When Acceptance is Not the Answer

In traditional AA circles, one of the most frequently cited stories in the back of the Big Book is “Acceptance Was the Answer” (407-420). What is more or less its main point is apt: Focusing on ourselves is a far better recovery strategy than trying to control what other people do. However, the story goes further and strays off into theological speculation: “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.” (417) 

The author is not alone in finding comfort and confidence in believing in a good and all-powerful god and in being able to just “let go and let God”. Unfortunately, the comfort and the confidence come at the expense of intellectual honesty. There are no satisfying answers to grave questions that are implicitly raised, like: Is it God’s will that children get cancer? 

The main problem with the story though is not so much theological as it is psychological. If our whole approach is “go along to get along”, if we are so intent on buying ourselves a little bit of short-term serenity that we become willfully insensitive to the troubling long-term consequences of our negligence and inaction, if we are smugly passive to the point of being complicit with an unacceptable status quo, we clearly lack foresight, compassion, courage, conscientiousness, moral strength, or all of the above.

Besides being obtuse, the idea that acceptance is the answer to all our problems is arguably at odds with mainstream AA. The Serenity Prayer asks not only for serenity to accept what we can’t change, but also courage to change what we can and wisdom to know the difference. And the eleventh step includes the phrase, “praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out,” the clear implication being that if we are in a situation that calls for action on our part but we don’t feel up to the challenge, it’s not OK to delegate to God what we don’t want to deal with and then sanctimoniously label our irresponsibility acceptance; instead, we need to find the courage, know-how, strength, and determination that will be required to do the right thing, seeking help if we need it.

The implicit question in “Acceptance Was the Answer” is how to get to self-acceptance. Its answer to the question is to offer a shortcut to feeling good about ourselves instead of advocating an approach that would pursue true psychological and emotional wellbeing as a sound basis for healthy self-esteem. Rather than using honest assessment as a tool for self-improvement, it does an end-run around the question of what is truly unacceptable and models rationalization as a path to having an untroubled conscience.

What the story advocates is an example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, wanting to be deemed acceptable without doing our part – striving to be acceptable. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was tortured and executed by the Nazi regime for his role in the resistance movement. Sometimes, acceptance is not the answer. In fact, sometimes, accepting the way things are is unacceptable. To be unbothered and to not feel the need to do something is perverse.

The point is not that we need to take the weight of the world onto our shoulders; it is instead that we need some other criteria for deciding what to take on what to just accept besides whether it feels like too much trouble. Obviously, we need to pick our battles, but we also need to look at how we too readily let ourselves off the hook and how, instead of critically appraising how far our responsibility extends, we rely on default settings, either feeling overly responsible and inadequate or being cowardly and irresponsible and numbing ourselves with rationalizations. These two tendencies seem like opposite extremes, but they have one thing in common. Neither of them accomplishes anything.

Caring comes with a cost, but not caring comes with an even greater cost. The tendency of many to equate success with not allowing sentimentalism gets in the way of doing whatever it takes to win notwithstanding, emotional attachments are healthy. Those who don’t have them are the unfortunate ones. In fact, there’s a psychiatric diagnosis for those who are unable to form healthy attachments ‒ attachment disorder. 

If the problem with the “Acceptance Is the Answer” story is is the way it too cheerfully prevents the intrusion of real world problems that would take us out of our comfort zones, being cold and cynical without compunction is to be even further removed from significant experiences without which life is empty and flat.  There is a sense in which the quality of our lives can be measured by how we answer the question: What do we care about enough to risk our serenity for? But the devil is in the details. Succeeding means going beyond good intentions and cheap talk.

The Serenity Prayer makes doing the right thing sound easy, but there are some important questions we need to not gloss over:

  • Do I have my priorities straight?
  • How can I best translate my commitments into action?
  • How do I maintain perspective and not be defeated at the outset by the sense of futility that can come with the awareness of the intractability of unacceptable states of affairs?
  • How do I come to terms with my human limits?
  • How do I find the sweet spot ‒ that happy medium between too quickly latching onto the lowest hanging fruit and reaching for quixotic grandiosity?
  • How do I summon the courage, resolve, and patience that will be required when I engage in worthy struggles?
  • How do I accept setbacks, forgive myself for my failures, and maintain focus as I continue to move forward ?

Living in the light of these questions can be uncomfortable. Objective observation of what’s going on around us makes us aware of an overwhelming number of distressing problems, any one of which feel impossible to solve, which puts us in a classic double bind in that we seem to have only two options, trying and failing or not trying at all, both of which are intolerable.

It feels like there’s no way around being condemned to a sense of uselessness by the seemingly irresolvable moral dilemma presented by realities central to our social existence that are neither acceptable nor changeable, but limiting ourselves to only two stark options is to be trapped in a false dichotomy. Changing and accepting do not represent a sharply defined either/or. That many problems are resistant to an all-out frontal assault does not put them in the category of “just the way it is”.

We can take a both/and approach ‒ both accepting reality as it is and identifying specific changes we can make. We can summon the courage to unflinchingly assess and accept the realities of what we are up against and our limitations, and we can step back and allow the wisdom that comes with circumspection to inform our change strategy.

In reality, the most formidable obstacle we face isn’t that remedies feel futile; it is instead that we find what effectual remedies require of us to be unacceptable. Contributing to the upbuilding of the kind of world we want to live in requires that we put aside prejudices, peripheral disagreements, and petty grievances and work together with other stakeholders.

