“Just as it is impossible to give what you do not have, you can only work with what you have.”
~ Stuart Harper
WORKING WITHIN WHAT IS
Perhaps you are seasoned enough to personally recall from radio and television the Apollo 13 space mission, as it unfolded in the spring of 1970, or familiar with these events as portrayed
in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13,” starring Tom Hanks. (Howard, 1995). The movie portrays this potentially ill-fated mission from the selection and training of the astronauts, through the overwhelming odds this crew encountered, to the successful completion of this mission. It is those overwhelming odds that make the mission of Apollo 13 historic. Early on in the mission the crew experienced an electrical problem that affected the capsule’s ability to sustain oxygen and power for the mission. The astronauts faced the very real possibility of not being able to return to earth. The thought of these young space pioneers left to drift endlessly into outer space was daunting. Although this event occurred prior to my birth, I enjoy my older brother’s recollection of this historical event. Even though he was five, he recalls our father listening to the radio reports daily from our living room in Cape Town, South Africa. His recollection contains our father’s jubilation, jumping up and down, upon hearing of the safe return of the astronauts to earth.
There is a specific scene in “Apollo 13” that will help in understanding how this mission was successfully accomplished. The only tools available to the astronauts for any kind of repair were the materials in the space capsule. The team at mission control, under the direction of the mission commander and engineers, were instructed to gather and replicate these materials in order to find a solution for the astronauts. The team was then able to convey to the astronauts how to use the materials, that were available to them, within the space capsule to repair the problem. The only option for the team was to work with what they had; it was not possible for them to work with anything not available to the astronauts. The overriding principle here is the acceptance of Working Within What Is.
The Present Moment
Working Within What Is means accepting exactly what is without protesting the present situation. While protesting may allow you to express your feelings, it will not change the fact that what is remains to be addressed. The opposite principle of acceptance is resistance.
Allow me to illustrate the resistance principle with another movie reference; a far less serious and amusing film “Liar Liar,” starring Jim Carrey. (Shadyac, 1997). Jim portrays a high-powered attorney in which his son makes a wish that his dad will never tell another lie. Jim’s realization of not being capable to lie is demonstrated when he is writing with a blue ink pen whilst trying to verbalize that the pen is green. Despite Jim’s resistance and protesting laments the fact, in tears, that the pen is blue! No amount of resistance would have produced the desired result. It is only when he stops resisting that he is able to accept the fact, that the pen is blue.
Working within what is means not working against what is. It is futile to resist what is. Case in point, my client was distraught that her son had recently revealed to her family that he was homosexual. She attributed the onset of her anxiety to this information. In therapy, she stated her refusal to accept that he was gay. She was certain that he was not gay because he had dated girls in high school. She was firm in not being the mother of a gay son. My client was unable to understand that despite her resistance her son remained gay. No amount of resistance would change that. Her anxiety continued, exacerbated by thoughts such as, “What if others find out, what if people ask me about who he is dating, and what will happen to our family image?” This “What if…” thinking solidified her anxiety because “what you resist, will persist.”
“What you resist, will persist.” ~ Cindy Lee, LCSW, RPT-S
To move her away from resistance and into acceptance; we must assess what the information, of her son being gay, meant to her. Through further exploration, she was able to express that she had always desperately desired a daughter-in-law for which she could obtain a sisterly relationship. For her, this compensation was a result of not having sisters, only brothers. This helped us reframe her anxiety from an emotional loss perspective. She was anxious because she feared what she had lost and was grieving the loss of her own dreams, constantly fixated on, “What will I do now without this relationship with a daughter-in-law?” This was what fueled her anxiety, not the fact that her son was gay. With this discovery, she was able to see that she had no control over her son’s sexuality; however, she had complete control over accepting the loss of her own dreams. As a result of accepting her loss and stopped resisting her son’s homosexuality, her anxiety eased.
Acceptance often seems counterintuitive because it feels so natural to resist that which we do not like. Resistance is like trying to swim into a riptide in the ocean. The undercurrent will pull the swimmer out to sea and the natural response is to swim harder to return to shore. Even though it is a natural response this results in resistance. Resisting the riptide is futile, the swimmer soon fatigues and is likely to drown; not because of the current but for the reason that their efforts of resistance have exhausted them to a point of helplessness. Lifeguards will instruct the way to overcome a riptide is to accept it and go with it. This requires letting the undercurrent take you further out to sea until the riptide eases, then swim parallel to the shore, until they are out of the flow of the riptide, which will allow them to return to the shore. Resistance is always futile. Acceptance is what brings relief and allows us to move forward.
You may be wondering how you are resisting your anxiety and how you can accept it instead. Experiencing anxiety producing thoughts such as, “I should have… or if only I would have…” which means you are resisting what is or what has been. Instead ,change those thoughts to, “It is okay that I did not… or that is alright, next time I will…” These statements are forgiving and allow you to move forward. Although if you say things to yourself like “I cannot allow myself to get anxious when…” you are resisting. Your efforts to avoid being anxious most likely will cause anxiety about not becoming anxious. Instead, alter those thoughts to, “There is a good chance I will get anxious when… and that is okay. I know what to do when I start to feel that way.”
Do not confuse acceptance with throwing in the towel, giving up or being hopeless. Acceptance is a matter of dealing with the curveball that you least expected, instead of getting all bent out of shape that you never got the fast ball you were expecting or promised. Working Within What Is means, for instance, accepting that you landed in Egypt when you thought you were headed for the Bahamas. You can choose to spend your week furious about not being where you should have been or you can see the Sphinx, the pyramids, and learn about a new culture. Acceptance says yes to life; resistance says no to life. Case in point, while explaining to a client about accepting her husband’s terminal illness, she supposed I meant something like, “Just deal with the fact that your life will never be as good as it once was.” She eventually accepted that there was a “new normal” for her to work within, which for her meant; instead of walking with her husband daily, they sit together on their backyard deck and bird watch. She learned to not fear but to accept what is. Resistance is fear; acceptance is love. Do you live in fear or do you live in love?