Acceptance, not Tolerance, Is the Elixir of a Good Society

Growing the inner capacity to accept things-as-they-are may be the best investment ever for society—and no, cultivating acceptance doesn’t lead to complacency in the face of injustice.
“Things die, which is to say that the feedback processes that flowed through them cease. And when things grow really fast—like our world system has—they often collapse more spectacularly, as well.”

Amidst the apparent turmoil of ongoing pandemics, climate disasters, and geo-political slides into what amounts to nothing less than a new Cold War, the world has slowly and quietly been warming up to a new political idea—an idea that I feel brings some light and hope to an otherwise daunting picture.

It’s that statistically speaking poverty and violence has decreased, globally, and faster than ever. Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling

Nah, kidding. Got you, didn’t I? Not more of that awfully unidimensional thinking, thank you.

Yes, the global economic human system has grown according to its own logic, and that has brought boons and blessings to many. But the systemic problems we are facing are no figment of Facebook paranoia. The system cannot continue along its current trajectory and dynamics: It will increasingly fall apart.

And there really isn’t anything very strange about that: things grow, they blossom, cracks show eventually, the cracks grow until things decay, and at some point in space-time it all falls apart. Things die, which is to say that the feedback processes that flowed through them cease. And when things grow really fast—like our world system has—they often collapse more spectacularly, as well. Or at least the risk of doing so increases drastically. When I say “spectacularly” I don’t mean the Hollywood version thereof, just that we’ll be stuck in spectacularly dreary and complicated situations for a very long time and that the quantity of people who can live happily will decrease substantially.

But at the same time, living systems can “survive” in the sense that they can give birth to something new. They can transform. All life depends on change, on flow—societies and civilizations, too. On most occasions, survival means “just keep the flow going”—sometimes it means: mutate, shape-shift, burn the bridge behind you! We’re likely at such a point, as more indicators than I can list here show.

Inner Development Goals

“The transformation at hand is not merely technological, political, psychological, or spiritual—it’s all of these. But the spiritual and existential sides of it cannot be ignored.”

The view that many observers are coming to, often largely independently of one another, is that some kind of “phase shift” is required in terms of the ways our systems function. That is to say, we need to simultaneously shift how economies, cultures, polities, and also civil societies, media, and even information architecture function—so that the world at large (or the human systems interacting with the biosphere) begins to function in a manner that is capable of sustaining itself at least for an acceptable amount of time. And a very important part of that is to shift the psychology of each of us, our personalities or our “personal development” if you will—as well as the social psychology that plays out between us and shapes our lives.

The global shape-shift will involve new technologies, new ways of making decisions, new ways of creating and distributing goods and services, no doubt. But there needs to be a corresponding “mind-shift”. The transformation at hand is not merely technological, political, psychological, or spiritual—it’s all of these. But the spiritual and existential sides of it cannot be ignored.

Which brings us back to the “political idea” I was talking about:

  • Could institutions be created to actively and deliberately support people’s inner development—so that each of us, on our own, becomes more likely to take up values, behaviors, and sentiments that are conducive to a thriving and sustainable world?

And that can only happen if everyone accepts Jesus Christ as their personal savior and submits fully.

Okay, kidding again. I’ll stop. Promise.

It can only happen if we start a serious and scientifically informed (but not scientifically reductionist!) public discourse on how such inner growth can be spurred in society, and about what such inner development may be taken to mean in the first place.

I have called this idea “the listening society”, because it would need to entail institutional and cultural frameworks that are much more attentive to the subtleties of human needs, desires, and ways of functioning and thriving (or suffering) than today’s modern societies.

With a somewhat different take you might call it Protopia (not Utopia) as I discussed in an earlier article, because it’s not “one idea of how a good society would work” but rather the cultivation of a tendency to manage the many complex issues of life, thus increasing the chances for thriving lives to emerge. If people function better in their own lives and relationships, it’s highly likely to have effects on how society functions and how well it can move through difficult transformations. Makes sense, doesn’t it, that societal resilience (to stagnation and collapse) should at least partly depend on the resilience of each of us as human beings? One million people over-reacting at the same time, or managing a conflict unproductively, or not taking responsibility for their emotions—of course it’s going to have aggregate effects! Justin Rosenstein’s One Project currently uses the word Protopia to weave together a greater whole from the many social innovators and problems solvers they can identify and support.

