Goodwill to All – If You Can Manage It
The Christmas carols tell me that “’tis the season to be jolly” and wish peace to all mankind, but around me I see overwhelm, envy, and resentment as people stress to find the perfect gift, cook the perfect dinner, and create the perfect happy family holiday. (The most relaxing Christmas I ever spent was with a Sikh family in Africa; the day passed delightfully unobserved. Thank you, Sunni!).
Acceptance as a Staging Post
It can be very hard to get from resentment or envy to peace and goodwill in one swift jump; few among us are skilled at this maneuver. Acceptance may be the neutral ground that we can aim for. It’s within sight of us when we are mired in negative emotion. And once we reach acceptance, unexpectedly good things can happen.
Barbara Fredrickson, in a talk to a Mentor Coach audience, described how mindfulness meditation appears to counter negative emotion, while loving kindness meditation seems to help build positive emotion. Mindfulness is about just noticing what is, and letting it be there; in other words, accepting it. Sounds easy, but some days just being able to label a moment or notice that “this moment is OK”, takes quite a bit of awareness and perspective.
Mindful acceptance is an approach that has been used to help manage chronic pain; by noticing but not fighting against pain, people with chronic pain have been able to focus on the aspects of their lives that are meaningful and valuable. They may still have pain, but they can reduce the anxiety and depression that often accompany it, and get on with activities that give them meaning and pleasure in life.
Exiting the House of Negative Emotion
Acceptance may be a doorway through which we can exit “the house of negative emotions” and notice the different “houses of positive emotion” that are always there to be found. We each have our own way of using our strengths and finding positive emotion in the holiday season (see Amanda Horne’s Holiday Strengths) This month Todd Kashdan will get there by being curious, Barry Schwartz through satisficing, Sonja Lyubomirsky through savoring, and Robert Biswas-Diener will be laughing for others (Go, Robert!).
Compassion and Acceptance
George Vaillant, custodian of the Harvard Grant Study and author of Spiritual Evolution, has said that he believes acceptance is part of compassion and that “indeed it is hard to imagine compassion without acceptance.” Acceptance can be “without attachment or selectiveness and so it is not necessarily part of love.” In that respect it may feel like a more achievable goal; “I’m not promising to love you, but I’ll try to accept you.” If we can’t give our love to the world at large, perhaps we can aim for acceptance and compassion.
Acceptance reminds me of gratitude in that by itself, it doesn’t seem so astonishing or powerful, but it enables great changes to occur. Both acceptance and gratitude are portals that can transport us from resentment, envy, fear, and other negative emotions to a place where we are in sight of positive emotion and a positive connection to another human being.
Both spirituality and love lead to feelings of respect, appreciation and acceptance. They are wonderful feelings but not always attainable in the moment (e.g. in the contemporary tenth circle of hell known as an enclosed shopping mall).
Acceptance may not be a positive emotion, but like most positive emotions it does allow a broader view of our situation. By shifting us from a negative to a neutral state it may help us reach positive emotion. This month, if “peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind” feels out of reach, try practicing acceptance. Meditate for a minute. Sit quietly outside the dressing room while your teenager daughter tries on clothes. Breathe while walking from your car to your front door. Who knows what joy it may lead to?
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive . New York: Crown.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.