In 2009, descendants of the Apache warrior Geronimo filed suit against Yale’s Skull and Bones Society, among others, to force return of their ancestor’s skull, which had allegedly been robbed from his grave at Fort Sill, Oklahoma during World War I. Whatever its merits, the lawsuit brought to mind one of the more arcane rituals of my undergraduate years at Yale. On “Tap Day” each spring, members of Skull and Bones (and other secret societies) fanned out across the Yale campus to collar new recruits from among worthy members of the junior class. At the stroke of 8:00 PM on the appointed day, prospective members were clapped on the shoulder and asked, “Skull and Bones – accept or reject?” Those who accepted were hustled off to the Tomb, as their building was called, where they were put through an initiation rite they were sworn never to reveal.
I mention the Skull and Bones recruitment process because life has a way of presenting situations to us that pose the same stark choice: accept or reject. Rarely do we perceive things this way, of course; usually we are too busy trying to steer around apparent obstacles in our path to fully appreciate what life is trying to teach us at that moment. It is perfectly natural to want to avoid painful situations, but in doing so we may forfeit a deeper understanding of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Worse, we may discover that our short-term strategies for avoiding pain only compound our suffering in the long run. This is especially true if we resort to alcohol, drugs or some other palliative to anaesthetize ourselves.
Alcoholics Anonymous recognized early on that acceptance, rather than rejection, was the key to dealing with addictions. As long as the alcoholic denies his true condition, he will keep drinking. Paradoxically, once he acknowledges he is powerless against alcohol and also owns up to the damage he has caused himself and others, he can begin the slow process of recovery. The AA mantra is that “nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God's world by mistake,” which means that the apparent obstacles in our path were put there for a reason and must be dealt with rather than avoided.
Acceptance is not the same thing as passivity or resignation in the face of adverse circumstances. We do not have to like what is happening to us or fail to act when action is called for. There is nothing inherently optimistic or pessimistic about it, since our present circumstances do not necessarily determine the eventual outcome. Acceptance is merely acknowledging reality for what it is at this moment and learning to deal with it on its own terms. Failure to do so simply postpones the eventual day of reckoning. It is futile to blame one’s circumstances or to whine about life being unfair. If indeed nothing happens in God’s world by mistake, you can bet circumstances will conspire to deliver the same or a similar life lesson over and over again until we master it. I have found that God is infinitely patient in such matters and won’t be satisfied until we learn to get real.
Not surprisingly, the same pattern of dealing with adverse circumstances in life also applies when dealing with the prospect of one’s own death. Working with terminal patients, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of coming to terms with imminent death, starting with denial and ending with acceptance. Even Jesus went through an accelerated version of this process when praying in the garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion. He knew he was going to die but was hardly reconciled to it. According to the Gospel of St. Luke, he prayed that the Lord would “remove this cup from me.” In some versions of the gospel he was described as being in an agony, with sweat pouring from him “as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Nevertheless, his prayer concludes with him saying, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”
If nothing happens in God’s world by mistake, then there is no longer any mystery about God’s will. God’s will is whatever happens at this moment, and we all face the same stark choice: to accept or reject. Great faith has little to do with abstract belief in God; it has everything to do with our willingness to abandon ourselves completely to each moment in life, wherever it may lead.
Alcoholics Anonymous, The Big Book