Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

We cry for justice, but what is deserved is not always given. Sometimes the unfairness is due to lying, cheating, or political opportunism. Many imperfect situations, however, are not based on intent to harm. These are human stories where no political or legal action is possible. No crime has been committed. In such cases we can only accept the terms life allows, make the best of things, and find whatever “good” is present.

Here is an essay I wrote in the early days of this blog, now revised. The story tells of a situation in which life offers raw, rude, unchosen materials and asks us, in effect, to build something worthwhile out of the resources at hand:

Dr. Gerald Stein

A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of…

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22 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

  1. Wow! Wise indeed! Not everyone (I would say, not many people) could do what your not-always-wise friend has done with this situation. Thanks for this story — there are lessons in it for me, too.


  2. Nice story, good insight on a tricky situation.


  3. It is so nice to read each post. There is something to take away each time. Thanks for all the wisdom doctor and keep writing..


  4. Your encouragement is much appreciated, Param.


  5. Acceptance is tough one. I admire people who can embrace it. Currently I am angry about getting older and wondering how , if ever, I can accept that. Short of taking my own life, I have no other option than acceptance. It doesn’t come easily. I know, I know, I can say be glad I have the luxury of growing older but I hate the limitations that are now imposed. I also hate that , statistically, I will lose at least one member of my cohort every year for the rest of my life. Mind you, that’s AT LEAST one per year. It’s hard to bear all that loss. My friend died suddenly and unexpectedly a couple of years ago. He was 63 and a lucky man to have escaped all the losses awaiting him. How do you ever accept that future?

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    • JT, you’re very brave to openly share this feeling. It’s interesting that you say you are “angry” at growing older, rather than “sad” or “fearful”. It suggests regret and disappointment. The inevitable losses we experience is the price paid for being human and forming attachments with loved ones. This is something I had to grapple with over the past few years and I asked myself the same question you did. What seems to help is having someone to love, something to give (work, passion, service), and something to look forward to. I hope you can find all 3 of these things to help you stick around for the last chapter of your book of life. Maybe it will turn out better than you expected. 🙂

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      • Hmmmmm. I can say that I don’t feel very brave to write about my inability to accept what is. In fact, I am mad at myself for this inability and wish I could buck up and move on. Maybe in time…
        As to those three things? They are worth considering. At the moment, I am somewhat lost and stumbling to find at least the last two. Unfortunately, I think my stumbling perhaps makes me less lovable! But that’s one thing about family. They kinda have to take you the way you are and mine does so I am lucky that way.
        Thanks for taking the time to respond. I checked out your blog . Your post on winter was interesting to me as I am (by far) a summer person. I live on the Northern CA coast, a short drive from the ocean but it has been cold, wet, and darker than usual this winter. Matches my personal and political outlook.


    • Your questions and your anger are those of many, JT. To me the issue boils down to theodicy: the attempt to vindicate God (if one believes in God and further believes he is all-good and all-powerful). What justifies this suffering? Each person comes up with an answer or finds no justification or tries to ignore the question and block out anticipation of the pain that will, almost inevitably, visit them. Of course, it is easier to vindicate God if one has been spared, at least for the moment. I imagine you’ve read many of the same essays and books I have, some not at all religious, dealing with how one should face aging and death. Evelyn offers practical suggestions, but in the midst of pain one doesn’t come easily to the adoption of heartfelt guidance. I can only say I can identify with the dilemma — the very human dilemma — you describe and with the pain you suffer. In the meantime, all of us do the best we can and try to make the most of our time and opportunities for the joy and good works we are permitted — for as long as they last.

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      • The God thing. That’s tough. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a rigid Catholic home in the 50’s and 60’s (including 12 years of Catholic education. I actually also attended grad school at a Jesuit university but that was one of the best educational experiences of my life). I put God away the minute I left home at 18. Every so often I bring the idea out again, dust it off, wonder if there’s a place for that in my life now but it’s complex. I can say with certainty , however, that the God of my childhood left what feels like irreparable damage. Any god that I might make friends with now is going to be so much kinder than that God was.

