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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hendon

The Gratitude Paradox: How to Live a Grateful Life in a F*cked Up World.

Updated: Apr 9

Part Two: The Paradox of Acceptance

The great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Than tells this story:

Once, there was a group of blind men who encountered an elephant for the first time. Each man reached out with delicate curiosity, their fingers tracing the contours of this great and unknown creature that stood before them.

The first man felt the elephant's sturdy, immovable side and declared, "Ah, an elephant is like a wall, broad and strong." His words carried the weight of his conviction, yet they were but a fragment of the whole truth.

Another man, whose hands discovered the elephant's long, sinuous trunk, smiled softly and responded, "No, dear friend. An elephant is like a snake, flexible and nimble." His insight, born from his experience, was true for him, yet it was not the complete truth.

The third man, feeling the elephant's sharp, pointed tusk, contemplated quietly before saying, "An elephant is like a spear, smooth and sharp." His perception was genuine, yet it captured only a sliver of the elephant's total being.

The last man, holding the elephant's large, flapping ear, reflected and then spoke with calm certainty, "An elephant is like a fan, wide and waving." His understanding was sincere, but it was just one aspect of the reality.

Each man spoke from his heart, sharing his own truth, his own encounter with a part of the whole. But the elephant was none of these things alone – it was all of them and more. It was a living, breathing being, far more complex and wondrous than the sum of its parts.

I use this story to distinguish a new way of understanding gratitude.

Our perceptions are often limited to our own experiences and the truth is often broader and more profound than our individual perspectives can grasp. Having one single view of what gratitude is, and how we might access it is insufficient to capturing the whole world of it.

We need to see gratitude as a larger phenomenon, with many different aspects.

To get it, to understand the big picture, you've got to explore all of it. It's about getting out of your comfort zone, challenging your perspectives, and maybe, just maybe, realizing that the elephant isn’t just a snake or a tree, but a magnificent beast that you can only appreciate by feeling up the whole damn thing.

I’m suggesting gratitude is like this.

The Paradox of Acceptance: Deal With It

Accepting What’s So About Our Circumstances


In 1965 Admiral John Stockdale was shot down while leading a strike against a railway bridge. Captured by the North Vietnamese, he was held captive for over seven years, facing brutal torture and living in appalling conditions in what has since been come to known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.

His story is one way to illustrate the paradox of acceptance.

After his release, his story has become a foundational tale amongst leadership and business schools, made popular by Jim Collins in his business classic, Good to Great.

In interviewing Stockdale for the book Collins wanted to know what separated the survivors from the ones that died while being held captive. His question while walking with Stockdale was, “Who didn’t make it out?” The answer surprised him.

From, Good to Great:

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier. "The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."

Stockdale explained that the paradoxical combination of faith and realism was the key to his survival and resilience. He never lost hope that he would prevail in the end, but he also faced the brutal facts of his situation without illusions. He called this the “Stockdale Paradox”.

We tend to think of gratitude as something requiring becoming ignorant of negativity. To live like “everything is fine” the way it is.

This is not the case.

Acceptance is not submission. Acceptance does not require pretense, in fact, quite the opposite.

Acceptance requires an authentic, reality-based view of life, and facing it head-on.

In his own words, Stockdale recounted the challenges he faced: "I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."

He would not trade having been imprisoned and tortured for seven and half years? I complain when I need to get off the couch to feed the dog because the kids forgot.

Regarding his coping strategy, Stockdale said, "I never gave in to despair or defeatism. As I see it, you have to recognize the existence of evil in the world and then confront it, not allow it to overwhelm you, but to confront it."

His story demonstrates that acceptance is not a passive resignation to fate, but an active engagement with reality, from which gratitude can (and will) emerge, even in adversity.

Nelson Mandela paints a similar picture regarding his time imprisoned on Robben Island. In his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom" and other writings, he recounts numerous experiences from his life, many of which touch on themes of acceptance and gratitude.

While he doesn't explicitly frame these stories solely within the context of acceptance leading to gratitude, many of his experiences, especially those during his 27 years of imprisonment, implicitly demonstrate this connection.

