Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Some Things We Cannot Change

As much as we would love to believe we will be exempt, none of us can avoid having to confront the harsh existential realities of life.  The good news is that doing the work of coming to terms with the givens of life can lead to equanimity, understanding, meaning and strength.  David Richo, Ph.D. has written a book on this subject entitled,  The Five Things We Cannot Change:  And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them. (Shambhala, 2005).

The following is an excerpt from David Richo's book How to be an Adult in Relationships, where he speaks on this theme of things we cannot change:

"Saying Yes to the Things We Cannot Change
To free ourselves from our neurotic ego is ultimately to accept the conditions of existence and to see ourselves not as victims or opponents of the givens of reality, but as adults who face up to them honestly.

  These givens include the following:

~ things change and end

~ life is not always fair

~ we pay for growth with suffering

~ things do not always go according to plan

~ people are not always loyal or loving

When we realize that the givens of life, no matter how ferocious, are not penalties but ingredients of depth, lovability, and character, we can let go of the belief that we are immune (or need to be). . . . . The strength to handle challenges, in fact, is directly proportional to how much we let go of the entitlement (to be exempt).

Once we cease our dispute with circumstances and simply face them and deal with them, we feel serenity, changing what can be changed and accepting what cannot be changed.  By doing so, we build a strong foundation for self-respect, a healthy alternative to universal entitlement for exemption from the hard realities of life.

Jung suggests we say an unconditional yes to the givens of existence without protest or blame . . . thereby affirming:

~ Everything changes and ends -- yet can be renewed.

~ Suffering is part of growth -- yet we keep finding ways to bring good from evil.

~ Things do not always go according to plan -- yet we can find the equanimity to say yes to what is and give thanks for what has been.

~ Life is not always fair -- yet we can be fair and even generous.

~ People are not loving and loyal all the time -- yet we do not have to retaliate but can act with love and loyalty while never giving up on others.

   Thus the givens -- the locus of our deepest fears -- turn out to be the requisite of personal evolution and compassion. . . . The unconditional 'yes' is simply mindfulness, fidelity to reality . . .  Accepting each is a stage in our unfolding.  As we grow, we let go of our ego's claim to exemptions from this universal heritage . . . using the givens as the ingredients for our growth."

So those are the things Richo says we cannot change and must learn to accept, even embrace.  What is your reaction to what Richo has to say?  Which of the givens has been the hardest for you to come to terms with?  Which have you been able to accept or embrace? 

Of the five givens on Richo's list, I have had the most trouble with things changing and ending.  Perhaps too many endings have made me a bit ending phobic. I now realize that I occasionally brought things to premature closure in my unconscious attempt to prevent being surprised by an ending.

I have learned to manage my aversion to endings with mindfulness practice, accepting what is and working with what is.  Sometimes my inner child quakes at the anticipation of an ending, but I have learned how to shift into my centered, adult self who is more equipped to handle them.

In an upcoming post I will introduce you to Irvin D. Yalom, M.D. and his take on the existential givens of life.  He names and defines these 'givens' from a much broader, more academic perspective, which I believe you will find equally interesting and challenging.

David Richo, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer who emphasizes Jungian, transpersonal, and spiritual perspectives in his work throughout the United States.    He is the author of several books.  (Two are mentionned above.)


  1. Thank you for the introduction to David Richo and the Five Things We Can Not Change. I have found endless inspiration in the Shambala press. The Serenity Prayer is comforting, yet I still struggle with the difficult aspects of life when in a moment of crisis. For now I just repeat to myself, 'this too shall pass.'

  2. David Richo comes through my town to give talks at my favorite bookstore every so often and I've had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. He synthesizes wisdom from Catholicism, psychology, and Buddhism in practical, down-to-earth terms.

  3. Richo is giving a workshop near where I live on relationships this Saturday. If you live in the S.F. Bay Area and are interested, here:


  4. Oh...change has always been a problem for me. I fear and dislike change and the unknown. I fear not being able to measure up to the new circumstances.
    But all that is, is Ego, insisting that I must be flawless in all circumstances.
    No ego, no problem.

    These thoughts lead me to be grateful that I qualified for AA, where we get a lot of practice and help in dealing with what is.

  5. 'To free ourselves from our neurotic ego is ultimately to accept the conditions of existence and to see ourselves not as victims or opponents of the givens of reality, but as adults who face up to them honestly'

    This quote spoke to me clearly and loudly. To let go of things without feeling victimised is one of the hardest changes in my personality I have had to deal with. As much as we don't want to be victims, we feel re-assured by the attention we attract when we are in distress, even if that distress is minor. Many thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    Greetings from London.

  6. I think I have the problem with the things that do not go according to plan. I am in the habit of making plan B, to sometimes plan Z. Its tiring..

  7. I'm okay with the growth through suffering thing (I've had my share of suffering, and I recognize how much I've grown because of it)

    I'm okay with life not being fair (I've had my share of hard knocks, and I understand I'm not immune to more of them)

    I'm okay with things not going according to plan (I'm a big proponent of "always have a Plan B", and if Plan B doesn't work out, improvise)

    I understand that people aren't always loyal (but I'm not okay with it. When it comes to trust and loyalty, you only get one chance with me)

    But the whole "things change and end" thing? Wow. That one's like a hard punch in the face, and it knocks me on my ass every time. But I'm pretty sure you knew that already.

  8. I sheepishly admit that I side with Jeff on the trust and loyalty thing. When It's gone, I'm gone. But I am on board with the rest of the program. It all makes too much sense not to be.

