does not have to indulge in these measures. Erik Erikson in his book, Young Man Luther, writes:
In (his) first relationship man learns something which most individuals who survive and remain sane can take for granted most of the time. Only psychiatrists, priests and born philosophers know how sorely that something can be missed. I have called his early treasure "basic trust;" it is the first psychosocial trait and the fundament of all others. Basic trust in mutuality is that original 'optimism' that assumption that 'somebody is there,' without which we cannot live. In situations in which such basic trust cannot develop in early infancy because of a defect in the child or in the maternal environment, children die mentally. They do not respond or learn; they do not assimilate their food and fail to defend themselves against infection, and often they die physically as well as mentally.1
I am accepted by God as I am--as I am, and not as I should be. To proclaim the latter is an empty message because I never am as I should be. I know that in reality I do not walk a straight path. There are many curves, many wrong decisions which in the course of life have brought me to where I am now and Scripture tells me that "the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Ex 3:5). God knows my name: "See I have branded you on the palms of my hands" (Is 49:16). God can never look at his hand without seeing my name. And my name - that's me! He guarantees that I can be myself. St. Augustine says, "A friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you." That is the dream we all share: that one day I may meet the person to whom I can really talk, who understands me and the words I say - who can listen and even hear what is left unsaid, and then really accepts me. God is the fulfillment of this dream. He loves me with my ideals and disappointments, my sacrifices and my joys, my successes and my failures. God is himself the deepest Ground of my being. It is one thing to know I am accepted and quite another thing to realize it. It is not enough to have but just once touched the love of God. There is more required to build one's life on God's love. It takes a long time to believe that I am accepted by God as I am.
How often have we been told that it is important that we love God. And this is true. But is it far more important that God loves us! Our love for God is secondary. God's love for us is first: "This is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God's love for us" (1 John 4:10). This is the foundation. Karl Rahner once made the remark that we live in a time when there is much interest in Church politics (e.g. the pill, the reform of the curia, celibate priesthood). This may be the sign of a deep faith. It can also be the sign of a lack of faith. The basic faith is that I know myself to be accepted by God: "We ourselves have known and put our faith in God's love towards ourselves" (1 John 4:16). This is the content of our faith - "God's love towards ourselves." The whole Apostles' Creed is nothing but a statement twelve times over of belief in this very love which God has for us.
On the night before he died, Jesus prayed to the Father: "that you love them as you loved me ... so that your love for me may live in them: (John 17:23, 26. NAB). It seems incredible that God loves us just as much as he loves his son, Jesus Christ. Yet that is exactly what Scripture says. We human beings are divided in many ways: 1) in time - For us, one minute comes after the other and our time is spread out. It is not so with God. God lives always in one ever present now. There is no division. Eternity means that the whole of time is condensed in this one moment which lasts forever; 2) in space - We have certain limited extensions. It is not so with God. God is completely one; 3) in love - We are divided in our love. We like a person very much (90%) or in an ordinary way (50%) or very little (20%). God does not measure love. God cannot but love totally - 100%. If we think God is a person who can divide his love, then we are thinking not of God but of ourselves. God is perfectly one, the perfect unity. We have love, but God is love. His love is not an activity. It is his whole self. If we but grasp some idea of this, we understand that God could not possibly give 100% of his love to his Son and then 70% to us. He would not be God if he could do that. When we read the dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, we get the impression that God has nothing to do but simply occupy himself with Catherine. And that is right. The undivided attention of God is with her and with each of us.
Tillich defines faith as "the courage to accept acceptance" and he means acceptance by God. We may think that such faith does not demand much courage. On the contrary, it may sound sweet and easy. But courage is required and very often it is courage that is lacking. Why is it courageous to accept acceptance: Firstly, when things happen to us which disappoint us, we are inclined to complain "How can God permit this?" We begin to doubt the love of God. It takes courage to believe in God's acceptance no matter what happens to us. Such an act of faith goes beyond my personal experience. Faith is then an interpretation of life which I accept. Secondly, God's love is infinite. We can never grasp it, never get hold of it, much less control it. The only thing we can do is jump into its bottomless depth. And we do not like to jump. We are afraid to let go. The Swedish convert Sven Stolpe says that faith means to climb a very high ladder, and there while standing on the very top of the ladder, to hear a voice which says, "Jump, and I'll catch you." The one who jumps - he is the man of faith. It is courageous to jump. And there is the third reason which is more subtle but nonetheless real. It is fairly easy to believe in God's love in general but it is very difficult to believe in God's love for me personally. Why me? There are very few people who can really accept themselves, accept acceptance. Indeed, it is rare to meet a person who can cope with the problem "Why me?" Self-acceptance can never be based on my own self, my own qualities. Such a foundation would collapse. Self-acceptance is an act of faith. When God loves me, I must accept myself as well. I cannot be more demanding than God, can I?
1. van Breemen, S.J., Peter G. As Bread That Is Broken (Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, Inc., 1974) p.9-15.