A long time ago I went to France for the first time. I was happy to have that new experience and I tried to make the most of it. However, I had to leave sooner than expected. There, in Alsace, there was a Romanian lady, older than me, who was there for many years. A doctor like many other doctors, she acted as a kind of gravity center for wisdom in the Romanian community there. She spoke perfectly in French, with an impeccable accent, and was genuinely in love with the French culture. When I first arrived there, she made one of her missions to help me understand my new life; on the other hand, I was too young and too inexperienced to notice the subtlety of her lessons. However, I do recall most of her advice quite well, up to this very day.
The day when I told her that I decided to leave France, we were in the hospital’s restaurant. She stopped a moment and looked at me straight in the eye. Then, I remember, she asked me one question:
Connais-tu la définition de l’orgueil, César?
She asked me if I knew the definition of pride. That took me by surprise, as at that time I didn’t have a good definition. I remember I said something like… pride is when you’re… proud, self-important… kind of… She paused for a moment and then she said something completely unexpected:
L’orgueil c’est quand quelqu’un n’accepte pas ses limites.
So, pride means not to accept one’s limits… I thought it’s quite an unexpected definition and, at that moment, I understood it partially. Of course, when you see yourself as someone important, you perceive your domain of power wider than in reality… a different way to say that you have a superiority complex or some sort of God-complex. We call it in psychology the entitlement lifetrap. But at that time I didn’t feel like a God, but rather like someone trying to find his way in a foreign country and then going back home. I never saw myself as someone limitless, or excessively arrogant, but it turned out in time that what she saw in me at that moment was right. I was pushing my limits too much; I was trying to change the world.
After she said that, I pondered a couple of moments on the fact that she was actually blaming me on being too proud, in an indirect fashion. I didn’t agree on her vision but I didn’t fight back either because I had great respect for her. However, I asked her what one should do if plagued with pride. Her answer still obsesses me today, as I can still hear her voice in my head:
Il faut s’assumer!
In English, “assumer” is translated by “assume”, so the simple translation would be “one must assume oneself”. However, the right translation is “one must come to terms with oneself and the rest of the world”. It is the difficulty of the concept that made me write this article both in French and English.
We often hear or read: “One must assume his words” or “You must assume yourself”. This means “live by your words or according to your words”, “keep your promises”, “pull yourself together”. “You must assume the fact that…” is also translated by “you must accept the fact that…”, “to assume” and “to accept” being synonyms. That’s English. However, in French it’s differently, there are some nuances, and I’ll take the definitions from the dictionary.
Accepter c’est agréer ce qui est offert.
Acceptance means to agree on what we’ve been given or to welcome everything life throws at us, good or bad, without judging and without rejecting anything. That is… going with the flow. Also, another meaning of acceptance is to approve something as being just (Accepter c’est approuver une chose, la considérer comme juste). As you can see, acceptance is about something from the outside that comes into our life and we do not elicit any substantial reaction. By contrast, to assume means to deal with an initial reaction of anger, to come to terms with something that we didn’t initially accept. The process of assuming is much lengthier and much more difficult, as it involves inner negotiation, sometimes struggle to know one’s limits, and then behavioral changes. Assume has four definitions.
Assumer c’est prendre pour soi un acte ou une réalité qui vient de soi et qui est difficile à accepter.
So, to assume means to become aware of an inner reality that is difficult to accept. Most of us see ourselves as smart and beautiful, but in reality we might not be so. When we come into contact with the proof, we find it hard to accept we’re less than what we thought we were, so we struggle with mixed feelings. This first meaning of assume highlights the inner fight we have with us when we become aware that we’re, say, stupid in one way or another. About 80% of the population has something called the defectiveness lifetrap (that’s Schema Therapy language, for those who know it), and this means that, deep inside, we have that irrational feeling that we’re not good, we’re somehow flawed, but we can’t really bring arguments for that. This usually generates insecurities, then fears, then defensive mechanisms to cover fear, then dysfunctional thinking/emotions/behavior. The other 20% of the population, although defectiveness-free, do encounter moments when nasty stuff about themselves is brought to their conscious minds. So, it is safe to say that assuming one’s stupidity – real or not – is a fundamental experience and nobody escapes it. The good news is that, through assuming, both the real flaws and the unreal (imaginary) flaws are taken under control, the inner fight is brought to an end, and life continues is a wiser way.
Assumer c’est prendre en charge une responsabilité, une tâche, un état qui, normalement, revient à un autre.
This definition is not so interesting from a psychological viewpoint. To assume is to take responsibility for somebody else, do a job or some duty for someone, although that other person should have done it. The underlying mechanisms for this definition are love (I do your job because I love you and I want to help you) or sacrifice (I do this because I need something else from you, I have an interest).
Assumer c’est accepter pleinement de vivre avec une réalité qui nous touche plus ou moins durement mais dont on n’est pas responsable.
Here comes the third definition and the one I find tougher to deal with: to assume means also to fully accept to live a reality that hits us more or less painfully, a reality we are not responsible for, yet a reality which has been imposed on us without our consent. Life is not fair. Life is often absurd, has no meaning. Shit happens. We didn’t ask for it, nor we remember to have ever signed for something like this, yet we must face it, and more, we must face all this distress in complete peace, acceptance, even serenity.
Initially, I left France because I was forced to do it. Details don’t matter. But what that lady saw in me was something deeper. She saw that our condition of Romanians – second hand citizens of Europe – was also important (identity issues). She saw that I wasn’t mentally prepared to live there but I was unwilling to accept and assume that. She saw some emotional issues which also prevented me from fully jump in this journey abroad, issues that were invisible for me at that time. Finally, she saw that I was pushing myself too much against things I wasn’t aware of and I couldn’t control. And she found the explanation in my unconscious limitless pride. In fact, the 4th definition of assuming says it all, the verb being put in its pronominal form:
S’assumer c’est accepter sa condition.
To assume oneself means to accept one’s human condition. In my particular situation, I went abroad without knowing anyone, having emotional issues and huge difficulties to socialize; I tried the impossible, I didn’t accept my limits, and I failed. The solution, the cure, would have been not only to ACCEPT THAT I AM HUMAN, but also to ASSUME MY HUMAN CONDITION. Being completely unaware of my strengths and weaknesses, I failed big time. That lady told me the truth, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. Afterwards, nobody told me this again, as we’re living in a culture where success matters more than anything else and a real speech about acceptance and assuming stuff is simply unthinkable.
Living life in an assumed manner is rare. Few people can actually do it completely. We assume some stuff but we fail to assume other things because either we’re not aware of them, or we’re not ready to accept our limitations. Acceptance always comes before assuming; referring to the third definition, one must accept the fact that we do not control our life before assuming the fact that shit happens and we must live with that. Also, a lot of people live the phantasm that they are creating their lives, which is not true, as we do not own our lives, we didn’t give birth to ourselves, we didn’t agree to come to this life (others have decided for us), and therefore we co-create our lives, at best. A lot of experiments have been performed aiming at deciding whether we have free will or not, but they are presently inconclusive. Anyhow, we definitely do not have full power over our lives, so acceptance and then assuming our existence still remain important aspects.
“To assume” and “to accept” are frequently used words in Existentialism, a rather atheistic current of thought. For those who believe in God, the answers are easy, and they come in the form of “it is God’s wish”, without any additional questions. For those who are mainly emotional in structure, it is also rather simple, as faith, hope or optimism do make life better and any hardships are easily overcome. For the thinking structures however, accepting the rules of the game and assuming one’s condition in life is an efficient way to surmount the anxieties and the sadness of our existence.