To Accept, To Act or To Leave
We all occasionally find ourselves in an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation. Evolution ensures that our natural instincts are to escape the situation first, or to fight it if we can’t. As I reflect on times when I’ve been frustrated or even fearful about my predicament, it seems as though I’ve spent a lot of time looking for alternative ways of handling it.
The stark reality though, is that there rarely are any other ways.
Maybe we’re in the midst of something that we’ve long anticipated with fear or dread. We’ve known it was going to be unpleasant, testing or difficult, and our worst fears have come true. In the moment all we want is out. Our evolutionary instincts are to flee, and to remove ourselves but often that’s not a possibility; try explaining your actions to your boss as you escape from giving a presentation by running from the room.
Maybe things haven’t worked out quite the way we thought they might. Perhaps a project has backfired, or an investment has tanked. Maybe we thought we’d met the love of our life online. When we meet, it turns out they’re a crushing bore, or have been liberal with the truth regarding their appearance (perhaps using a profile picture from 15-years ago).
Maybe we’re simply caught in a rut, and our dissatisfaction has grown steadily over time. There might not have been any single catastrophic event, but instead we’ve become jaded or disillusioned. The job that we once loved, or that we started doing in the belief that we could put up with it for the money is no longer working for us.
Whether the situation has crept up on us, we’ve anticipated it or it’s blind-sided us as our expectations were incorrect, it amounts to the same thing.
We dislike it and we want something different.
What to do when times get tough
Our evolution-honed instincts may encourage fight or flight; if only it were that simple. Modern situations tend to mean we cannot simply turn to aggression or run from a situation that we find intolerable. In many cases, deciding how we might navigate it also become clouded as we search for explanations as to how we ended up there.
We might look for others to blame or try and come up with excuses for why things haven’t worked out as we hoped.
If we feel we’ve been wronged by another, either wilfully or through negligence then our judgment may be impaired as we assess our options. Revenge might get mixed in with resolution of the problem at hand.
We may feel resentful that we’ve ended up where we have, when others have seemingly found it easy to avoid the particular pit into which we’ve fallen. Jealousy may impair our judgement.
Whatever we think and however we may feel, our options are always the same. No matter what our emotional reaction, whether we remain calm and meticulous, or become passionate and impulsive, there are really only three possible ways out of any time of adversity:
- To remove ourselves from the situation;
- To change the situation by taking action;
- To accept it as it is, and to move on with life.
If you were hoping for something more insightful and shocking, then you may be disappointed. Or perhaps you might consider it a useful and timely reminder that like most good guiding principles of life, this one is both simple and effective.
To remove ourselves from the situation — Flight
Most parents will at some point have counselled their kids on what to do if confronted by a bully. Depending on their views, preferences and their own experiences of childhood most parents will either advise the child to calmly walk away, or to stay and fight their corner.
Whatever dissatisfactory situation we’re in, the simplest option is to extract ourselves from within it. We may be called anything from a quitter to a coward depending on the scenario, but the simple rule of ‘flight’ is that we live to fight another day.
Whether we’re trying to escape an abusive relationship or leave a job we can no longer tolerate, the goal is to escape as soon as we can. Presumably, all options have been exhausted for changing the situation. We may have tried all we can to improve it, to build up our tolerance to it, or figure out how it can be made to work through change or compromise. The only option that remains is to construct and enact our exit plan.
It seems to me that in the lives of myself and those I’ve encountered, this is the option that most-often gets ignored, or worse, executed poorly.
Too frequently we become accustomed-to or just accept situations that would have been best left long ago.
- We suffer endlessly in relationships that have become toxic, abusive or dominated by apathy and passive-aggression.
- We stagnate in jobs that we’ve come to hate, but which we’re fearful to leave as we contemplate the risk of worsening our position, or because we’ve lost faith in our skills and abilities.
- We resign ourselves to occupying a body that will gradually become flabbier, more unfit and injury-prone and so give up on ideas of taking exercise or eating more healthily.
- We believe that we’ve learned all the knowledge that we could ever need in our youth and so neglect our brain and instead of reading, waste hours on end watching TV and swiping at our smartphones.
We know we hate the situation, but instead we persuade ourselves that we have no option to leave.
