By Daniel Tarade
Oscillation. A reverberation between two ways of being, seemingly in conflict. At times I advocate, internally and out loud, for acceptance of any hardship one may encounter. That, in acceptance, one will find contentment, regardless of one’s external condition. In equal abundance, I profess, externally and in quiet, for challenging an acceptance of our unjust society. That in struggle one will found purpose, regardless of one’s internal condition. How can I both advocate for utter acceptance, to rag doll with the crashing waves, and for utter struggle, to instead embody the crashing wave? To accept one’s own condition is, via the transitive property, accepting of the society that allowed for such a condition. Yet, struggle is the ultimate refusal. I am neither the first nor the last to be faced with such a dilemma. Today, I deliberate on acceptance and struggle. I will explore the permutations, the cultural references, the historical precedents that may illuminate what could very well be the most daunting decision I have faced. Today, I condemn acceptance. Today, I begin a journey to struggle.
For most of my life, I have not thought much about struggling. Indeed, the anxiety and panic attacks that pockmarked my life made acceptance a priority; to accept uncertainty, to accept failure, to accept death. I imagine that I have largely succeeded in this endeavour over the last eight years of my life. A stability has emerged and my thoughts are quiet and curious. The spectre of death is no longer paralyzing, an accepted reality. Yet, as the prevailing winds of self-preservation have died down, an exceeding awareness of global issues has filled the void. Rampant mental health crises. Catastrophic climate change. Late-stage capitalism. What is the path forward? Does one advocate for everyone to become accepting? Does one instead issue a rally cry for struggle?
Let me illustrate the dilemma. I am not a wealthy individual. I am not impoverished either. Some would be unhappy in my circumstances, unable to afford all the luxuries that they may desire. They might complain that they are not rewarded adequately for their labour (I hear this often among graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in science). One solution is to overcome the materialist urge and to become satisfied with what one has. Another solution is to overthrow the capitalist economic system where people are not adequately remunerated for their labour. Hopefully this example makes clear the problem. There are only a few other premises that need to be listed;
1.) The seat of suffering is desire
2.) Desire underpins struggle for betterment
3.) Acceptance maximizes the chance of personal contentment
4.) Acceptance quenches sentiment for struggle
From my perspective, desire and acceptance are opposites. At a societal level, desire is necessary for struggle, acceptance akin to acquiescence.
First, I want to comment on the human nature of the discourse. Similar questions have been asked throughout time and space. Whether to accept or to struggle conjures up the most famous dichotomy written in the English language; to be or not to be.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
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: to die, to sleep
For Hamlet, to live (in his current situation) is to suffer. However, rather than debate whether one ought to accept the conditions of one’s suffering or to struggle against the systems that maintain such conditions, the discussion is subverted. Rather, person is meant to discuss whether to live at all, perhaps taking for granted that injustices can be rectified. Others offer a solution to Hamlet’s line of reasoning, whether to die or to suffer. Nietzsche wrote that “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning.” Albert Camus echoes this point; “The literal meaning of life is whatever you're doing that prevents you from killing yourself.” For Camus, discovering your personal meaning of life was possible through an acceptance of absurdity (Hamlet seems like a whiny teenager in comparison). Once the absurdity is accepted, a person is free to do whatever one desires. This conception of life has been oft repeated to me from friends and family, particularly when I found myself in troughs of depression and anxiety. Just enjoy the little things, I was told.
Although Camus advocates for acceptance as they see no objective meaning in the world, Bob Dylan does so begrudgingly. Bob Dylan was an immensely political singer-songwriter. From 1962 to 1964, the four studio albums released by Bob Dylan included political anthems like The Times They Are a-Changin' and Only a Pawn in Their Game, Masters of War and God on Our Side. Dylan wrote in rejection of poverty, war, disenfranchisement and the systems maintaining such atrocities. Beginning with their fourth studio album, the aptly titled Another Side of Bob Dylan, critics noted that Dylan had "somehow lost touch with people." However, it was with their fifth studio album, Bringing it All Back Home, that Dylan broke with the folk tradition, while notably being backed by an electric band. For me, the standout song on a standout album is It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding). A song that deals with the dichotomy of acceptance and struggle. Throughout the song, Dylan points out injustice and atrocity while simultaneously expressing exasperation. The first verse;
Darkness at the break of noon references a catastrophe of some sort (whether nuclear fallout or runaway climate change) that will affect everyone, even the rich (shadows even the silver spoon; lovely alliteration). To what do we owe this darkness? Bob Dylan makes clear that both the handmade blade, a signifier of human violence (i.e. war) and the child’s balloon (i.e. humankind’s collective innocence/ignorance) are too blame. The minority can wage war on humanity and environment but it does require the collective masses remaining idle. In the face of imminent destruction and the refusal of people to fight, Bob Dylan has accepted and resigned to the knowledge that “there is not sense in trying.”
The ultimate lyric of the song;
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only
Bob Dylan alludes to the revolutionary urge to struggle at his core, one that could be done away with a guillotine, the famed weapon of terror used by all sorts of people during the French Revolution. Yet, Dylan laconically sums up the entirety of the song with the line “it’s life, and life only,” as if to suggest that the only means of confronting the absurdity of life is with acceptance. A modern poet echoes this point;
'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off
Utter resignation. An epic about the sordid nature at the seat of the people one encounters. What these thinkers, from Dylan to Camus, seem to say is that struggle is of no use, to instead accept. I say, enough of that.
