Death, Sobriety, God, & Learning Radical Acceptance

A farmer has a horse for many years; it helps him earn his livelihood and raise his son. One day, the horse runs away. His neighbor says sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”

The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”

The next day, the horse makes its way back home bringing with it another horse. The neighbor says with a smile, “Such good luck.”

The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”

The following day, the farmer’s son rides the new horse and seeks to tame it. In the process, he breaks his leg. The neighbor says sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”

The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”

The last day of the story, the military comes to the village to draft all able-bodied young men to fight in a war. The son is exempt from the draft due to his broken leg. You can guess what the neighbor said, and how the farmer replied.

This Zen Buddhist parable illustrates that we never really know exactly why things are unfolding the way that they are, and that labeling them as “good” or “bad” is useless. I feel that there’s a bigger picture going on in the universe that we cannot predict. Although synchronicities, miracles, and unexplainable phenomena occur, I personally don’t believe that there is a reason for everything that happens in the world. However, I think we can make meaning out of much of what happens by choosing to radically accept all outcomes. I began to learn to do this through losing my grandmother to a sudden death, getting sober, and finding God.

Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is an alternative to labeling situations, things, or people as “good” and “bad.” It’s settling into the space that opens up when we stop reacting so strongly to outcomes. This space for me takes the form of my thoughts, breathing, and sight slowing to a pace where I can take in and touch the sense of immense beauty and wonder in the world: the breeze against the trees, a smile on my loved ones face, opportunity that can come from loss, and the little things to be grateful for throughout my busy days.

Radical acceptance left the farmer feeling serene, despite his horse running away. It also kept him level-headed when the horse returned, because he was connected to the fact that everything changes and he has no idea what’s next.

I came to yearn for radical acceptance because of being utterly miserable and feeling I could progress two ways with my misery: let it define me by allowing it to shape me into whatever it wanted, or by shaping myself out of the misery, grief, and confusion.

There’s a great peace that can come from radical acceptance because we’re seeking to meet life as it is. We’re not saying that we won’t take action or that we’re even okay with life events that happen, such as being fired from a job or being broken up with. Instead, we’re actively choosing not to fight against life. We can choose to take action, and when radical acceptance comes first, there is a decrease in unnecessary suffering.

To illustrate, I’ve experienced refusing to accept being broken up with and I’ve experienced radical acceptance after being broken up with. In the first example, I was 16 and I was broken up with by a partner. I was pissed that he was dumping me. I screamed at him, berated him, and refused to get out of the car. We spent a few weeks texting even after the relationship was “over.” I felt the breakup was the end of the world and I waited for him to change his mind. I refused to let in the idea that what was happening was out of my control, and I insisted that I could manipulate the outcome. This left me miserable.

In the second example, although it wasn’t my knee jerk reaction, I experienced radical acceptance. My most recent partner ended our relationship over the phone and I said “it doesn’t matter that I don’t want things to end?” He quietly said “No. I’m sorry,” and we left it at that. But, then I called back for clarification (and because I was panicking), and then it was over. I felt crushing despair. However, what was different this time was that I let myself be depressed for as long as I needed to, even rebounded a bit and was transparent about my heartache, and I moved through the feelings. When I rode the waves through the anger, sadness, joy, fear, etc., the crushing heartache passed. I still had thoughts that I really would like things to be different, but they didn’t own me like they did in the past. I had a new understanding that chances are that the world has another person lined up for me someday, who is likely a better match. I had the perspective that frees up that space I talked about and I could breathe again.

Although this all sounds great, I seldom come to radically accept outcomes as my first choice. I’m almost always dragged kicking and screaming first, angry at the world, and trying to manipulate reality. Undoing the wiring that leads us to label outcomes as good or bad is one of the hardest things we can do. However, I’m slowly (very slowly…) learning that the greatest sense of being okay in the world comes from sitting with that spectrum of feelings that come up when things don’t go my way.

Death of my Best Friend

In December of 2013, I was on a ten day cruise with my loving partner (who had kindly paid for both of us). Seemingly good, right? Well, it ended up being a booze cruise where we spent about $700 on alcohol on his credit card. I spent much of the trip miserable and not wanting him to come near me because I got to a point where I disliked him so much, likely a reflection of my own self-loathing. On the outside the situation appeared to be lovely, but I found a few pictures that captured what was actually happening for me, which was drinking until I forgot how much I wanted to be with the girl I was talking to at home instead of my boyfriend. 

Upon arriving onshore in the U.S. at the end of our trip, my phone gained service again, and it became apparent that something terrible had occurred. I could tell by the tone in the voicemails and by who had called me that something grave had happened to my grandmother, despite no one saying anything or anyone specific. I had messages from extended family saying “Ginelle, call your mom or aunt NOW,” as if the urgency in their shaking voices would get me to turn on my phone faster.

My throat constricted. I felt my heart beginning to splinter. When I finally made the call back, I collapsed after finding out that my grandmother had a stroke that would ultimately end her life. I had just spoken to her on the cruise - the day we left the harbor. She told me how proud she was that I got the grades I did and I wished her the happiest of birthdays. She was my pal, my best friend in the world, and a second mother to me. Yet, 10 days later on Christmas Eve, she was linked up to life support, counting down the hours until she no longer inhabited her physical body.

