“What place does acceptance have in this wasteland of a year? My view, informed and influenced by living with a severe inherited disability, a fragile skin condition is that it has a central, vital place.”
t has been a hellish year since March of 2020: the kind of year that is difficult to even recognize as having happened, let alone treat with any degree of acquiescence. Things have happened that we thought never would, things meant to be banished to another time. We feel conscripted into a drama played by ghosts in the ruins of yesterday. But the plague year came and is still with us. We can remember a time before, but it is painful to recall the sharing of life’s joys and griefs close at hand with those we love and care for.
What place does acceptance have in this wasteland of a year? My view, informed and influenced by living with a severe inherited disability, a fragile skin condition is that it has a central, vital place. Acceptance makes it possible not only to cope with what Michael Oakeshott calls the “predicament” of life but to appreciate the gift of life itself, even in darker times than we had hoped to live through. There is only so much one can change or effect in this fallen world of ours, our broken nature radically insufficient to shape reality to our ever-changing whims. The hard edges of our existence in this implacable world have made themselves felt these last months.
This is part of acceptance, Peter King argues in The Antimodern Condition: An Argument Against Progress. Acceptance recognizes and reduces the inevitable implacability of the world and our existence in relation to it. Through an acceptance of our place, as embodied souls in a community-in-spirit that comprises G.K. Chesterton’s democracy of the dead, we bring the world nearer to us. This enables an appreciation of its wholeness and our relationship to it. We are in the world, and it is in us, the interpenetration encouraging a sense of rooted balance.
King’s antimodernism entails repudiating the need for ever-increasing progress built on change that uproots us from our grounding in the world. For Anthony Esolen the future “is a pallid and frail mimic of that longing for an eternal home. It does not lay the foundation. It does not build the spire.” Liberalism is the opposite of acceptance. Liberalism is an ideology rooted in a placeless, timeless view of man, unattached to people or place in a state of nature. Liberalism liberates people from all ties—family, community and country—into an existence mediated by the all-consuming market-state. Covenant becomes contract, trust becomes transaction, liberty-as-excellence becomes license-as-mediocrity.
However, it should not be idolized as the aim of life itself, given its propensity for woeful outcomes after wonderful promises.
Acceptance is—along with appreciation of our ultimate destination beyond this life—also about coming to terms with what we have in our lives as we live them. It is not a denial of change or the possibility of action to drive needed evolution. Change is part of life, as Edmund Burke saw. However, it should not be idolized as the aim of life itself, given its propensity for woeful outcomes after wonderful promises. Acceptance of our place in life and in the world form what Jaroslav Pelikan saw as an icon that points beyond itself to the eternal home to come. This can still the restless heart, halt the ceaseless search for the final destination always just over the horizon of our mind’s eye, never drawing nearer. Instead, we can recognize what we already have close at hand.
There is a mutuality to this, King argues. Knowledge of our place in the world can encourage a sense of what is good about it and allows an accommodation with the world as it is, and with each other as we are. This mutuality borne of understanding and appreciation helps make a place individually “mine,” relationally “ours.” This sense of reciprocal belonging is shared with and reinforced by those we love, with those we hold close in the good times and bad. The sense of meaning that comes from this is inherently relational: joining us to the world, joining us to each other.
By way of our inherent interdependence, acceptance ripples out through bonds of family, community, and society. Acceptance is inherently political, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, accepting our place in the world in relation with others. It can instill a sense of shared responsibility born of reciprocity and love that encourages us to restrain our unbound ambitions and desires, restraint from within making society possible, reducing coercion from without. Along with recognition of needed self-limits, acceptance brings what Adam Smith in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments saw as the recognition of how we should be of service to others, whom we care for as for ourselves.
A growing sense of relational obligation has been a source of consolation in my own life. Self-restraint is a way of acting through denial of baser instincts grounded in self-pity that stem from a sometimes brutal reality. This is an act of ownership in a life where so little of one’s own agency is instantiated, where dependence is both benevolent and malignant, the malignant holding the potential of resentment at apparent helplessness. The reciprocity of accommodation through self-restraint strengthens the bonds of companionship with those closest. Through this, we can reconcile with the imperfectability of life. In my case, this is the reality of having a debilitating disability that can leave scars on the soul through the pain it brings.
This understanding and accommodation comes with, as Christopher Lasch wrote, an appreciation “that there are inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history.” In Lasch’s words, an acknowledgment of one’s finitude means acquiescing to “the body’s decay as something against which it is more or less useless to struggle.” This is something with which we must all come to terms in life, sooner or later. Acceptance of our finitude means, as Lasch argued, a recognition of our limits. The tragedy of our finite existence (and the vicissitudes inherent to life) means we cannot escape the realization of the ultimate limit of mortality. Attempts to so escape are rooted in the fear of death innate to us, made worse by the liberal drive to control and seek mastery over the world and life itself.
The reality of our mortality is something to which many never really pay heed until it is too late, living lives racing into the future when young and, then, surprised at the distance left behind, never having found that which we think we want. It is a paradox that accepting this most final of limits has been one of life’s most liberating things. In some sense, this points to the commonality of the human condition. Being disabled simply heightens the particular experience of what is a universal truth concerning our intrinsic constraints.
But, of course, life is both blessing and burden, this mix of joy and sorrow mirroring the mix of good and evil that wracks the hearts of all.
This may all sound like a call to a passive outlook on life, letting the days slip through one’s fingers. And yet passivity is the last thing acceptance brings or encourages. Change is not eschewed wholesale, but change as life’s highest good is. To accept and affirm one’s life in its broken whole is one of life’s most consequential choices and moral affirmations. It is a choice made from the soul seeking to live with as much peace as is possible in this fallen world, where tragedy is the norm and sadness is betrothed to joy.
Having gained an acceptance of my medical and human condition, the weight lifted from my spirit has been immense. Accepting my place in the world and in life has been hard to come by, one that was fought against as “giving in” and allowing myself to be beaten by the burden I happened to be born with. But, of course, life is both blessing and burden, this mix of joy and sorrow mirroring the mix of good and evil that wracks the hearts of all.
For me, choosing acceptance means hearing the call to choose life. The reconciliation with oneself and the world around allows for a sense of deepening gratitude for having been born into time’s dance. The commonality of brokenness heightened by the experience of my particular disability points to (and reveals) the common solidarity in hope that we can share in the knowledge of life’s gift, the contrast between the blessing and burden sharpening the experience.
Acceptance is neither rejection of the need to act, nor of the stage of the world on which these deeds play out. Acceptance enables affirmation of our dwelling in the world, our being with others and therefore of life itself. The sense of obligation this brings is rousing. Patrick Deneen said of the late “postmodern conservative” Peter Lawler that he saw the human condition as one of wondering and wandering, never entirely at home, but forced to make a home in this world. We are pilgrims through a world of tears, both of gladness and sorrow. Acceptance of the tragedy and hope of this begets this sense of homecoming, expressing our deep need to keep close to us those we love, and our deep desire to retain that closeness.
Rightly understood, acceptance implies hope in the redemptive power of inheritance from the past, present relationality, and legacy to the future. This apprehension of responsibility across time might seem to be oppressive. Yet, in my case, it has had the opposite effect; it has lessened the alienation felt by all in our universal sense of being thrown into the world, made worse by the particular pain of my condition. Companionship with those with us today, yesterday, and tomorrow imbues a sense of feeling at home in the world. Acceptance ultimately instils a belief that life is worth living, even during times such as these.
Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.