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Acceptance or Change: Hamlet’s Dilemma Is Still With Us

2 minute read

Sometimes clients ask me for the impossible.

What do I say to the woman who tells me her boyfriend is verbally abusive, her parents take half her paycheck and her boss mocks her in front of her colleagues — but that she doesn’t feel any of this can change, she simply wants to not let those things bother her?

And what do I say to the man who tells me his wife is blatantly carrying on an affair, but that he doesn’t feel he can do anything about it — he just wants to learn to be happy without any love in his life?

What about the woman who is an executive assistant to a boss who cannot admit to a mistake and therefore lies in order to place the blame on her — and rather than look for another job or stand up to her boss, she simply wants to learn to let the abuse roll off her?

Psychotherapy is a western tradition, and it carries the assumptions of that culture: That we have agency, free will and the ability to change our circumstances. Psychotherapy asks us to examine and challenge our worldview, our thoughts and behaviors. The clients in the examples above would be encouraged to think about what stops them from standing up to a boyfriend, or divorcing a wife, or finding a new job. Their assumptions about themselves and others would be challenged and the sources of those assumptions identified and their flaws laid bare. With the truth revealed and obstacles removed, the client will be able to change their life.

Yet sometimes psychotherapy, with all its inherent optimism, meets the immovable object of reality. While the three people above could very likely change their circumstances for the better and lead happier lives as a result, what do we say to someone dying of cancer? Or to the parent of a dead child? Or someone whose partner of 40 years has walked out on what seemed to be a happy marriage? People in such situations have little that they can change, and must simply endure.

We all, to a greater or lesser extent, face this dilemma in our lives: When do we struggle against circumstances, and when do we come to terms with our fate? Shakespeare’s Hamlet summed it up when he asked, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?”

Some of us err on the side of accepting our outrageous fortune needlessly. We give up too soon on the hope that we can change our lives and focus instead on enduring what seems inevitable: troubled relationships, unsatisfying jobs, anger, frustration and sadness. These problems seem eternal, insurmountable, and we resign ourselves to our belief that life is just like that.

Others err on the side of taking arms against their sea of troubles for far too long: trying endlessly to change the behavior of their partner, manage the lives of their grown children, or berate themselves for their failings while promising time and again to do better. They cannot believe that some things are beyond their control and that acceptance of the way things are will bring a measure of peace and contentment.

And so when we live our lives, we are making a decision every day: To change our circumstances, or to change ourselves so that we can tolerate our circumstances. Victor Frankl, a famous existential psychologist, was able to find contentment even while living in a Nazi concentration camp. So perhaps I shouldn’t be so hasty when I tell my clients that they should not tolerate situations that to me cry out for action and change.

There is no clear way for us to decide which path to take: struggle to change our situation, or endure our fate. Maybe our best guidepost is the Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can

And wisdom to know the difference


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