In my DBT groups, I teach skills to help clients cope with challenging or distressing situations in their lives, without making things worse. One of the skills that we work on is Radical Acceptance, which means acknowledging reality, accepting it for what it is, without judging it good or bad. I share with clients that I understand how difficult it can be to radically accept certain things, and that this acceptance is the only way they can let go of suffering.
So now it has come time (yet again) for me to practice what I preach. I received a phone call this week from one of my dearest friends in the world, and through tears and gasps, she told me that she has been diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, metastasized to her liver to such an extent that the doctors say they cannot remove the tumors. This is an extremely healthy and vibrant young mother of a precious 5-year-old, no family history of cancer, no risk factors whatsoever, and she’s one of those friends I can count on one hand – the true ones – so I’m supposed to accept this?
Trying to recover from the shock and wrap my mind around this devastating news, I pull out the “Radical Acceptance” bullet points I give to my clients when I tell them that accepting some things is very difficult…and I start to wonder if they feel as helpless and overwhelmed as I do right now. The first bullet point reads, “Freedom from suffering requires acceptance from deep within of what is. Let yourself go completely with what is. Let go of fighting reality.” Hmmm…I’m not sure I’m ready to accept this from deep within. You see, this is my friend Lea Ann. She is more like a sister to me, she “gets” me – we are so much alike we can finish each other’s sentences, so this feels too close. We’re like Lucy and Ethel, and I don’t remember either one of them ever having cancer. Letting myself accept this somehow feels like giving in, and I seem to remember my clients saying the same thing.
Another bullet point reads, “Pain creates suffering only when you refuse to accept the pain.” Okay, this one makes more sense to me. I’m no stranger to pain, and I’ve learned to feel what I feel when something is painful instead of avoiding it or pushing it away. Pain is there to teach us something, to inform us that we need to pay attention to what is going on, so what is this pain telling me? I don’t have to search hard for the answer – my pain is there because Lea Ann is vitally important to me. She is the person who came to my side, dragging her husband and daughter, when my grandmother was in the hospital in Kentucky and I needed some answers. She was there with me when my dad died, and flew to be with me when I felt like falling apart a few months later. This pain is reminding me that what she has done for me is be there, and this is what I can do for her now – I can show up. This gives me purpose and something to do, so I start to feel better…slightly.
The last bullet point in the list reads, “To accept something is not the same as judging it good.” Oh…so I don’t have to like what is happening to Lea Ann in order to accept it…this is comforting. I hate what is happening to my friend and how it is affecting her sweet family. I hate what she will have to endure in order to have some hope of a more favorable prognosis. I hate feeling powerless and angry and sad all at the same time, and this radical acceptance thing tells me I don’t have to like it to accept it. So I go to work on accepting…
Radical acceptance reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, and I pray it a lot these days:
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.
I know I cannot change my dear friend’s diagnosis nor the challenges she is facing, but I can be courageous enough to be there for her, offering all the support I can in friendship and love, which is exactly what she has always done for me. I am reminded of all the times my clients have been challenged to separate what they can change from what they can’t, and I feel more compassion than ever for how difficult this can be.
Most people aren’t familiar with the rest of the Serenity Prayer. The next lines read:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, and we can’t do anything about it until it gets here, so we might as well live in today. My friendship with Lea Ann has been blessed with enjoyable “moments” when we both howled with laughter and silliness – our Lucy and Ethel moments. Racing down Michigan Avenue before our favorite stores closed, betting on the horses at Keeneland with no idea what we were doing, jumping off a ski lift and getting stuck on the highest gondola in Canada, and savoring the times we’ve shared dessert. Such moments are the ones I remember and return to when hardship does come, for I know such is the reality of the ebb and flow of life.
If there is anything I’ve learned from my friendship with Lea Ann, it is that the most important thing I can do is be present, and live. Show up instead of sitting back, experience instead of analyze, accept instead of worry – say YES to life.
With sincere hope that my journey can inspire,