When the time came for my parents to retire from public service, I was warned that, for some time, they would go through the throes of depression. And they did—although in different ways, my father, characteristically less expressive about how he truly felt. But it certainly is a difficult time: moving from the center of things, playing lead and active roles to taking a place at the periphery, reduced to a mere spectator. It has to do with one’s sense of worth and self-respect, one’s confidence in one’s capabilities, the feeling of importance and of being able to make a difference. A priest, one sagely mentor once warned me, is prone to three failings: in his youth, de mulieribus…the lure of the flesh and the demands of concupiscence; in midlife, de pecunia…the temptation to make one’s pile and the concern with fortune and future; at the twilight of priestly life, de honoribus…the high one gets with titles, privileges and the prostrations of the lowly in one’s mighty presence. Indeed, as the possibilities of life diminish with the onset of dusk, one clings as tenaciously as one can to the honors and titles that lend one the assurance, no matter how fleeting, that one still counts!
As it is with old age, so it is with bereavement, with separation, with loss, with disappointment. No matter the therapist or the therapy, the counselor or the counseling technique, the goal will be one and the same: acceptance. It is only with acceptance that healing can come. But acceptance is fundamentally ambivalent: for while, on the one hand, it is the first step to recovery, it is also resigning oneself to the irreparable, the unrecoverable, the departure and the loss. Recovery demands a capitulation to what cannot be undone, the projection of possibility involves the acceptance of facticity.
An old man who, once in a while, mimics the antics of the young can be hilarious, entertaining even. But when he dresses as a millennial, acts like he is a spring chicken and struts around displaying his fading colors and wilting wares, he becomes pathetic and deplorable. He is the sorry sight of a stubborn denial in the face of ineluctable fact! I am not saying that the old should do nothing about keeping themselves as spritely, as lively, as vivacious as they can be. Being old is not about being losyang…it is being about measured but sincere in speech, thoughtful but not pedantic, ready with advice, but neither pontificating nor judgmental. One particular German professor I had while doing my theology studies will for all time be my ideal of an elderly person: his daily route took him from his room to the chapel, to the classroom for his daily lectures, to the recreation room for television and beer with his confreres, and then back to his room for study and writing…and he did produce volumes of notes for his students, many points of which have shaped they way I think in theology till now! By contrast an old person who squanders the remaining resources of life and possessions in silly pursuits is just that—silly!
Amoris Laetitia is a an example of pastoral acceptance: It accepts the hard and deplorable fact that many Catholics find themselves in “difficult and problematic” situations. By this phraseology, the Pope refers to married persons who have since separated from their spouses and are now in unions with other partners with whom they have children. The ambivalence of “acceptance” that the Pope exhorts is what inspires many Catholics, irks and vexes a few. The latter are afraid that the Pope is compromising on traditional theological doctrine on the indissolubility and unity of marriage. The former believe—I with them— that the Pope is merely being what he has been called to be, a pastor, and asking pastors to be the same. There is, in fact, ambivalence here, but it need not be deleterious: one accepts the fact that the situation is “difficult,” that it is not as neat as the legitimate v. illegitimate categorizations of law, or the sacramental v. adulterous disjunctions of theologians and of canonists. Life has many shades of grey and is seldom clearly white, or clearly black! And I read the Pope as exhorting the Church to be accepting of those who err so that it can nudge them away from their weaknesses to find new strength in the life of the Church.
Acceptance does not have to mean approval. I can accept the death of a loved one without having to give my approval to it. But it is my acceptance that will allow me to crawl out of the dark hole of despondency, cherish the beautiful memories and pick up the pieces. One may have serious reservations about another person’s sexual preferences or orientations. I fact, one may vehemently disagree, but that should not mean the rejection of the person. In my life as a teacher, I have had to deal repeatedly with really dense students for whom learning is virtually asking for the moon. And it took me time to learn how to accept them, without having to resign myself to stupidity and to reconcile myself with mediocrity. But it was only when I accepted them that I caught a glimpse of the beauty, the uniqueness, the treasure that lay hidden in that which, on the surface, could only vex me.
Such is the ambivalence, but necessity and fecundity, of acceptance.