One of the most challenging aspects of life is to accept things as they are. Jesus, Alcoholics Anonymous and the 13th century Persian poet Rumi teach us this. The AA prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” reminds me of Rumi’s poem “The Guest House.” In it, he tells us that whether it be a “joy, a depression, a meanness,” we are to welcome them all.
Are you feeling sorrowful, sad, shameful, wicked? Meet those emotions at the door laughing, he writes, and invite them in. As the AA prayer says, if you can’t change it, accept it. Easier said than done, you say. Aren’t we told to think positive thoughts, to see the glass as half-full, to look on the bright side of life? Why is it good, then, to welcome sorrow, shame and negative emotions? Because first, we admit the truth about how we are feeling and, you know what Jesus said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Plus, by welcoming what the day brings us — joy, sorrow, peace, frustration — we discover that everything is our teacher. Rumi warns that a crowd of sorrows might swoop down and rid your house of all your furniture, but it is possible that those sorrows are “clearing you out for some new delight.”
It’s easy to accept our positive emotions but when we feel rejected, lonely, afraid or helpless, for example, our first instinct is to say, “I don’t need this!” or “I don’t want this!” To rid us of those emotions, we often try things that we realize do not work, so we fall deeper into the rabbit hole of frustration. What seems counterintuitive is to look those emotions square in the face, admit that they are real, and welcome them fully into our present moment.
Take Jesus’ seven last words. If anyone could be angry and resentful, it would be Jesus hanging on the cross. Instead, Jesus forgives his torturers and expresses his feelings of “thirst,” which has deeper meaning than wanting water; rejection, wondering why God has forsaken him; a resignation to die; and love for the “Good Thief.” He never lashed out or asked, “Why me?” Instead, he fully accepted the truth of his current state and, as Rumi suggested, welcomed each experience and emotion as an “unexpected visitor.”
A process that may help facilitate your acceptance is to experiment the next time you are experiencing a milder, negative one. Let’s say your favorite sports team loses. As a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, I’ve had my share of disappointments this season. When we didn’t make it into the playoffs this year, coupled with the fact that I live in Minnesota and the Vikings at least got to play one post-season game, I felt sad. I sat with that emotion for a while and examined the sadness and where I felt it — in my gut, my heart.
This is how I feel right now, I said aloud to nobody in particular, and I have no plans to change those feelings at least for the next few hours! Facing those emotions, describing where I felt them, accepting what I was not able (or maybe willing) to change right then, gave me a surprising sense of peace.
What have I learned from welcoming my emotions and experiences? To be immediately present to the moment, to feel integrated, holding on to that part of myself affected by circumstance, knowing that I have added yet another element of compassion to my world.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)