Surrendering to the Wrong Thing
Twelve-step groups talk about surrender. Few of us, perhaps none of us, get through life without surrendering to something, but not all surrenderings are created equal. Some lead to freedom and restoration; others lead to suffering and eventual annihilation.
During my late adolescence, I saw some of the ugliness that comes when we surrender to the wrong things. On my way to the Midwest, I ended up riding around with a young man who sold large quantities of drugs to local dealers. Some of them lived in homes where the lawns were trimmed and the siding newly painted, but most squatted in boarded-up apartment buildings, abandoned industrial areas, and other places where noise, filth, decay, and despair kept away everyone else.
In these places, surrender hung like a shroud, draped around the shoulders of those from whose eyes no light glimmered, though they still breathed. This was not the kind of surrender I was interested in. No one who was not already trapped by the need for numbness would choose it.
Lusting After False Gods
That journey was not pleasant, but it helped me see where I could end up if I lusted after false gods. It wasn’t just the destroyed environment that disturbed me; it was the destroyed souls. The abuse of drugs is but one way we can lose our spirits and end up empty inside. When we surrender to fear and resentment, to gold, to food or sex or shopping, our souls are just as likely to shrivel up.
We see this in the corrupt politicians and cabinet members who have, one after another, been revealed as impostors. Lured by a lust for power and wealth, they have betrayed their honor and damaged countless lives, yet they will never find themselves sleeping under a tree in some park. Money protects us from all manner of discomfort. In the long wrong, though, this does not serve them well, for they can spend their entire lives never looking at who they really and what they’ve done. Trapped by their false gods, they can end up imprisoned by despair and destruction.
That’s why those who are forced to admit their addictions may be more fortunate. They, at least, have a chance to change. If they don’t, eventually the addictions to which they surrender will take their life.
Deciding to Give Up Our Will
Since most of us have, in one way or another, surrendered our lives to something that is not healthy, you would think the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous wouldn’t be so difficult. Admitting we are powerless and making a decision to turn our lives and our will over to a “power greater than ourselves,” can’t be that much harder than what we’ve already done. So why do we resist? What do we fear? Could surrendering to God possibly be as horrifying as surrendering to a dark and overpowering addiction?
I think what most threatens us about these first three steps is that we must be honest with ourselves, and we must feel our shame, helplessness, and grief. If nothing else, it can be embarrassing to admit that we gave up all we believed in and all that was good for a lie. We have to acknowledge that we are not as strong and smart and independent as we thought. It can be scary to depend on others, even to depend on a god, when we have been betrayed, abused, and ignored. To surrender takes a great deal of courage.
What makes it even worse is there’s no guarantee that if you do surrender, you will be happy. At least, not all the time. Nor can anyone assure us we will never relapse, or find a new addiction, or lose our bearings and make mistakes. Indeed, we probably will, to some degree or other. As long as we are human, we keep messing up.
In the process of surrendering, though, we also learn to let go of our judgments, of our self-loathing, our shame, our isolation. We stop sabotaging ourselves. We find kindness, generosity, and love that help us get through those times when fail. No matter how much we love the divine, or how often we pray, life dips and veers and throws us off balance. If we have surrendered to a higher power, and if we have learned to reach out to other people, we will make it through, no matter what.
Seeking a True God and a True Self
So where do you find a higher power? How do you learn to surrender?
God is a mystery. No one can define God, and no one can limit God. We don’t even have to know what God looks like or acts like in order to surrender to something we sense is loving and uplifting. Nonetheless, we must believe in something, even if it is just in the wisdom of science. Otherwise, we can’t make sense of our lives and our deaths. We humans need to make meaning.
The meanings we create matter, however. Some meanings lead to abandoned warehouses while others lead to satisfying work and loving relationships. Some gods lead to addiction; others lead to freedom and satisfaction. Surrender to that which brings you true peace and comfort.
But what if we got lost by following the lure of false idols? How do we trust the god we see?
It can be a risk. We don’t always know. On the other hand, our beliefs evolve over time. The higher power we claim today may feel very different from the one we claim a year from now. Perhaps the most important thing is to find something guides you in living an honest and healthy life.
Surrendering to Our Emotions
But this is harder than it sounds. To live an honest and healthy life, to seek the wisdom of a divine power that invites us to be good and kind and pure, to live a life of joy and service rather than lust and lies, we must face the truth of who we are and what we’ve done. We must be honest with ourselves and others. Unfortunately, if we do this, we will feel our shame and sadness and guilt.
We will also feel joy and equanimity. At least we will if we learn to surrender to our emotions, but that isn’t easy. When we’ve chased after additions and distractions, it’s often because we don’t want to feel.
That was true for the Quaker author, Parker Palmer, who experienced debilitating depression. Sometimes he feared he might take his life. He doesn’t know why some people survive such despair while others don’t, yet he does know that if we enter into and go through our experience, if we let go and embrace the reality of our feelings, then we might find that the darkness lifts and we can breathe that much more easily. He talks of “embracing the mystery of depression.” 
