The Serenity Prayer, which AA popularized, has made acceptance a fashionable word in psychology and the self-help movement. As with everything that becomes popular, we will find a wide range of opinions about what it means.
For us alcoholics, of course, the question is first of all what it means in AA, and in particular, how it is practiced as we work the Steps. To answer it, we obviously need to turn to those Steps as they are explained in our two basic texts, the Big Book and the 12&12. What do these books say we need to accept, why, and what things do we actually do or not do?
Let’s start with Step 1. We know the Step says we need to admit we are powerless over alcohol if we are to get sober. But we can admit it and not accept it, in which case we will sooner or later find a reason to drink again. Thus, the Step specifies that we also need to accept our powerlessness, which it characterizes as the “stark fact” about us. Little good will come of our joining AA, we read in the 12&12, unless we have "first accepted this devastating weakness and all of its consequences.” Linking acceptance to humility, it adds that, until we so humble ourselves, our sobriety will be “precarious.” We will find no “real happiness” at all (p. 21).
In Step 2, we accept “spiritual help” (Big Book, p. 25), we accept a “spiritual remedy” for our problem (id., p.39). It is as a result of accepting this kind of help that we gradually come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. If we don’t accept such help, if we reject it, where is the help going to come from? Haven’t we tried everything else? Hasn’t it all failed us?
In Step 3, we accept our powerlessness beyond alcohol, our “dependence” in so many other areas of our lives (12&12, p. 36), and our ultimate dependence on God. As rebels and hyper-individualists, most alcoholics can’t stomach the idea of having to depend on anybody. We are bothered by the idea of having to lean on a Power greater than ourselves, thinking that it makes us look weak or cowardly (Big Book, pp. 45-46). Accepting our dependence upon a Higher Power and surrendering the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-reliance is what enables us to surrender our will and our lives to the care of God.
In Step 4, as we make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, we discover that we are very flawed human beings and that we have inflicted a lot of damage on ourselves and other people. We don’t like that either. But we need to accept it. We need to accept ourselves and come to terms with our past. This includes both the things we were responsible for, and those circumstances or “conditions” which may not have been of our own making but over which we had no control (12&12, p. 52). An inability to accept these facts about ourselves and our lives can only lead us to deny them and thus to deceive ourselves and continue to be and do what we have always been and done.
In Step 5, as we admit the exact nature of our wrongs, we accept guidance and “direction” (12&12, p. 59), from God and from another human being. Here too we are accepting our dependence, for without such guidance and direction we simply cannot understand who we are, what we have done, and how we can change.
In Step 6, we gradually come to accept the “entire implication” (12&12, p. 68) of what it means to become entirely ready to let go of our defects of character: that we are striving, not for a “self-determined objective,” but for the “perfect objective” which is of God.
In Step 8, we accept the fact that, if we are going to ask forgiveness from those we have harmed, we need to forgive those who have harmed us, even those who caused us or our loved ones the most egregious and otherwise seemingly unforgivable harm. For we will never heal unless we do forgive. Instead, we will continue to direct our unresolved anger and resentment at others, even those who have never hurt us.
In Step 9, we accept the limitations of what we can do about the harm we did in the past; we accept the reality that there are hurts which cannot healed and relationships which cannot be repaired, that our amends may be rejected, and that though God will forgive us, others may not.
In Step 10, we accept the perhaps unsettling and unwelcome fact that recovery is a life-long undertaking and that we need to continue taking inventory of ourselves. As we do so, we will repeat much of the process of acceptance of the preceding Steps as we admit and make amends for any new wrongdoing.
In Step 12, we extend the practice of acceptance to all our affairs, so that in time we may come to accept failure without despair, success without pride, all the joys of life with gratitude, and all of its trials and tribulations with courage and serenity.
This quick overview of how acceptance is practiced through the various Steps suggests a number of ways we can properly conceptualize it. First, and contrary to the way it is seen elsewhere, acceptance is not a “technique” or a “strategy.” It is a principle. It is in fact one of the principles which are embedded in the Steps. Two, it is practiced through the disciplines which are also embedded in those Steps: e.g., surrender in Step 3, self-examination in 4, confession in 5, and restitution in 9. Three, like the disciplines, acceptance is specifically a spiritual principle. This aspect of it is most evident in Step 3, which introduces the Serenity Prayer, which revolves entirely around God and makes prayer a key discipline in the practice of acceptance.
The goal of this practice is to ingrain acceptance in us, to make it the kind of inner disposition or habit traditionally identified as a virtue. A virtue is a quality or trait of character which fosters our flourishing as human beings by adapting us to function well in the types of situations we typically face in life.
The Serenity Prayer reveals the kinds of situations where acceptance is a necessary virtue. They are those which contravene our desires but which, for a variety of reasons, we are in no position to alter. In plain words, they are situations we would like to change but cannot. These abound and, if we don’t handle them constructively, if we don’t accept life on life’s terms (Big Book, p. 417, 12&12, p. 112), we are simply not going to do very well. We will have no peace of mind, and we will be unhappy a lot of the time. We will be pitting ourselves against reality, and that never produces good results.
Acceptance is confused with three other ideas. The most common is perhaps approval. Some think that if we accept the way a person, place, or thing is, we are approving of it. In the case of bad behavior, it means we condone it. But this misses the entire point of acceptance. As the Serenity Prayer makes abundantly clear, this is to free ourselves from the self-defeating burden of trying to change what we cannot in order to change what we can.
