I asked the participants in the pain management group to think about the words ‘acceptance’ and ‘change‘ yesterday. One person asked whether you had to ‘give up hope’ to accept chronic pain, and another said he could ‘never accept that things wouldn’t return to normal, I don’t want this change’.
At the time I didn’t want to add my own thoughts about acceptance, but as I mulled over the words myself, I found myself trying to define acceptance – and kept coming up with phrases that included the word ‘change‘ every time.
According to wikipedia (oh yes, the font of all wisdom!),
‘Acceptance usually refers to cases where a person experiences a situation or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit. The term is used in spirituality, in Eastern religious concepts such as Buddhist mindfulness, and in human psychology. Religions and psychological treatments often suggest the path of acceptance when a situation is both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only at great cost or risk.
So, acceptance has the connotation of experiencing a situation without resisting it. The image I come up with is a river flowing by, or a flexible stem moving in the wind.
I don’t think you have to ‘give up hope’ of change for the future – it’s more about allowing a situation to unfold while remaining open to the experience.
Maybe this means different things to different people, but to me it does imply being ready to notice and allow events and emotions and experiences and thoughts to simply pass by. Resisting is like a rock in a river snagging things to it until either the river can’t flow, or the whole lot bursts open and floods.
People have lots of ways of coping with chronic pain. Some of the words I hear are ‘fight’, ‘challenge’, ‘beat’, ‘overcome’ – as if it’s possible to ‘go back to normal’ by remaining the same, despite things being vastly different. Other people say things like ‘I’ve accepted my pain’ when they really mean ‘I hate having pain, I’ve given up on things being different – oh but I wish they were back to normal’.
These two ways of looking at life with chronic pain seem to focus on what has been – remaining with life looking backwards rather than looking forward to some of the new things that might be. I think it’s normal to feel sadness and grief and loss for things that are no longer – anger at change is nothing new. It’s a sign of how important those things were, how much you loved them. I think the problem lies with how long to spend in that backwards-looking space, and how much this might distract from the fact that time, life, and everything move forwards (unless you’re in a sci-fi novel).
After a while, and I wouldn’t want to put a time-frame on it, everything else changes around you – seasons, politics, fashion, other people, information, technology. What might remain the same are the values that are important to you, like honesty, integrity, hope, compassion, kindness. At some point, these can start to be the focus for making sense of the opportunities that continue to pass by.
We all age. Aging means losing some of the abilities we have as young people. So it’s normal to have to relinquish some things as time passes by. It seems to me that sometimes when someone experiences something unexpected, like chronic pain, they want to hold on to things that would normally need to be let go. After 10 years even without chronic pain do you really think a person would still be doing the same things? If someone was in a really physical job – at some point wouldn’t it be normal to think about moving to a somewhat lighter job? If someone worked a 60 hour week, wouldn’t you at some point think about having a slightly less demanding job? If you have children, don’t you hope they will grow up, leave home, develop their own life?
And by accepting that things change, these situations offer new things to explore and experience.
Perhaps that’s what stops people from living well with their chronic pain – while looking backwards is painful and sad, looking forwards is unknown and scary.
Do I feel happy about having chronic pain and depression? No way! Do I accept them? Yes, I do (most of the time). Having these experiences allows me empathy, I recognise the need to care for myself (and therefore allow others to need time to care for themselves), I can enjoy the stillness of relaxation where my natural state is to be busy, busy, busy. I’ve become aware of how vulnerable I am, as are others. I judge less harshly – both myself, and others. And occasionally I look backwards and feel regret that I’m not bullet-proof. And you know, that’s OK too. Of course, tomorrow I may hate having these health things, but the funny thing is, hating them and resenting and fighting against them makes absolutely no difference at all to whether I have them or not. I’m just feeling worse and have less energy left over than if I just allowed the feelings to pass.
Acceptance – means change happens and all that remains is who I am, not what I do.