And you might call it, with yet another angle, Inner Development Goals (IDGs). That is, goals of “development that matters”—not the development of new and cooler furniture and gadgets (even if such things can also matter) but of things like the personal qualities, lived experiences, and relationships of real human beings. Those things also need investments in terms of time and resources. The IDG framework is still young and being developed and encompasses 23 “skills” divided into five categories: Being, Thinking, Relating, Collaborating, and Acting. The “Being” category, for instance, would include such traits as Authenticity/Integrity, Presence (being able to be in the moment), and Self-Awareness. It’s all work-in-progress and needs to be funded, expanded, fleshed out, and experimented with—the IDG team are already working with Costa Rica at a government level to create an IDG strategy, and seem to be starting up in more countries.

IDG Framework Overview. Source:

As you might have caught, the IDGs constitute a direct response to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs. To simplify the argument here, it would be that attainment of SDGs would require a corresponding focus on the hitherto under-emphasized IDGs. And that requires some research and practice to get a handle on what good IDG projects might look like.

I’ve been thrilled with both the One Project and IDGs as they, in ways different from but related to what I myself imagined, have been pointing out and concretizing some of what I feel is the most hopeful and promising idea of our time. Both are young and experimental projects (and, full transparency, I have to various degrees been involved with both of them professionally), but they both share the basic impulse to work towards transition and transformation into sustainability not only by changing the external life conditions of people, but also by developing the inner landscapes of human experience itself.

The Master Variable: Wisdom or Acceptance?

“Wisdom tells us what we could’ve-should’ve, Acceptance tells us, with great precision what to do: first, accept the truth of the matter, regardless of what that truth may be.”

In this context, I’d like to make a suggestion about one particular quality of Inner Development that I believe is particularly important to achieve resilience, sustainability, and thriving in the world: Acceptance.

There are strong reasons to believe, I hold, that Acceptance may be the most efficient handle to cultivate in the population for driving meaningful inner growth in a cost-effective manner that still makes a difference in people’s lives.

We might compare it to another popular candidate in this context: the focus on Wisdom. I’ve always been skeptical of it, because it only truly functions “after-the-fact”, so to speak. Wisdom is a composite variable with several components that somehow together create a sum greater than its parts where you’re more likely to take good actions and feel okay yourself. The dictionary definition reads: “The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.” Now, the problem is that the jury’s still out on what’s true, right, or lasting in any one situation. So it basically comes down to wisdom = doing the right thing, whatever that might be.

You only know that in retrospect, if at all. Confronted with a tough real-life dilemma, you’re compelled to do something “wise”. So is it wise to show your righteous anger here, or to breathe and count to ten? Is it wise to suggest splicing a baby in two (as the symbol of wisdom, King Solomon, did when faced with two women who both claimed to be the baby’s mother, so as to see which one would decline it, and thus be the real mother)? What happens if both mothers are happy with the proposal to slice it in two—do you then change your mind, thereby undermining the weight of your future royal verdicts? We only know that Solomon is “wise” because the a posteriori (after-the-fact) story says he is. He might as well have been “idiotic evil” (to paraphrase Dungeons and Dragons). Splitting babies sounds a lot more like Caligula to me; saying crude shit you can’t back up sounds like Donald Trump.

Another example of how Wisdom is a posteriori: All those stories about how the Buddha turned nasty and unreasonable people around. The other person always stands corrected. What would have happened if one of the Buddha’s interventions or responses just didn’t work, if he didn’t “win” the confrontation? Would there then have been a story of Wisdom that included the Buddha being humiliated but then learning from his mistake and showing regret? In all of these stories, Wisdom seems to imply ending up on top somehow, if in a benign manner. It whispers of a “hail victory!”. The German phrase for which is Sieg Heil, by the way.

Now, compare that to Acceptance. Let’s conjure up a number of real-life dilemmas we’ve all been through and compare how Wisdom and Acceptance stack up in terms of their usefulness as an entry point into each situation.