  9. For one who has faced many hardships lately, I find Richo's words reassuringly devoid of platitude. Your spiritual photos go well with this post too.

  10. interesting your comment, bonnie, that you "have had the most trouble with things changing and ending. Perhaps too many endings have made me a bit ending phobic. I now realize that I occasionally brought things to premature closure in my unconscious attempt to prevent being surprised by an ending" - i, too, know definitively that i have done the same thing - closed something myself to prevent that surprise or even anticipated/feared "ending" - and i am trying to embrace the renewing of it all -

    great post - very thought-provoking and intuitive!

    thanks for dropping by my places - and have a wonderful day!

  11. Butternut: Yes, Shambhala does offer many quality products doesn't it? "This too shall pass" is often helpful - probably more when we say it to ourselves, than when someone else says it to us when we are in the midst of a traumatic experience!

  12. Dan: Yes, his offerings are practical and down-to-earth. I believe he does some workshops at Esalen. Do you go there Dan?

  13. June: Yes, AA's approach is probably a good one for us all - one day at a time is not just a relevant approach for addictions but for life in general, and difficult moments in particular.

  14. Cuban: So true and a good thought to recall when we find ourself assuming the 'victim' position - it is often a way to seek attention, and to be dependent.

    And yes, it is ego that is the cause of most of our suffering. Learn how to step out of (transcend) ego-mind and much angst, turmoil, fear and suffering will disappear. This is where mindfulness and meditation and yoga are so helpful.

  15. Jeff: I have often felt the same feelings you describe.

  16. Bruce: I don't think there is any shame in having certain values and standards. I think what Richo is getting at is to not allow disloyalty or abandonment to crush us or define us - that we have to accept it as a hard fact of life. It does not mean you have to accept that person as a part of your life. But it seems to me you have every right to decide how you will relate to those who have proved disloyal.

  17. Sarah: Thank you. In my work I have found that much of the pain people carry is due to having unreasonable expectations about hardship. Digesting these as 'givens' helps avoid the shock of it and let's us get down to the work of grieving it, working with it, and moving on from it. And, yes, it is nice to read about it without trite platitudes.

  18. GypsyWoman: I'm so glad that what you found here speaks to you.

  19. Thank you for visiting My Muskoka ! And for the compliment on my photos! From an artist it means much.

    This is an interesting post, as I just wrote a similarly reflective one! I will go back and add your post, as several of us bloggers seem to have been thinking along the same lines <= introspection today!

  20. The process of growing up in a few givens. The lucky ones are the ones who have come to terms with all these truisms, he unlucky ones are those who will never accept them.
    I believe all these givens are part of life, without acceptance we never become truly 'adult'.
    I found it hardest to accept the 'growth through suffering' principle; why can't I just learn without hurting first?

  21. Wise words indeed Bonnie. I learnt a long time ago that nothing is forever - once you learn this fact of life then it does make facing change more easy to assimilate.

  22. Dan: You are very kind to provide the link. Thank you!

  23. Jenn: I'm glad you enjoyed this post. Now I have found your other blog, thanks to your comment, I will visit there too.

  24. Friko: Good question! I'm afraid I don't have the answer. And yes, once we come to terms with these realities of life - we really do stand more firmly in our adult shoes.

  25. Weaver: Yes, there are two ways to come to terms with them - through hard won experience, or through deep, quiet soul-searching. Sometimes they come at us quite unexpectedly before we have a chance to think about them or assimilate them, and then we are forced to learn in the midst of the difficult event.

  26. Bonnie, I read this in the morning and needed to think about it, which I did while I was working in the barn

    I was raised with most of these as a daily part of my life, but not in a positive way. So when I read it, I had a different mental response. Interesting how presentation and implementation can alter something.

  27. Turquoise: It can be useful to have a plan B. But a lot of the givens are about loss and finality and there really are no plan Bs for that. There is just being - with what is; being - with our grief; being - with what comes next; being - with our sweet remembrances as they arise . . .

    Being is sometimes less tiring than thinking, planning and preparing for what ultimately we cannot control.

  28. Sandra: Isn't that the truth. How something is presented to us really colours it. So you are saying we may be very familiar with something but because of how it was presented be unable to see the gift in it. Then, once we have that awareness, it is our responsibility to recast and redefine the issue for ourselves - and thus reap the gifts waiting from all that hard work.

  29. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting there about the cherry -- My Canon Blog.

    I enjoyed my visit here and liked your photography skills.

  30. Ambiance: I'm sure David Richo would thank you!

  31. Abraham Lincoln: Thank you, please visit again soon.

  32. This is an awesome post! Just wanted I needed today!

  33. Mr. Richo’s book sounds very interesting – maybe because they are an echo of what I believe! I started studying Buddhism in San Francisco when I was 25 and this philosophy includes many of the themes you mention. Accepting what is has been very helpful in my life but unfortunately I still get upset – for example I get upset at bigotry, intolerance, greed . Some things cannot be changed, but I always try.

  34. Vagabonde: Byron Katie has a nice take on bigotry, intolerance, greed, hate, etc. She says that people who demonstrate those qualities are still confused and hopefully one day they will learn. It's good in theory - not always that easy to put into practice. :)

  35. I had trouble with all of this for a long time...wanting change in areas where it was not in my power or "control" to change. Then change happened that I didn't want and still had no control over that. I learned acceptance and I learned that what needed to change most was my thinking, my approach and my reaction. Once I did that it was amazing how so many things seemed to no longer bother me.


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