One of the most striking aspects of Mandela's life story is his extraordinary capacity to accept his long and unjust imprisonment without bitterness. He emerged not with a heart seeking vengeance but with a spirit of reconciliation and understanding.

But sure, stay pissed off at that other agent for not returning your calls. Sounds like a solid plan.

In his writings, Mandela often reflects on the small mercies and moments of humanity he experienced in prison. For example, he writes about the importance of the garden he was allowed to tend at Robben Island. This garden became a source of great solace and satisfaction for him. In this activity, he found a measure of peace and a way to connect with life outside the prison walls. The act of nurturing plants and seeing them grow was something for which he was deeply grateful. It represented life, growth, and hope amidst a situation where these were often scarce.

Once you accept the circumstances, that is, give up your resentments and regrets, you then have the space available to see even the smallest graces as the opportunity for gratitude to sink in.

Moreover, Mandela speaks about the gratitude he felt for the camaraderie and solidarity among his fellow prisoners. This sense of community and shared purpose helped sustain him and others through the darkest times. He accepted the reality of his imprisonment, and within that context, he was able to find and appreciate these human connections.

This is radically different than bonding over what a bitch the agent on the other side of the transaction is with your team over happy hour drinks. Gratitude and resentment cannot exist at the same time.

Mandela’s story after his release also demonstrates the relationship between acceptance and gratitude. He accepted his past without letting it embitter him, which allowed him to focus on building a better future for South Africa. His gratitude for freedom was not just personal but extended to the collective freedom and progress of his nation.

In essence, Mandela's life as a whole can be seen as a series of lessons in the power of acceptance and the grace of gratitude. His ability to accept his circumstances, learn from them, and use them as a platform for positive change is a powerful illustration of how acceptance can pave the way for a profound sense of gratitude and purpose.

One of the doors into gratitude might just be learning this kind of “radical acceptance” of our circumstances.

While it's highly unlikely you or I will ever face the kinds of challenges these men faced, it doesn’t diminish the importance of our learning how to accept things as they are. As Stockdale says, to face the difficulties in the current reality head on, without losing faith in their positive resolution.

The more we practice this the wider this door opens.

And it goes beyond simple anecdotal evidence from a few extraordinary people.

Research has identified acceptance as an adaptive coping strategy that positively impacts life satisfaction.

A 2021 study in the "Journal of Happiness Studies" demonstrated that acceptance-based coping mechanisms, including the acceptance of adverse events, were positively correlated with higher levels of life satisfaction and performance.

Likewise, researchers found demonstrable physical benefits from acceptance as a practice.

Another study published in the "Journal of Behavioral Medicine" in 2021 found that acceptance-based interventions helped patients with chronic pain improve their quality of life and well-being.

This study focused on patients with chronic pain and the effect of acceptance-based interventions on their quality of life. The study found that patients who practiced acceptance reported improved quality of life and well-being, suggesting that accepting difficult health conditions can lead to better health outcomes.

But it’s not just the acceptance of outside circumstance that matters.

I don’t know about you, but I read this and think, “FUUUUUUCK! I am not ever going to be able to do that. I’m too old to change, I’m too quick to anger, this shit might have worked for them, but it’s never worked for me before.”

There is another aspect of acceptance we need to look at – acceptance of ourselves.

Acceptance of Ourselves

It was a bonus assignment in one of the leadership classes I lead to read a book you would not normally read. The intention was to develop neuroplasticity by creating new pathways in the brain. The assignment was, if you don’t normally read poetry, for example, read poetry. Is Shakespeare not on your list of regular reading? Read some Shakespeare.

It made sense to me. Do things you don’t normally do, and you’ll build new muscles. Science is clear on these benefits for the brain as well.

An article by Better Aging in January 2021 highlights the importance of neuroplasticity for aging well, and how it can help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases by keeping the brain active and healthy. As a 61 year old, who can barely recall his kids' names, this seems important.

I mention this because on one occasion I chose to read, Eat, Pray, Love as my book. It seemed to me to be the kind of book my wife would dig and, while I am madly in love with that woman, our reading habits are not the same.