  • Your boss is abusive. Wisdom says “handle it well”; Acceptance says “accept the reality of the situation and make sure you soberly see your options in terms of what actions you can take, including accepting the level of difficulty, conflict, and risk of what you must do to change the situation.”
  • You’re confronted with new ideas that challenge your worldview. Wisdom says “stick with the best worldview”; Acceptance says “accept the difficult emotions of confusion and ambiguity and accept the fact that it may take some time before your mind and emotions stabilize on a new set of assumptions in life”.
  • You work towards some goal of social justice. Wisdom says “Do it in a manner that really works and that is good for others as well as yourself”; Acceptance says “accept that the world is not as you would like it to be, accept the reality of your emotions about that, accept that you cannot control very much, and then accept the responsibility of the task you’ve taken upon yourself.”
  • You suffer from some mental illness. Wisdom: “Handle it well… But then again, a wise person kind of per definition isn’t mentally ill, so stop being mentally ill, and handle it well that you are…” [AKA syntax error!]; Acceptance says: “Hey, it’s okay to be mentally ill, either way, that’s now the reality of this moment and the cards you’ve been dealt, and if you don’t accept the truth of that, how will you be able to improve upon it?”
  • We did something we really shouldn’t have. Wisdom: “Handle it well.”; Acceptance: “Accept that you did it, and accept yourself despite having made a mistake. Accept responsibility for it”.
  • There are groups in society you find abhorrent and are in doubt whether or not to “tolerate” them. Wisdom says: “Be as tolerant as possible, but not more”; Acceptance says: “Accept that not everyone is going to be to your liking, and then accept the responsibility you have for protecting others from them.”
  • You’re in great physical pain. Wisdom says: “Be wise about it.” Acceptance says: “Accept the sensations in your body, and then accept which level of acceptance you can muster, and this will actually reduce not only how much you suffer from the pain, but even the level of pain itself” (true story).
  • Grief stuck in you that blocks your heart from feeling truly alive. Wisdom: “Be a wise person about your suffering.”; Acceptance: “Accept the numbness, and pain will emerge, accept that pain, and grief will emerge, accept the grief and rage will emerge, repeat through a looping roller-coaster, and one day you’ll start feeling something again, for good or bad. But at least you’ll be fucking alive. Then accept that.”
  • Wisdom: “Be wise about it.” Acceptance: “Another one bites the dust. Pretty fly for a dead guy. Find your peace with the inevitable.”

I guess we could go on. The point is that, in pretty much any case I can think of, Wisdom adds nothing (and sometimes even detracts a bit) while Acceptance guides your steps and helps you figure out how to act in a productive manner. Simply stated, it appears to me that Acceptance is, as a guiding principle, wiser than Wisdom. It seems to actually work a priori, before the fact, which is to say that it seems to have predictive power on human thriving—causal power, which is the only power worth its salt. Wisdom tells us what we could’ve-should’ve, Acceptance tells us, with great precision what to do: first, accept the truth of the matter, regardless of what that truth may be. Reality as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The River that Connects the Creeks

“Acceptance, then, is simply the capacity of a mind/psyche/body to take in and process feedback data from the world without corrupting it along the way.”

And yes, Acceptance does seem to be correlated to human happiness, too. Likely, this has to do with putting our whole nervous system in a more relaxed and receptive mode to the experience of life, and to our own agency within. We accept the reality of something we cannot control but we don’t need to condone it. As such, Acceptance goes beyond tolerance. It is both deeper and more compassionate than tolerance—and it can help us discern when to tolerate and what to tolerate.

Tolerance, a highly celebrated virtue in liberal democracies, is overrated. Just consider what you’d prefer: a society where we just tolerate one another despite our flaws, or a society where we accept each other—including our less admirable sides. What would Jesus do?

  • So basically, Acceptance in this sense is just our capacity to take in the truth of the matter in a given moment, to the best of our cognitive ability, while resisting the unconscious temptation to bargain with reality. It is what it is. It’s our relationship to the truth, however well we may approach. Or, as Gandhi said: Truth is God. That’s the core principle of Acceptance.

Think about it—Acceptance appears to be a fairly universal streak across psychology and self-knowledge:

  • In a “Western setting”, we can see the Acceptance principle as central to Stoicism (but still overlapping, strangely enough, Epicureanism), in Existentialism (and thus in logo therapy), in Freudian psychoanalysis (the “catharsis” is fundamentally a quality of Acceptance), and from Stoicism to its modern version in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—the most practiced and widely proven cost-effective treatment there is), and particularly the mindfulness-based versions thereof, leading up to DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is the multi-modal heavy-weight cousin of CBT, more specialized on severe personality disorders and depressions), and popular tools in today’s landscape of social work and counseling, like ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) and Solution-Based Therapy (where you, first of all, use tools such as sliding scales to better accept the current reality of your situation without getting hopeless about it)… For all the drastic differences in Western traditions, Acceptance seems to run right through them all like more than a thread, more like a central river to connect all the creeks of human effort to cope with the world.
  • In an Eastern setting, we have, perhaps most visibly and notably in the West today, the practice of equanimity in mediation such as Theravadan (Buddhist) Vipassana, which explicitly teaches that the other dimensions of practice (concentration/absorption and subtlety of awareness) are only fundamentally valuable as auxiliaries to equanimity. And equanimity is just another word for Acceptance, if you think about it. Theravada Buddhists will also meditate on rotting corpses to accept death and transience. If you venture into more far-out stuff, like Tibetan tantric traditions, etc., you must face inner monsters with Acceptance for these to transform into pure light, as is depicted in Tibetan artwork of weird demon faces. You have the fakir traditions of the depths of Indian history. Why do you think they’re lying on spikes, if not to foster Acceptance? Or what about Daoism, where everything is about letting go, and letting things flow—is that not fundamentally a teaching almost entirely devoted to Acceptance?

