Living with Chronic Illness: The Power of Acceptance | Chris Kresser
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Living with Chronic Illness: The Power of Acceptance

by Chris Kresser

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The vast majority of the articles I’ve written are about how to heal and prevent disease. Of course that’s important, and what most of us are after. However, the reality of life is that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can’t avoid illness or disease. And as I pointed out in a recent article, The Biggest Obstacle to Perfect Health is Your Mind, if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that we’re all dying from the moment we’re born. Morbid, perhaps. But it’s the truth.

When I first became ill back in 1998, all of my efforts were directed towards getting well. That was appropriate and natural. I spent tons of energy researching possible causes of my symptoms, I tried special diets, I took supplements, herbs and drugs, I saw numerous doctors and alternative practitioners of every possible persuasion, I read every book on health I could get my hands on. I even enrolled in Chinese medicine school in 1999 to learn how to heal myself with natural medicine. And yet mid-way through 2000 I was still sick.

When nutrition and medicine aren’t enough

At that point it began to dawn on me that there was more to living with and healing from chronic illness than endlessly tweaking my diet or exercise program. So I made the decision to drop out of school and move to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. Esalen is a retreat center with classes and workshops on everything from meditation practice to music and fine art to personal development. My goal was to deeply explore the psychological, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the illness I was experiencing and uncover any hidden obstacles that may have been preventing me from healing.

I ended up getting a job there and staying for a little over two years. It was a profoundly supportive and nourishing place to live, and I gained valuable insight into the “immaterial” realms of my physical condition. But after two years of deep inquiry and exploration, my health was still not optimal.

I was alternating between periods of hope, where I would try some new diet, supplement, or plan, or despair, where I would give up the search and sometimes engage in self-destructive behavior (i.e. “Why not eat 6 cookies? Doesn’t seem to make a difference if I don’t.”) When I was hopeful, the future looked bright and I had faith I was going to beat the illness. When I felt despair, the future was bleak and there was hardly any point in going on.

I’d done enough Zen practice by this time to know that both hope and despair are simply states of mind based in an idea I had about the future. There was nothing inherently real about either of them. They were like the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny and warm, sometimes it’s rainy and cold.

The power of acceptance

This was when acceptance became the primary focus of my spiritual practice. I was tired of vacillating back and forth between hope and despair, of being tossed back and forth by the turbulence of my thoughts or “mental secretions”, as Kosho Uchiyama Roshi calls them in his book Opening the Hand of Thought.

I knew that despite all of my best efforts, I still hadn’t fully recovered my health. But I also knew that it was possible to be at peace regardless of the circumstances of my life. The truth is that not all problems are solvable. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t have full control over the conditions of our lives. But the one thing we do have control over is how we relate to ourselves and the the world around us; specifically, whether we accept what is or struggle against it.

When most people (including myself at one point) hear the word “acceptance”, they think of giving up or caving in. But giving up is not acceptance – it’s submission. And there’s a crucial difference between the two.

Acceptance simply means the recognition that the moment is as it is. That’s it. It is not a value judgment. Accepting something is true in this moment doesn’t mean that we endorse it or approve of it. It just means we recognize it is in this particular moment.

Nor does acceptance mean anything about the future. If we accept something is true in this moment, that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards changing it in the future – in the very next moment. Acceptance transcends hope or despair, future or past. It’s simply seeing reality as it is.

Acceptance = freedom

Using my own experience as an example, accepting that I was ill did not make the illness go away. Nor did it stop me from continuing to pursue treatment in the hopes of improving my health. What it did do is remove an entirely unnecessary layer of suffering that came from continuously struggling against what was true in each moment.

I believe that it’s not possible to take truly effective action until we fully accept what is. But that’s not easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things we can do. Because to accept something means to let in all of the feelings and sensations that go along with that something. In the case of illness, it means feeling the grief associated with the lost dreams, the fear that we may never get well or that we won’t survive, and the isolation that comes from living with chronic illness.

Ironically, it is avoiding these feelings (i.e. not accepting them) that prevents us from taking appropriate action. Not accepting something doesn’t make it go away. It just distances us from ourselves and from reality in general, which ultimately leads to more suffering.

When we accept what is, we are free. Free to act in accordance with reality. Free to be at peace with the circumstances of our lives, no matter how undesirable or difficult they are. And free to continue to do everything in our power to improve the conditions of our lives (or of life in general) in the next moment.

Acceptance is a fundamental tenet of every major spiritual and religious tradition. In Christianity, acceptance is expressed as putting your faith in God or Jesus. In Islam, the phrase “insha’Allah” means “as God wills”. But whether you’re religious, agnostic or atheist, I believe that cultivating acceptance is absolutely essential for anyone living with chronic illness or pain.

46 Comments

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  1. We were not created for THIS life but to be with God in the next. We lament illness because we have unrealistic expectations about THIS life. Once we accept what God has given us here, accept and embrace it, we can better cope. And look beyond to future happiness. My husband has had chronic Lyme disease for 30 years and still suffers terribly 24/7. But he accepts it. We do okay…we have had to make many many adjustments over the years…but his hope lies in making the best with what we have, and with prayer, family, peace…peace…peace…
    It’s a good article.

  2. Thanks for the article. I recently started accepting that I might get better, but probably not entirely ‘healed’ or ‘back to normal’. I agree it is freeing. It helps free up mental energy for dealing with how things are right now and making life as good as possible with what I’ve got.