We can overcome fatalism, but what it will take is to cultivate qualities that are conducive to community building, qualities like vision, a sense of safety, hospitality, mutual respect, fair-mindedness, open communication, humility, and a lot of patience to sustain hope in the face of frustratingly small incremental gains and frequent set-backs.

For big problems, doing together what we can’t do alone entails a scalable process by which information is shared and organized, deft social coordination by way of intelligently distributed decision-making, division of labor, each of us concentrating on doing our own part, and trusting others to do the same. While building a culture of trust obviously requires that we be trustworthy, it also involves being willing to take risks on the front end and give people the benefit of the doubt until they’ve proven themselves to be unworthy of our trust. It’s better to be burned occasionally than be imprisoned by fear in a lonely, steril cocoon deprived of the benefits of the natural sociability that is embedded in our DNA and is arguably our greatest evolutionary advantage.

The most salient features of long term, quality sobriety in AA are a shift in perspective, from seeing other people’s problems as a burden we’d rather not take on to acknowledging a shared sense of vulnerability, and participation in a community that is brought into being, energized, and strongly bonded together by engagement in a common struggle and by a shared mission. Replacing asymmetrical pity with egalitarian solidarity fosters a win/win dynamic and generates a rising tide that lifts all boats.

We reap what we sow. Practicing recovery principles “in all our affairs” disseminates incalculable amounts of good will. It’s not too radical to suggest that putting the common welfare first is an AA principle that can be extended beyond the rooms of AA, nor is it a stretch to believe that such an investment would produce great dividends.

But there’s a caveat. Not only is finding a way to unite behind common causes a profound existential challenge, the route by which we get there is slippery and tangled. We need rigorous honesty in order to discern the difference between truly responsible solutions and merely shifting the burden onto future generations and others who have no voice, and we need to be mindful of other unintended consequences of our well-meaning efforts.

There are thorny questions around who and what are deemed to be socially unacceptable. Peer pressure cuts both ways ‒ at times, justifiably demanding that we be decent, honorable, and self-sacrificing, at other times, oppressively marginalizing many who have significant contributions to make and whose participation is crucial.

A process that includes all stakeholders is invariably fraught with inescapable moral ambiguity. There is a common tendency to cling to narrow, intolerant worldviews, retreat into bubbles, shut out everyone who disagrees with us, and like Pollyanna, hide behind the pretense of innocence. The wisdom we need to be guided by as we seek common ground is not something that comes down from heaven fully formed, nor is it something we can work out for ourselves in isolation.

Such wisdom most reliably comes out of an ongoing process of negotiation much like what is exemplified in AA’s Tradition 2, a problem solving process that, at its best, produces unforeseeable outcomes that are greater than the sum of the parts. Each of us needs to ask ourselves when to be a good sport and go with the flow and when to courageously go against the current and then trust the process. Good faith participation takes not only courage, but also humility, as we need to challenge groupthink, even as we allow ourselves to be challenged by the uncanny moral wisdom that emerges from a truly inclusive, openly communicative, and fair collective process.

About the Author

JHG endeavors to practice sound recovery principles in all his affairs, aspires to muster courage tempered by wisdom, and struggles with what needs to be let go of, how to root out ego investments in quixotic quests and other unwise endeavors, how to forgive himself for failures, and how to accept his lack of control over much of anything.

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8 months ago

This is a fantastic article. My fav part: How do I maintain perspective and not be defeated at the outset by the sense of futility that can come with the awareness of the intractability of unacceptable states of affairs? Thank you for sharing with us!

9 months ago

Our trusted servants choose misguided acceptance over the courage to change every time they have the opportunity to rewrite the Big Book. They prefer to carry the message of recovery with a book that omits current addiction and recovery knowledge in deference to inaccuracies, myths and harmful instructions to new comers, wives and employers. B.W. cautioned that AA needed to be open to change. He stated as much in the Book, when he wrote that we know very little and more will be revealed. In a later speech, he asked how many new comers we failed because of our inflexibility.… Read more »

9 months ago
Reply to  Glenn

Brilliant observation about the Serenity Prayer. If they felt they had to change it from the original verbiage to what we say in the rooms which asks do change the things we ‘can’ (versus ‘should’), they should follow their own advice. The chapters to families, wives, and employers are unacceptable and even dangerous, yet they are almost always overlooked, if not flat out ignored. It’s unacceptable to know better and advise new comers to “take what works and leave the rest,” because as a new member, how would they know what is the best advice? Unfortunately, that’s the best we… Read more »

Dean W
Dean W
9 months ago
Reply to  Glenn

Traditional AA is a religious organization. Religious organizations very rarely self-correct. So many in the Secular AA movement seem to be waiting for Traditional AA to change. I think we’d be much better off building Secular AA into a stand-alone, independent fellowship.

Mike Burns
Mike Burns
9 months ago

Thanks for a comprehensive explanation of this important subject. I like to point out that the stories in the Big Book are just that; one person’s perception and opinion. Take what you like and leave the rest.😁

9 months ago

Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake… that can’t be corrected with a world wide flood, or at least with a shower of burning sulfuric rain on a city.

“I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.” <- This!

Denise B.
Denise B.
9 months ago

Thank you! I have been arguing this same point about the “acceptance is the answer to all my problems” excerpt for years, without much success (however you word it much more eloquently than I do). Most people just stare at me blankly, either because they don’t understand what I mean or maybe because they don’t want to. It is nice to know there is someone else out there who has taken a critical eye towards this text and sees it in a similar way.