If you’ll allow me a few more archetypal excursions. Truth is God, and the submission to God just means accepting the truth of the matter, resisting the temptation to unconsciously fight reality itself by entering into some magical deal with the devil. The devil, like Goethe’s Faust, will offer you power over reality, but violate reality itself—which casts you into illusion, ultimately isolating you from shared reality, from others, and that ultimately leaves us burning in hell.

You have the same scheme among psychonauts—i.e., psychedelic explorers: You are faced with frightening visions and the Abyss, but if you go through it and accept it, you reach therapeutic or cathartic results. Forgiveness and redemption come within reach, leading to increased peace of mind.

Acceptance, then, is simply the capacity of a mind/psyche/body to take in and process feedback data from the world without corrupting it along the way. It’s opening the doors of perception (echoing The Doors, who echo Aldous Huxley, who echoes William Blake).

In a world where things only interact causally, by touch within any of the fundamental “fields” that the standard model of physics holds to correspond to the four forces of the universe (although a fifth one has recently been suggested) perceiving means interacting with. And so, the spiritual quality of Acceptance will likely affect every aspect of a person’s interactions with the world, all subtle phenomena arising within the experience of their own mind and body included.

And thus, if we carry that argument to its conclusion, it is likely almost always in our own interest that others we interact with are as accepting as possible. And it’s most often in our own interest that we ourselves manage to accept the reality of what is.

The argument could be expanded substantially from here on (going into the nature of “reality” in the empirical, logical, ethical, and social sense and how Acceptance plays out differently but still works across all of them).

Facing the tough stuff—let it be said once and for all, that staring into the abyss with Acceptance is the very opposite of complacency. The whole “selling your soul to the devil” looks like a cool rebellion on the face of it—but it’s actually the opposite. It’s just synonymous with not accepting what is and going with it. That’s complacency, because it leaves reality to be participated in and shaped by others than yourself.


“I’m not saying that Acceptance is one ring to rule them all. That would be too strong an assumption. I’m saying that, as a start for cultivating a more listening society, Acceptance is a good bet at this point.”

If I had to choose between Acceptance and NFTs or the best of the cryptocurrencies, I’d have to go with Acceptance. It’s just a better investment. Cryptos won’t help me that much on my deathbed. Acceptance will.

Now, the really good news is that Acceptance can be practiced. That’s basically what you do in Vipassana 10-day retreats (but then you also have to put up with Goenka’s rather offensively dumb brainwashing on video while you’re spending the whole days making yourself suggestible; it’s a package deal, but you can go for free). It’s what you do in all of those therapies I mentioned, one way or another. Many of them work, to a large degree, because of Acceptance. My favorite is probably DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and it has a whole modality on increasing your “distress tolerance”—one of the most important parts of the therapy. And the most important part of increasing “distress tolerance”? You guessed it.

Look down the list of the 23 skills listed in the IDGs (Inner Development Goals) in its early attempt to gather what should be emphasized by such programs—humility, perseverance, trust, and so forth. If I’m not mistaken, pretty much all of them seem to be closely connected to Acceptance—and, notably, by far the most of them seem like they would be explained by Acceptance rather than be a factor in explaining it. But may the truth on this be researched and cleared up, so we’ll know better. And may we all accept whatever that truth might be.

I’m not saying that Acceptance is one ring to rule them all. That would be too strong an assumption. I’m saying that, as a start for cultivating a more listening society, Acceptance is a good bet at this point. It appears to be a viable pressure point in the psycho-social weave of society.

Let us try to cultivate Acceptance and evaluate the results. I don’t mean in a half-assed manner—I mean, let’s take massive action. Let’s invest millions of “man-hours” and clever minds and good hearts to figure out how Acceptance can grow in the general population, in the hearts of each of us. Let’s see if it really is the elixir of a good society.

There are, namely, things coming our way we’ll have to try to accept. Getting good at accepting seems like a good idea to create resilience—i.e. the capacity to bounce back when life hits us up with new surprises.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.