        I guess I tell myself all the time, ” Look, you’re doing the best you can” but the reality is that I’m not sure that’s true. How would I even know? I also tell myself all the time to treasure the gift of life but I’m not convinced it’s a gift. It feels more like a huge backpack of obligation!

        But talk to me again when the light and warmth come back . I’ll just take that backpack and do some hiking. The CA coast has unbelievable beauty. The Sierra Nevada and Yosemite are a four to six hour drive away (depending on where you’re headed). I CAN find some piece of God there 👍🏻

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      • I wish I had the magic wand, JT. For you and for myself. But I’m glad there are places and times that yet have something to offer you. And, who knows — time may yet have some new and pleasing perspective for you in his bag of tricks.

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  6. acceptance for me translates into deep, deep anger and resentment – there is very little letting go and moving on – anger that I can never bring those that harmed me to justice, take back what they ripped apart and helped themselves to without my permission, anger that I cannot go back in time and give my mother a book on how to love your dirty, noisy, over emotional adhd child – I am no saint, I cannot offer unconditional blanket forgiveness, accept it all as one of life’s rather more brutal lessons and walk away – how do you acknowledge, recognize and start to grieve for those things you never had in the first place but managed to lose – how do you replace what I think is righteous anger and an unquenchable thirst for retribution with a gentle sigh of surrendering acceptance – how do I let that acceptance in without pushing out all those emotions I feel I have a right to feel – does the letting in of the acceptance and the relinquishing of those emotions not invalidate the experiences?


    • Lots of big and worthy questions, Rosie. I never expect less of you. While the essay was speaking of situations different from those you are describing, I cannot ignore your concerns. I’ll say only a little bit. What follows is general, not specific to your life. That said, one must indeed honor the grief and rage. If this is done, ideally one passes through those emotions to the point of proceeding with one’s life without the full burden and damage of the past, perhaps even to the point of “making” something of the injury. In any case, eventually the rage can only corrode one’s life if held indefinitely. Yes, validate the experience by giving vent for a time, perhaps a long time, but don’t invalidate and ruin the rest of your life and the opportunity to better it by failing to dissipate the rage and then going forward. Easy to say, hard to do, but I believe you to be a courageous person. You will decide if my facile description of a path fits for you.


      • I have decided – “but don’t invalidate and ruin the rest of your life and the opportunity to better it by failing to dissipate the rage and then going forward” – that hit me over the head – you’ve managed to flip the coin and let me see the other side – thank you for that gift Dr G 🙂

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  7. A wise woman, indeed, Dr. Stein. I’m sure, though, that she must’ve know the challenges she faced when she agreed to marry the widower.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Coming to terms with what cannot be changed is not a simple process. It incorporates anger, rage, hurt, helplessness, fear, shame to name but a few. We would all love to turn the clocks back, or time travel back to the past & do what we were incapable of doing at the time. I’ve learnt that I don’t like my past & would give anything to change it, but inevitably, it happened & the best I can do in the circumstances, is to work through it & find a manageable place to put it, where it no longer controls me! Easier said than done, agreed, but I do not intend to let my past ruin my future. I am worth more than that. I deserve to be happy, whatever happy means to me. Justice often is not done & I for one, don’t wish to waste any more of my life, searching for it. With the proper professional support, I know my unchangable past, will be dealt with & I will no longer be it’s slave. Thank you for sharing your experience & acknowledging it’s place.


    • You are welcome, Joanne. Your attitude is hard won, but a good one, I think. I’m personally at the point that I doubt I’d go back and do very much different, except perhaps to see how it would work out if I did. One of the science fiction tropes is for the character of a novel or TV program to go back to the past (somehow) and try to change it, like killing Hitler, for example. In the examples I know, either it can’t be done or it results in some other result which is just about as bad as it is to leave history as it was. That said, I can well understand those who have suffered trauma greater than I did (or made mistakes that were unrecoverable and devastating) to experience the wish to go back. As you say, however, better to deal with the emotions and try to lead the best possible existence going forward.


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