If we are in an abusive relationship, to accept that fact is not to consent to the abuse and allow it to continue. It is to acknowledge it for what it is and to focus on what constructive action we can take to change our situation. Denying that it is abusive, deceiving ourselves about it, or trying to change what we cannot in it, will only perpetuate it. To approve, condone, or consent to a bad situation is in effect to agree for it to continue unabated. To accept it is to take the first step to change what we can about it.
The second idea we may conflate with acceptance is resignation. Again, the Serenity Prayer points to the essential distinction. Acceptance and resignation are in some ways coextensive. Both involve a change in perception which brings to light an adverse circumstance we would wish to be other than it is. Both may involve unfulfilled expectations, or emotions of loss such as disappointment. Both implicate an accommodation that mitigates the negative impact.
But though both may start with the perception of a negative we cannot alter, with resignation we remain stuck in that perception. Our accommodation to it is permanent. So are the emotions that may accompany it (disappointment, regret, grief, depression), though, again, in a less painful form. Resignation is a passive submission to the aversive fact which blunts its impact. We reconcile ourselves to it, and that helps. But we don’t look forward to changing what we could about it. In fact, we don’t see there is anything we can do. Our fate is sealed, as the etymology of the term suggest.
But that is not always and not necessarily the case. And that is where acceptance is different. Again, it is a first and a necessary step toward changing what we can in a given situation. Once we have fully accepted something—the loss of a relationship or of a job, our failure to achieve a desired goal—we are ready to move forward. Any emotions which may have initially accompanied the contravention dissipate.
Rather than giving in passively to our feelings of defeat, with acceptance we accept the defeat, let go of the feelings, and look for what we are able to change so that we can make things better. With resignation, we are left with a lingering hurt, even if it is greatly diminished and thus more bearable. We still would to like to change what we have resigned ourselves to, even if we know we can’t and won’t actually do anything about it. With acceptance there is no lingering hurt or desire. Instead, we look to something else we can change and we act on it. Often that something is simply ourselves.
In short, with resignation we don’t distinguish between what we can change and what we cannot. With acceptance, we do. As the Serenity Prayer makes clear in this regard as well, our ability to make the distinction is a function of a higher virtue underpinning and guiding acceptance. This is the virtue of wisdom, the cardinal virtue which enables us to discern the human good in a situation and to pursue the means to its attainment.
The third idea that is confused with acceptance is surrender. This is limited to AA and originates in the early fellowship’s avoidance of the term “surrender” because of its association with the Oxford Group, a story we touch upon on our post on surrender on this site. Harry Tiebout, who was Bill W.’s psychiatrist and would later write a lot about surrender, reports that he learned of the concept and how it differed from acceptance from two women alcoholics he was treating who had experienced a spiritual awakening.
One was Marty M., who experienced hers as a result of a line she read in the Big Book’s as of then unpublished manuscript. The experience led her to attend a church service, something she wouldn’t have done otherwise, as she was an atheist. As she later told Tiebout, “I know what happened to me. I heard it in a hymn yesterday. I surrendered when I had that experience.” A second woman, whose name and experience remain unknown, explicitly replied “I surrendered,” when asked by Tiebout to explain what had happened to her. “They call it acceptance around here,” she added, “but that still leaves a piece of you.”
As these early reports suggest, surrender was intimately connected with hitting bottom and experiencing a liberating spiritual awakening. On the heels of an emotional collapse, the alcoholic would feel totally defeated and admit her powerlessness over alcohol. That would open the door to a Power greater than herself intervening in her life and restoring her to sanity. Surrender subsequently becomes an ongoing practice as the alcoholic gradually realizes her powerlessness, not only over alcohol, but over herself, over other people, and over much of life.
The reason it’s natural to conflate acceptance and surrender is that, in one significant respect, the two concepts and practices overlap. Both have to do with giving up a fight we cannot win. But even in this one respect, the relationship between the two principles is not the same. Surrender is foundational, acceptance derivative.
In Step 1, for instance, our ability to accept our powerlessness over alcohol is a function our having surrendered that power, or more accurately, the illusion of such power, for if we are alcoholic, we actually never had it. Put differently, our acceptance of defeat depends on how badly we have been defeated. If we have been thoroughly whipped, driven to our knees, and forced to throw in the towel, the chances we will accept our powerlessness is bound to be that much greater. If we haven’t—if we haven’t hit a low enough bottom—our chances of accepting our defeat are just not as good. We may still harbor the idea of making a comeback, of finding a way to drink safely. As the second woman's comment above intimates, there's a piece of the self still left intact.
We can see this relationship between the two principles in Step 3 of the 12&12, where, having surrendered our will and our lives over to the care of God, we have laid the necessary spiritual foundation for our practice of acceptance through the Serenity Prayer, which concludes the Step.
A comparison of how acceptance is practiced through the Steps as detailed above and in the post on surrender will reveal other differences between the two concepts.
The final point we’ll make here is fundamental to understanding those differences. Surrender and acceptance are two entirely different kinds of principles. Surrender is a discipline, a series of acts of commission or omission whereby we give up things, let go of them, turn them over to God. Acceptance is a virtue, a character trait or interior disposition we develop through certain acts of commission or omission, some of which may involve surrender. That is, the discipline is one way of practicing the virtue. Thus, practicing acceptance involves, among other things, surrendering the defects of character and of emotion which get in the way of such acceptance.
This applies to all the virtues, however. To practice and acquire a particular virtue (say honesty) involves surrendering the defect (dishonesty in its various forms) which is opposed to that virtue. If we stop lying and start telling the truth, for instance, we will be taking the kind of action which will gradually make honest people out of us.