  3. Religion takes the responsibility and loads it on an intangible being to lift our burden from our shoulders. Religion never looked so good before.

  4. I think it is unhelpful when religion and belief are brought into these discussions. Christianity in particular seems to fetishize (and revel in) suffering. I don’t know why this is the case, because all the previous ancient religions saw nothing good in pain and suffering, and would never laud or glorify its ugliness as though it was something beautiful. The ancient Greeks and Romans depicted their gods strong and full of health, while Christianity depicts a weak god unable to help himself, left alone anyone else. The ancient gods also had moments of suffering and trial, but it was never glorified. I see nothing good in suffering, or in accepting it. I see myself as a weak man. I am not fully human. I don’t give a sh*t about ‘jam tomorrow”. All I see is what is occurring now, a life that has been blighted and diminished by chronic illness. A life unable to reach its full potential.

    [quote]It is only once we accept our situation and submit to God that the true healing begins.[/quote]

    With respect, this is bullsh*t. The only healing you can possibly receive is from a medical professional. If they can’t help then you have to resort to painkillers, like I do.

  5. I don’t believe in acceptance. “Living peacefully with what is” is too passive, and will not lead to finding cures or improved research. If Larry Kramer had decided to just “accept” and “live peacefully” with the death sentence of HIV, he would never have founded ACT-UP and pressured medical researchers and the FDA to find new treatments for HIV and create strong improvements in the lives of AIDS patients. Today, HIV doesn’t always have to be a death sentence, and we have the fighting non-acceptance of people like Larry Kramer to thank for that. I think this is an important thing for the chronically ill to remember.

  6. Hi

    I’m 37 mother of two and I have a Crohn’s disease for the last 10 years.
    I’m personality A so I don’t think so
    I still accept it
    Tons of meds never know how u gonna feel. Overwhelmed. I want to live healthy life style but I don’t know
    How ..

  7. Thank you for this well written article that touches on an important point. Acceptance is NOT throwing in the towel. I think I was confused and believed the lie that acceptance meant I was saying that it’s okay that I have had lousy health my whole life and that it is okay that I will never accomplish some of my dreams. I still struggle with finding balance between seeking healing and living my life as it is. However, I now know the truth. I had a profound experience several years ago while in prayer. I was agonizing over my pain and lack of healing and asked God why me? I felt God say to me that He could make me well tomorrow and that it was well within His capabilities. I also heard Him say that if He were to do that where would I be at the end of my life? My body would eventually go down the same course of decay and I would be in exactly the same position as I was with my chronic illness. He then went on to explain that it was my spirit which needed healing first. In other words I needed to choose the healing that counts for eternity. It’s not easy, but I find that on the days that I drop my worries in God’s lap and resolve to make the most of my life as it is, I have peace.

    • This message is for me.. Thanks.. Also a Christian… coping with chronic illness..God has been speaking to me about acceptance… peace and inner healing…

  8. Hi Chris,
    I’ve just finished reading your article on acceptance and I would love it if I could get your permission to reprint in a newsletter I help publish. It is called Lupus Link and is published quarterly by Lupus Ontario. The newsletter goes out free to our Lupus Clinics in Ontario and to our membership. I have been looking for more of an uplifting article to include and I was impressed by how well this article is written. Of course we would credit you and could include a link to your website.

  9. I just came across this article and would like to add my thoughts…even though I am living with an incurable cancer..one that is chronic…and hypogammaglobullinemia, I do not consider them to be illnesses…I consider myself to be living with chronic conditions…illness is the flu…I find it much more empowering to think this way.

  10. My daughter has a chronic illness and she scared your article on face book ,,really great article ,,,,,
    Thanks Chris

  11. This is definitely true! Acceptance is so important in dealing with a chronic illness. I know people in a similar position to me who harbour a lot of hate for their illness and their bodies and really struggle with dealing with their illness because of this. It’s not easy. But acceptance has to be found!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    thegirlwithheartdisease.blogspot.co.uk

  12. This is a timeless article. So beautifully and clearly written. I needed to hear this today and I need to be reminded again!

    I accepted my chronic condition in 2008 after being diagnosed in 2007. Only to later realize, I didn’t submit myself to being sick for the rest of my life.

    After many years of research and treatment, I am healing one layer at a time. But I am seeing the layer of emotional healing is the one that is taking the longest. As even in the midst of healing, I am still living in the past rather than fully accepting this is my new norm. Each time I take a deep look at my denial and plow through it, I really do see and feel a sense of healing. I am fighting with myself!

    Let God’s will be done. And each time I surrender I also am able to take another level of healing as God points me to what to do next and where to find the answers to Thea y questions I have about my illness.

    Thank you! I will be reading this again to remind me.

  13. Thank you so much for this article. I have been struggling with the difference between fighting to get better and accepting where IM. This is exactly what I needed to hear and will read every single day!!!

  14. Thank you so very much for writing this. I often struggle with the acceptance of my illness and the dreams that I have had to let go. I believe acceptance is the key to overcoming these circumstances and look forward to what will be…

  15. Each time I get near to facing the loss and going through the grief I get scared and can’t do it, so after 20 years I still can’t accept. Thanks for your words and understanding.

  16. I am grateful for having come across this today, and for the reminder. Acceptance is not a one time thing, it’s ongoing, and I realize that I had stepped away from it. Thank you. I will be re-reading it more than once.

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