The splinters in my heart proceeded to shatter into ten million pieces after that phone call. I sobbed from the depths of my soul. Gut-wrenching and body-shaking sobs. I didn’t know that it was possible to cry like that. I felt as if someone took a shovel to my insides and scooped them all out.

The terror passed through me as I realized that I’d never get to have a conversation with her again, or to get her advice, or to have her joke with me. It felt as if all of my organs were shutting down, unable to comprehend the grief that flooded my entire system.

Upon arriving at the hospital, my heart broke further. Seeing her in a coma that she’d never come out of sent the splintered fragments of my heart through my entire body, cutting off my ability to breathe and to process. Just when I thought that the sensations would kill me, a strange thing happened. It was at that point that I felt more connected to her than ever.

I can’t quite explain it, but even when she took her last breath while I was sitting at MGH Boston with her, I felt her presence within and around me more than I ever had when she was alive. It was as if the fear of death wasn’t so scary after all. It was almost like I had a new life force carrying me, and opening me up to the world.

My Story of Getting Sober

My nana Carole’s death cracked something open inside of me that I never could have predicted. Perhaps it was my spirit, my consciousness, my will to live. For the first time in my life, I felt truly connected to a Spirit of the Universe. I use the terms “Spirit of the Universe” and “God” interchangeably. To me, they are a life force that exists within me, all throughout others, and are the basis for the interconnectedness of the world. They are bigger than I can explain in words. 

The newly formed fissure in my consciousness allowed me to see my life through a new set of eyes over the course of the following few weeks. I had an overwhelming visceral feeling that she could see and feel what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. It was like she and God were observing my life from another realm over a cup of tea.

During the distressing time between her death and getting sober I was drinking myself to oblivion whenever I got the chance, cheating on my boyfriend, and wallowing in self-loathing. I was attempting to hide how unmanageable my life was through excelling in school and building my career. I made my external life as pretty as possible so that no one could see that I was deteriorating on the inside.

Somehow though, her death shattered the delusional thinking that allowed me to live this way for so long. I started to see where my inner mess bled out into my romantic relationship, overworking, not sleeping, and alcoholic drinking. I thought that my life looked perfect from the outside, but at second glance, I wasn’t functioning well at work - my boss cut my hours, and my boyfriend had enough of my cheating. It wasn’t that my grandmother was shaming me, but it was as if she and I were sharing an overwhelming desire for me to live a better life.

With this newfound awareness, I couldn’t blot out the truth of how I was living anymore. What I gained from seeing my habitual patterns playing out over and over again in real time was the desire to get help. This yearning for healing was powered by a combination of my nana, my highest self, and God - if the three can even be distinguished.

Fueled by desperation, I dragged myself into my therapist’s office and confessed how ugly my drinking had gotten. We came to the conclusion together that I needed additional help. Stripped of all my pride, I crawled into my first meeting to begin my journey in a life-saving 12 step program that I still thrive in today.

Despite losing my best friend, the grief from her passing propelled me into a new life for myself. It felt as if all my skin had been taken off of my body so that I could start anew. I was raw, trudging through each day unsure of this new path I managed to sign myself up for.

After releasing my hold on substances, sitting soberly with my grief was wildly disorienting. I broke up with my partner. I deferred my acceptance to graduate school at Brown. I graduated college and joined AmeriCorps. I threw myself into working the 12 steps, and I moved in with family. Beginning to let go of the idea that I knew exactly how my life was supposed to unfold, I gained a snippet of understanding of what radical acceptance meant.

There have been hundreds of times in my sobriety that I’ve kicked and screamed when things don’t go my way. It was suggested to me by a sponsor and by seasoned members of the program that I take a break from dating while I’m healing through the 12 steps. I begrudgingly listened, and every few months would try to date anyways. The result was more pain. I am only recently learning that radical acceptance is to be practiced in all parts of my life if I hope to experience any sort of serenity.

Radical acceptance is a lesson that I am to learn over and over again. I don’t believe in a God, or a Spirit of the Universe, that puts us through pain and injustice. I think these things just happen, sometimes even of our own making. Perhaps there are lessons in pain and misfortune, as well as in blessings and joy. I’m doing my best to not spend time trying to figure out why everything happens the way it does. This sort of thinking only leads to further neurosis, and that I have enough of.

Instead, I attempt to radically accept. On my easier days, this means breathing into my pain and making it my friend by allowing it to be with me when I work, when I drive, and when I sleep. On my harder days, when radical acceptance goes out the window, this looks like barely being able to sit with myself. Wanting to crawl out of my skin. Probably having to cancel all of my activities to instead do self-care and get some extra sleep.

Sometimes the only meaning I can make out of life is to shrug and say “Who knows?” while knowing that my grandmother and the Spirit of the Universe are guiding me along the way. 

Tears were shed in the making of this post. :)

Tears were shed in the making of this post. :)


Editor: The lovely Dan Bosco