As bad as forgoing the option to leave, is to leave in a flamboyant and flippant way. I’ve had personal experience of leaving a job on a whim, resigning in a gesture of passion and anger, only to later regret the situation when I lost my income as a result. Choosing to exit a situation may well be the right, and inevitable option. In many situations it’s smart though to formulate a careful plan for doing so and to then follow that plan to the letter.
To change the situation and take action — Fight
Other parents will counsel their kids that the only option when threatened by a bully is to strike-hard and strike-first. In a few episodes in my life, I suspect that I could’ve benefited from taking this active rather than passive approach, both in situations of confrontation and at other points too.
In virtually all scenarios in life, I can think of no better option than to actually try and do something to change a situation which you don’t like, or which isn’t as you hoped it would be. Taking action is an inherent part of leaving a situation too, since it’s usually best to have tried all possible remedial steps first before one can settle upon deciding to leave.
In a failing relationship, I assume you’d want to feel like you’d done everything in your power to try and make it work, before eventually giving it up if that were the only remaining option? Similarly, with something as significant as leaving a job, most of us would want to have explored all options for making it more palatable and satisfying before going through the upheaval of moving on.
Action isn’t just a pre-cursor to leaving though. Too often I think we confuse apathy for action, with hopelessness that the situation can be changed if we did anything. How many diet and exercise regimes have failed almost before they’ve started, on the basis that the thought of healthy choices for life seemed like too big a change to contemplate?
In such circumstances, we convince ourselves that ours is a lost-cause or that our circumstances are somehow unique and more challenging than anyone else’s. And so, to take action to change things for ourselves is abandoned, or not considered as an option.
I’m a big advocate of personal accountability and the power of an action-oriented lifestyle. I know that adopting this approach has been the most impactful change I’ve made in my own life. When I procrastinate I’m merely delaying the inevitable pain of getting started or admitting defeat. The only option is to take action and see what happens.
The seemingly-insurmountable goal of turning-around our health is accomplished by taking one action at a time, not by giving up because it seems impossible. A loving relationship is founded in regular, small-but-consistent kindnesses and gestures of affection. A successful career is formed of many productive work-days strung together, interspersed with the difficult days where we’ve carried on regardless.
Action must be taken. Inaction, whether due to procrastination, fear or internal-doubt must be fought through. Action alone might not change or improve the situation, but we cannot know until we’ve tried.
To accept the situation
This final option isn’t to be confused by the begrudging acceptance of a miserable situation. I’m not talking about giving in or accepting the position out of apathy, fear, doubt or laziness.
When we accept, truly accept, we know that while things may not be ideal or as we’d like them, we are okay with that. The problem may be our expectations, or it may be that we are driven by comparison with others or fear of missing out. Through true acceptance we not only resign ourselves to it, but we embrace it and seek to make the best of it that we can.
As a proud father to four healthy kids, my greatest blessing is to know that they are all fit, well and happy. My greatest fear would be for any of them to suffer a disability or life-limiting illness and I see numerous parents around me whose kids are suffering such things. I feel great admiration for all those parents, but especially so for those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into giving their kids the best life possible.
They do so with joy, love and a whole-hearted acceptance of theirs and their kids’ situations. I assume they have their difficult days, but they ride these out like everyone else. They no-doubt hate that their kids suffer, but they accept it, and they live the best life they can regardless, determined to do the best they can for them and their kids. That is acceptance of a challenging situation.
That example, or where one partner in a relationship nursing their spouse through sickness, dementia or some other terminal illness with care, dignity, grace, humour and love are those scenarios that I’ve encountered where the worst possible circumstances are endured, not with begrudging resignation, but with genuine acceptance.
The circumstances can be far from ideal, but this doesn’t prevent acceptance. Action may be a daily part of enduring the situation, but it is taken in the knowledge that it won’t necessarily change the eventual outcome. Escaping the situation is not even considered or entertained as an option. Acceptance is the solution alone.
I realise in describing the options that exist to us in times of challenge and hardship, that I’ve called upon some pretty extreme and diverse examples to illustrate the options in practice.
As I reflect though, it seems to me that these really are the only options that we can, or should entertain in difficult times, whether the life-changing moments or the day-to-day adversities that we all face; to leave, to act or to accept.
My personal bias is towards action, but I acknowledge that this sometimes comes at the expense of being more accepting of things. Sometimes, I am too keen to leap forwards in finding or implementing a solution to my own problems. Often, a bit of contemplation and consideration of how I can accept it might be a better solution.
To leave, to act or to accept; those are our options when faced with times of adversity.