THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 35
AcceptanceIt is really hard to overestimate how important this is to each of us. We may jog along through life without thinking too much about it, but actually it figures deep in our lives as a real need from early childhood. Indeed it starts the moment the new born child is placed in the loving arms of his mother who holds him close and cherishes him.
As children we want to be accepted by our peers. And if we feel shut out from some inner circle of our age group we can become desperate. Maybe it is because we are no good at games, or maybe because we are too tall, or too short, or too fat, or have some other difficulty that other children, cruel as they are, focus on, and perhaps ridicule. To feel shut out from our peer group in our school days is a deeply disturbing thing and can lead to all sorts of counter strategies.
We may try to win friends by being generous with something we have- our sweets, our money, our ability to do homework, our bodies or in some other way. Or we may try to offer something that will make us seem ‘one of them’ - an example might be swearing, or doing drink, drugs or sex. Conforming in order to be accepted.
Or we may go to the opposite extreme and decide that we are not going to conform for anyone, and so we choose to go our own way and not to follow the crowd. We give up on being popular, or even being liked. Any oddity that attaches to us, of course, may become the focus of the majority. That we don’t play sport, that we are timid, that we stutter or always come first in all the examinations. We may decide that we just cannot win and so we will go our own way without the easy acceptance of others that, deep down, we so crave.
The repercussions carry on into our adult life. We may feel awkward at social occasions, never having a free and easy attitude to strangers. We may feel socially ‘out of it’ when others seem to be totally at ease. We may even dislike all such events and try to avoid them as much as possible.
On the other hand we may sail through childhood and into adulthood without feeling more than momentarily awkward. That may not prevent us from meeting someone sooner or later with whom we find it really difficult to get on. We feel unaccepted by them. I remember as a young man coming under a head of department for a time and feeling totally unaccepted by him. He seemed to even look at me with hostility. Everything I did was examined carefully for mistakes which were then pointed out to me publicly, carefully and in great detail. Maybe he thought he was training me - but the effect was that, for the time I was in that department, I felt wretched, unaccepted, misunderstood, unwelcome and alienated.
This desire to be accepted runs very deep in all of us - even when we choose the ’walk alone’ strategy. It is always a blow to our self esteem when other people - especially someone important, for some reason or other, just refuses to reciprocate our openness and friendliness.
One of the huge problems of being gay is that you know that there are a lot of people out there who do not - cannot, apparently - accept you at your face value once they know that you are gay. The reason for this is not necessarily because of any considered judgement on their part, but simply because of prejudice which they feel because they were taught that way early on. It is a learned response and you have to battle to overcome that barrier once they know that you are gay. You start at a disadvantage with them because you know you have to overcome this automatic response on their part.
If they are religious (Christian or otherwise) it may be that they also have another layer of prejudice over and above the natural disapproval that a majority often has for a minority. In this case they have accepted (perhaps without ever really having thought about it) that because of certain verses in a holy book, or the teaching of their leaders, that being gay is unacceptable.
So you sense a relationship problem if the subject of your sexual orientation comes up. You are going to have to fight to be accepted - to overcome the barriers of rejection that arise at the first mention of homosexuality.
It is for this reason that many gay people remain in the closet - to some or to all who know them. It is their way of avoiding the problem of how to be acceptable to other people. The trouble is that being in the closet means that, although the problem of not being accepted as ‘normal’ (because of one’s homosexuality) is avoided, the acceptance one experiences is spurious. In other words - you avoid the problems of coming into the open about your sexuality, but the surface acceptance you have (as a pseudo ‘ordinary’ heterosexual person) is false. You know that if you once told them you were gay, there would be a problem of acceptance, but by avoiding the issue you leave yourself with the inner realisation that they would possibly not accept you if they really knew.
I call this the ‘false acceptance’ syndrome. It is allied to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. A method of going through life that allows you to have superficial acceptance, but which leaves you very lonely inside, because you cannot share the real you at any depth with anyone.
This problem develops with time. You may find it is little or no problem initially, but after some time you may begin to see yourself as alienated. Alienated from ordinary people. They live their lives out in the open, but you have this secret - this life within a life - and you have to guard it with all your strength.
Eventually it can become a ball and chain around your feet because you learn bright and breezy social ways, but become afraid to go deeper with people. So, inside, you live alone and without ever exposing your hopes and fears, your real self, to anybody.
Acceptance is a deep human need. It starts when we are held as new born babes by our mother, continues through adolescence and can be even stronger in adulthood. We search for friends, sympathizers, people who will understand, people who will love us for ourselves. The gay person may feel shut out at many points from childhood onwards.
This is one key reason why gay people find all sorts of ways to get together. It is not just to increase one’s chances of having sex, as some have suggested. It is an attempt to satisfy that deep hunger for acceptance, for understanding, for being with souls of like mind.
Many young men think that sex is everything because it seems to give this sense of not only being acceptable to the other person, but possibly, actually being liked by one’s partner. But sex without love is actually simply satisfying an appetite, like eating when you feel hungry.
But we are all even more hungry - desperately hungry - to be accepted. Loveless sex can be a substitute for genuine acceptance for a time but eventually we realize that physical satisfaction with someone - even mutual satisfaction - is not enough. We need real acceptance, we need friends, we need love.
It is this deep desire to be loved and affirmed that is the spring of our desire for acceptance. At the beginning we search for it by getting into the company of other gay people. Just being with them confirms us in our inner being and affirms us as real people. It is the absence of that acceptance and confirmation that sends many an adult gay man - and especially a gay married man - to try to make contact with other gay men. As gay people they feel rejected and become desperate for acceptance and affirmation.
Next there develops a desire for a deeper relationship with a gay friend - someone who values us just as we are and whom we in turn can affirm and encourage. Then it becomes search for Mr Right. Finding the right Mr Right can open a door into a new world where we can serve as well as being served. Where love blossoms and helps us mature into responsible caring adults. A permanent loving relationship can be a deeply satisfying thing and physical sex may or may not play a part in it. Any deep relationship where two people accept each other, just as they are, becomes a creative partnership and out of that will flow all the high human gifts we are able to contribute to society : creativity, solid long term contribution, wholesome attitudes, vision for the future, to mention just a few. It is when we feel ourselves unaccepted, unconfirmed, alienated, isolated that we sometimes turn to drugs, or sex or deviant behaviour in an attempt to quieten the inner distress we feel. While this applies to every human being, it is particularly applicable to gay people.
We can see that acceptance by others is a deeper need than the desire for physical sex, but we can also recognize that knowing and feeling accepted by God is perhaps the deepest satisfaction anyone can ever have. To have the peace and joy and love that comes from knowing that God in Christ has gone the full length to establish an open relationship for us with Him - that is a life-affirming and wholly good thing.
So if today you feel unloved, unaccepted - whether you are gay or not - ponder this : God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)
If a God such as that loves you, are there not grounds for hope?