Although many thinkers have resigned to an acceptance of the world, those acquainted with, ahem, practical philosophy are obvious proponents of struggle. Nicola Sacco was an American and admitted anarchist who was sentenced to death after being found guilty of murder in 1921 following an incredibly contentious trial. Nicola’s final words to his son, as quoted by Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States;
So, Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother ... take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers here and there. ... But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don't you use all for yourself only. .. . help the persecuted and the victim because they are your better friends.... In this struggle of life you will find more and love and you will be loved.
It is clear that, for Nicola, struggle is to be the primary concern in life, as long as persecution exists. However, within a life of struggle for justice, there is time still for contentment, perhaps acceptance, and finding joy in the little things. A compromise is struck. Perhaps acceptance and struggle are a false dichotomy. However, it is also clear that enjoyment is to be derived from the aspects of life that are uncorrupted by capitalism. It is difficult to imagine Nicola Sacco advocating for acceptance of one’s job or meager possessions. Although a revolutionary, Nicola Sacco’s life is not incompatible with Camus or Nietzsche’s statements on the subjective meaning of life. For Camus, acceptance may be the meaning while Sacco instead requires struggle. However, it seems unsatisfactory that the call to struggle rests on the subjective desires of a constituent. As Bob Dylan alludes, a lack of struggle hurts everyone and allows for injustice to proliferate. Enter deontology.
In the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Immanuel Kant attempts to derive universal moral laws. His first formulation of the categorical imperative is as follows; Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Invoking Kant’s first formulation, if everyone just enjoyed the little things, fewer and fewer people would be in a position to do so, at least in the way popular culture imagines enjoying the little things. America in the 1800s’s meant the majority of labourers worked 60 to 80 hours a week, backbreaking labour, with no other means of providing food for themselves and their family. It took a collective struggle to win the eight-hour work day, the five day work week, safety regulations, etc. For me to accept, to laze on the beach, to read, to play the harmonica, might be the key for personal, long-lasting contentment if only such a life did not prevent others from living a similar life of contentment.
From the first categorical imperative, Kant derives a second; So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only. People, in their capacity to conjure universal moral laws, are objective ends in themselves. You cannot, according to Kant, impinge on the rationality of another. Further, Kant describes an imperfect duty to promote the rationality of others;
The natural end which all men have is their own happiness. Now humanity might indeed subsist, although no one should contribute anything to the happiness of others, provided he did not intentionally withdraw anything from it; but after all this would only harmonize negatively not positively with humanity as an end in itself, if every one does not also endeavour, as far as in him lies, to forward the ends of others. For the ends of any subject which is an end in himself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if that conception is to have its full effect with me.
For Kant, rationality should never be subverted and should be promoted when possible. Acceptance of systems that subvert rationality is immoral. Overthrowing and sabotaging said systems is to be pursued.
For argument’s sake, what if we consider a different kind of acceptance. An acceptance of everything, not just financial destitution or political instability or discrimination. Buddhism offers a path to acceptance. If everyone was to develop an ability to accept starvation, sleeping in a blizzard without shelter, untreated bacterial infections, perhaps we could all be content even if capitalism continues its natural course. If we all grow comfortable with early, preventable death, are we not immune to suffering and pain? Multiple critiques exist of Buddhism. One is that such extreme asceticism is difficult to achieve. The epitome of asceticism is Sokushinbutsu, or self-mummification, where a buddhist monk stops intake of food and water while meditating. It takes years of preparation and culminates in being buried alive. How many people are capable of undertaking such extreme self-control? Any system that requires utter acceptance to mitigate great suffering is one that will allow suffering to continue unfettered and reorients blame towards the individual, not the corporation. A second critique is that Western Buddhism is a sedative, allowing one to deal with the symptoms of our unjust society without struggling against the society (The critical theorist Slavoj Žižek is a proponent of this view, although some have levied that his criticisms apply only to Western Buddhists and not Buddhism itself - after all, self-immolation has been employed by Buddhist monks to protest persecution throughout history). From a personal perspective, this conjures ideas of cognitive behaviour therapy, where one dismantles the safety behaviours that allows one to cope with unhealthy ways of living and thinking. To struggle, one must divest of coping. A stark reminder that acceptance allows the erosion of one’s ability to accept anything.
Acceptance is important and I do not mean diminish its importance. However, only as a means to an end is acceptance morally justifiable. The end, of course, is the struggle against societies that impinge on the individual’s freedom to accept, to be content. I have alluded that my thoughts on struggle emerged from my acceptance of personal difficulties. It is not acceptance or struggle but both, in sequence. Not everyone is in the position, physically, mentally, or emotionally, to struggle. Then, the onus is to accept in good faith, to unshackle oneself of materialism, flush the opiates of spectacle down the drain, and migrate towards the struggle. In the ideal society, people will not need to struggle to engineer the ideal society but can direct that energy inwards. Until that time, I cannot flounder.