“This New Year decide to accept nothing you don’t deserve”. I read this week in a jauntily, much shared, quote on Facebook.
As a gestalt therapist I found this statement so disturbingly unhelpful, trite and shallow and I had to ponder for several hours how I wanted to respond. I decided I wanted to respond in my blog.
Before I get started on the call to not accept things, let me first begin with the concept of “deserving”.
Does anyone feel better, is anyone helped, by the idea that they deserve better things than they have? An initial boost, certainly is a possible outcome as we treat ourselves to a massage or an outing or as we walk away from toxic conversations and involvement. But we can do all those things without needing to borrow from the problematic and troublesome concept of “deserving”.
The system, life, does not run on reward points like you get for shopping at Sainsbury’s. People do not get what they deserve. We are not entitled to positive experiences. Bad things happen to good people (if indeed there is such a thing as a good person) and villains can win the lottery of riches or health. Evidence for some supernatural or divine points system is not borne out in our lives. Deserving has nothing to do with anything, and simply compounds our distress when we say that we are not getting what we deserve or brings into question whether we can really be deserving, leading to self doubt.
‘You do not have to be good’, says Mary Oliver in her poem, Wild Geese, ‘you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’.
The way the world runs does not work on a simplistic reward scheme, either there is a more complex design that is beyond mere human conception or life is simply random, either way deserving has nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome.
By all means in 2019 resolve to not to prolong your own suffering not to get involved in things that inevitably will lead to suffering and not to cause your own suffering. But this is no guarantee of avoiding all or any suffering. If we are suffering, knowing that we don’t deserve it does not help at all. We can go over and over how much we don’t deserve what is happening, we can blame ourselves and blame others we can look for cures and try and find ways of changing what it is, but all this is simply to keep ourselves away from being fearless, from being able to be where we are and live in the reality that we are in.
Such courage is hard, it involves giving up concepts of deserving and of simply not accepting.
Human beings do not like giving up these concepts, I don’t. I love the idea that if only I do so-and-so, or try so-and-so that I need never be at the mercy of life’s random nature. Solutions are only temporary because nothing is permanent, the smile on your face, the relationships you have, will come to an end in minutes or in years.
Gestalt therapy is very much about being with what is, allowing the self to be curious and open to the experience, without judging. Great courage is required of those who are willing to sit with what is and the best therapists still struggle at times not to try and solve their client’s pain with advice and wisdom.
But to be with ourselves and our truth and to sit alongside people in their reality, with courage and to not quickly jump to the solace of a simplistic archaic belief system of deserving or karma, is very hard.
Great courage is required of those who are willing to sit with what is.
I’m not saying that karma doesn’t exist or some divine plan is rubbish – these beliefs are ok, it’s using them to avoid the courage of self knowledge to believe yourself exempt from suffering and to blame those who suffer for their misfortune. Karma may exist but it is not for us to judge others or decide these issues.
A story in the Old Testament, that to me seems to indicate that the deserving concept is not fit for purpose, is that of Job, of a good man and faithful servant of God. He does everything required of a good person, and yet loses his family, his livelihood, his animals and his health. Many people have puzzled about the purpose and point of this story making the final cut to be included in today’s modern Bible. I think it makes the cut because it is addressing the question: why have these bad things happened to this good man? His well-meaning friends, those who give rise to the saying, “Job’s comforters”, come up with all sorts of reasons as to how he has brought his suffering upon his own head and how he has caused it. But when God finally answers Job’s question as to why this has happened to him, God answers ambiguously, “look at the hippopotamus”. God points to the wonder and complexity of life and the importance of not seeing life from an ego centric, human centric perspective. ‘It’s not all about you and your limited world view’, this story seems to say.
I believe it is our job to be in this life. That things will come along that are neither good nor bad but uncomfortable or painful or challenging and that living life is about having these experiences and being as fully present to the experience with compassion. Not as much fun as the high energy quote ‘Say no to suffering! You deserve better!’. But life is an invitation to go deeper than these avoidances. Say ‘hello’ to the present moment.
So when something comes along that we don’t like, pause stay with and don’t rush away. Concepts like deserving really are red herrings. Instead we can think, “how do I want to be with this uncomfortable thing?“ Or, “what sort of response could help this situation?“. There may indeed be things that we can do in response that will lighten or ease things. But the pause, then full experience (sensation) followed by reflection (awareness) leads to far better action.
Being non-judgemental, we can simply observe all the different ways in which we struggle to make life fit into our simplistic concepts of getting what we think we deserve. We can watch the thoughts come and watch them go. We don’t need to dismiss them or disallow them but can perhaps step back and wonder about the purpose they serve, and what such a compulsive rumination is helping us avoid.
The second part of my response is about the suggestion that we do not accept what we don’t deserve. How would it be to accept what befalls us, without even considering whether we deserve or don’t deserve it?
I’m not suggesting that we purposefully stay around people who mistreat us. However if we don’t get paid enough at our job, or if we suffer some ill health this year, the answer is probably not ruminating on the fact that we don’t deserve it or deciding not to accept it. In 2019 I am inviting us to stop worrying so much about what we deserve and what we don’t deserve, and to find out what happens when we stay with ourselves and our experience with gentle acceptance of what it is.
Say ‘hello’ to the present moment.
To be able, even for a few moments, accept, this is who I am and this is what is happening, and to be kind and open and curious about that experience, can lead to more growth than constantly rejecting and running away from what life offers. What life offers is seldom bad or good, it is comfortable or uncomfortable and above all it is constantly changing and to me interesting.
My truth today has been of utter pleasure putting on new socks, tears of pain, warm soup, Christmas lights, listening to stories and debilitating exhaustion meaning I sit and stare in to space unable to move. As I type I’m smiling to connect with you and wincing at pain in my feet and ankles. I’m quite happy and content. Some moments today I have reeled to be faced with the huge changes in my health over the last couple of years. Simultaneously I feel alive and huge gratitude to live this multi faceted, real life experience.
This New Year stay a little longer with your truth. Live the life you have, and stop distracting yourself with the idea of the life you deserve. Life really is beautiful even when it’s not nice.
A photo of the park on the road where I now live. I saw a kingfisher here and frequently see a heron. I have an owl that lives in the tree outside my window and saw a badger in the garden a few nights ago.