Practice These Principles
Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Step Three

Understanding and Accepting

There is another attitude that works against acceptance, particularly in our relations with those close to us, and it has to do with the role of the intellect. We assume, tacitly, that if we are to accept people, we have to understand them first: we have to “figure” them out, know what makes them “tick.” This is similar to the problem of the relationship between faith and intellect that we discussed earlier. We saw that our tendency is to put intellect ahead of faith, thinking that reason will enable us to understand and hence to believe.

If we can understand our spouse better, we think to ourselves, then we’ll be able to manage our relationship better. Maybe it’ll be easier to accept the things about them that we don’t like or find objectionable. This sounds reasonable but it is really putting second things first, or, as we say, putting the cart before the horse.

If we don’t accept our spouses as they are, our chances of gaining any useful understanding of them are very small, for we will continue to look at them through the same defective lenses that have warped our view of them all along, and these are our own character defects. The definition of insanity applies here. We can’t keep looking through the same old glasses and expect to see something different.

If we don’t accept our spouse and turn our own understanding of him or her over to God, where is “right understanding” going to come from? One of the revelations that we get from a serious self-examination in Steps 4, 8, and 10 is how little we really understand about ourselves. This is a lesson in humility. If our understanding even of ourselves is so limited, how much more so is our understanding of others? We grow in self-knowledge as we practice the principles of the program, including self-acceptance. It works the same way with others: we accept them, practice the principles, and understanding then follows. 

As a spiritual principle, acceptance of other people is a matter of the will and of the heart before it is a matter of the intellect. We are called upon not so much to engage our rational powers as to surrender our will and soften our heart. I turn my will and my life over to the care of God and accept people as they are, letting God come between me and the other person. This acceptance immediately allows me to relate to them in a totally different manner. I am no longer objecting, judging, criticizing, rejecting, psychoanalyzing and otherwise taking their inventory, which, however subtly or silently I may do it, is always sensed by the other person. 

Accepting others is a form of love, and when I accept I am following God’s will to love my neighbor. When I accept God’s will and accept others, understanding will gradually follow. I will be experiencing others as they actually are rather than as a function of me, of the ways I have accustomed myself to see them, or of the reactions my attitudes elicit in them.

Much of the interaction in our intimate relationships is reactive, and the more we accept when faced with the other person’s perceived shortcomings, the less we will react. And the less we react, the less reaction will we provoke in the other person. We will then find that not only will we gain a clearer, less distorted view of the other person, but that the other person, allowed to be who he or she is, will also be free to see more clearly who that might really be. Understanding can then grow on both sides.

As we therefore wake up spiritually and begin to change and the character defects through which we always perceived people are progressively chipped away, we gain a different perspective on them. We are gradually given the only understanding that in the final analysis really matters, and that is the understanding that will enable us to extend a helping hand and bring peace to our relationships, whether with our spouses, children, parents, or other family members, or with our co-workers, our friends,  or our neighbors.

Understanding becomes a matter of the heart, expressed in tolerance, compassion, and acceptance. Such understanding is a virtue of the affections before it is a virtue of the intellect. It is concerned first with feelings and emotions before it is concerned with facts and information. It is a disposition to see and feel things through somebody else’s eyes and heart. We move out of our own self-centered perch and begin to identify with others.

The proper relationship between understanding and acceptance then is that acceptance comes first. That is the point of departure. We can paraphrase Augustine and say that we accept in order to understand, and we understand the better to accept. As with faith, putting acceptance first means putting God first, and letting him shape my understanding.

We are blessed that in the rooms of AA we can find a sort of spiritual lab where we can experiment with acceptance, experiencing and practicing it. Many of us never felt accepted until we first entered these rooms. As people identified with our stories rather than judge or reject us, we began to feel the acceptance we so desperately sought and never found when we drank. As we identified with their stories, we found we could in turn accept them. Eventually we came to see the love and acceptance we found in the rooms as evidence of God’s presence among us. We could now accept ourselves and the world around us because, as Bill W. writes, we could now accept that God is all and loves all.20  “As we understood Him” was fleshing out and becoming for us a concrete, experiential reality.

Every meeting is an exercise in acceptance. We accept our weaknesses, even as we strive to learn from each other how we can be free of them. We accept our past and let go of regret, seeing how its lessons can be of help to our fellows. We accept our present circumstances as they are, even as we seek to learn from the experience of others how best to handle them, and what in them we can and cannot change. It is through such practical experience, in and out of the rooms, that guided by the grace of God we are granted the wisdom to know the difference, and the courage, born of faith, to change the things we can according to his purpose. 

– From  "Understanding and Accepting," pp. 211–214