But I was wrong. I loved it. Blown away, in fact. Amazing story told brilliantly. And, getting back to the point, was all about the author’s journey toward self-acceptance and the miraculous results it produced.

In the story, Gilbert embarks on a journey that is as much internal as it is external. She confronts various facets of her identity and experience that she had previously resisted or felt ashamed of.

This includes her struggle with her divorce, her feelings of inadequacy, her unfulfilled desires, and her quest for a deeper spiritual connection. By confronting these aspects head-on, Gilbert starts a process of self-acceptance that is both challenging and liberating.

In the first part of her journey, the “eat” portion, she tackles her relationship with pleasure and desire. In Italy, Gilbert allows herself to experience pleasure without guilt — something she had denied herself in the past (and as a born and bred NY Jew, I know I struggle with all kinds of guilt).

This simple act of enjoying food, learning a new language, and immersing herself in a new culture became a form of self-love and acceptance. She learns to embrace her desires, not as weaknesses or indulgences, but as integral parts of her humanity.

Next comes “pray” and in India, Gilbert's journey shifts to a more introspective and spiritual phase.

Here, she confronts deeper emotional and spiritual struggles. She grapples with feelings of guilt, grief, and self-doubt. Through meditation and introspection, she learns to accept these feelings, understanding that self-acceptance is not just about embracing one's strengths and joys, but also about acknowledging and making peace with one's weaknesses and sorrows.

This journey of self-acceptance brings about a profound transformation in her life. It leads to an increased sense of freedom, self-awareness, and inner peace. By accepting and loving the parts of herself she had previously resisted or been embarrassed about, Gilbert discovers a more authentic version of herself. This authenticity opens the door to deeper connections with others and a more meaningful engagement with the world.

The culmination of her journey in Indonesia where she finds love, symbolizes the full circle of her journey toward self-acceptance.

Her story suggests that by fully embracing all aspects of ourselves — including what we think of as our flaws and vulnerabilities — we can create a life that is not only more authentic and fulfilling but also one that is open to the true joys and possibilities life has to offer.

Why Gilbert's story resonates with many is because it mirrors a universal human experience: the struggle with self-acceptance and the powerful, transformative impact of embracing our entire selves.

Her story is our story. She illustrates that when we accept and love even the parts of ourselves that we previously denied or resisted, we open ourselves up to a richer, more gratifying, and more grateful way of living.

This is a perfect example of not only how we can do the work to accept ourselves, but the profound benefits. While we don’t all need to travel the globe to do this (although, how fun would that be?) this is a transformation available to all of us.

One of my favorite authors and researchers, Brene Brown covers this material in depth in multiple books.

A recurring theme in her storytelling is the idea that embracing our imperfections and vulnerabilities leads to greater self-acceptance and, subsequently, a deeper sense of gratitude and connection with others.

In her view, “Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.”

In "The Gifts of Imperfection," Brown discusses her own struggle with perfectionism and how learning to accept her true self, flaws and all, led her to a more authentic, compassionate, and grateful way of living. She emphasizes that it is not about being perfect but about being authentic and wholehearted in our approach to life, which fosters a profound sense of gratitude.

Her view, from that book that "The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” is one we’d all do well to adopt.

Are you willing to do this work? Without it, gratitude is doomed to be a ghost, a train that is always pulling out of the station just before you get there.

One Part of the Elephant

Acceptance, of our circumstances and of ourselves, is one aspect of our path to gratitude. While it’s not the whole story, the degree to which we engage with the paradox of acceptance, both circumstantial and internal, is the degree to which we have access to the world gratitude makes available.

Becoming naively optimistic will lead to burnout, resignation, and heartbreak.

Resisting and suppressing what we consider to be flawed will lead to suffering, disappointment, and a never-ending experience of failure.

Cultivating a view where we learn to accept things as they are, and with self-compassion and grit we move ourselves forward to the next step, opens the door to gratitude.

Next, we will start to examine another piece of the elephant, The Paradox of Presence.

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