Life is a mystery. There are no quick solutions or fixes. There is only “waiting, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge one can.”  If we embrace that suffering, surrender to it, we may find we become whole.
The Courage to Feel
What would it look like to embrace suffering?
For Palmer, it looked like acceptance. Although a number of people tried to talk him out of his feelings, or give him advice on how to make them go away, a few just sat with him. Mostly, they were silent. Now and then, they reflected back the emotions they observed, naming them, holding them, but not trying to change them. Advice made him feel worse because it made him feel somehow wrong or inept. When people tried to change him, his sense of disconnection deepened. Yet when his friend mirrored his own words and feelings back to him, he felt accepted and loved. In those moments, he felt reconnected to all that was his life. At least for the moment, they helped him feel as if he really was part of the human race.
It takes courage to let a person sit with a sadness that can lead to death, but maybe suicide would be less common if we would just honor the pain, surrender to the anxiety and helplessness, and sit in silence with a person who is struggling to exist. Palmer speaks of a god who “gives us strength by suffering with us.” 
What a gift, to suffer with. But we’re usually afraid to do that, and for good reason. We can’t predict the outcome, and we hate that. We don’t like to surrender, because sometimes surrendering means embracing uncertainty and unknowing.
Recently, during a spirituality group I led, I asked the participants what gave them a sense of peace. One young man answered, “The knowledge that I’m going to die.”
Judging by the murmurs of approval I heard around me, it seemed I was the only one who didn’t understand what he meant. I asked him to explain. His response had something to do with the promise of an afterlife, though that seemed to be secondary to his main point which was that because he would one day die, he wouldn’t have to do this forever, live on this planet and be in a body. All things pass, both the ugly and the good. If we surrender to this knowledge, we find peace.
On a sunny, December morning, my husband was looking out the window at some squirrels who were chasing one another around a neighbor’s yard. Suddenly, a hawk swooped down and took one away, rising back into the sky, the mammal clutched in its claws.
In such a moment, we can do nothing but surrender. The captured squirrel was powerless. To struggle would mean its death on rock or street. Did it hope to escape when dropped into the nest? Or did the squirrel embrace its own death? Perhaps it had already died of fright.
Expressing Our Emotions
What of the animal left behind? Like most mammals, squirrels develop relationships. They play and fight, raise children together, make connections. Did the one left behind mourn? Or did it accept the reality of what happened and let go of what it could not control?
If we let go, does that mean our hearts don’t hurt? Equanimity seems a lovely thing, but is there not a place for intensity? Ought we not, sometimes, to surrender to the emotions that rise within us, and wail? Or would we rather shut down and turn off?
For the last ten years or so, the young man in the group had been shutting down his feelings by numbing himself with drugs. Now clean, he was trying to accept, without resentment or struggle or desperate mourning, the uncertainties of life, even the ones that come swooping down from the sky and lift us helpless into the air.
In such moments, do we hang onto hope and pray for reprieve, rescue, salvation? What would salvation look like? Is it something we find in this life or in another? How do we even know?
Perhaps we need to surrender any thoughts of certainty and simply embrace what exists in this moment, even if it includes confusion, pain, or desperation. In the end, as in the story of the squirrel, struggling is unlikely to help. It might even makes things worse.
So what will make them better?
Maybe nothing. As Palmer points out, sometimes sitting in silence is the best thing.
Yet something helped him find his way out of depression. It wasn’t medication; he didn’t take any. Maybe it was time. He was blessed with the ability to take time. He didn’t have to worry about survival. Maybe the silence of good friends helped him heal. On the other hand, he was blessed to have an experience with a higher power.
One day, while lying on his bed, he heard a voice speak to him with words of overwhelming love and acceptance. The voice was like a whisper, clear and pure. It seemed like something wholly other and divine.
Coming Home to Our True Selves
Even so, Palmer barely noticed it at first. His heart was shut down; he couldn’t feel anything beyond the sadness. Yet over time, the words he’d heard began to resonate. He started not only to hear them, but also to feel them. Eventually, he learned to surrender his pain to that which he calls God.
We do not have to bear our burdens ourselves. When something feels too difficult or painful to tolerate, when our anxiety about the future overwhelms us, we can find relief just by asking that which is holy to take our hurt and our worry from us. That doesn’t mean we will never deal with what’s bothering, nor that it’s not up to us to put out effort. Of course it does and it is. Yet, sometimes, we need to surrender our misery. We need to let others help us. This means reaching out to other people. It also means reaching out to something we call a higher power.
During the group I led, no one, not even the young man who found peace in the thought of dying, used the language of surrender, but that’s what we were talking about: accepting, letting go, relinquishing false idols, and giving our life and our will to that which some call God. There is something that infuses us with life, something that is mystery, that is holy. We can discover it, or be discovered by it, and we surrender to it. By doing so, and by being open to the possibilities of healing and silence and love, we can find our way out of our addictions, out of emotions that keep us trapped, and we can return home to our true selves.
In faith and fondness,
- Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 60.
- Ibid 60.
- Ibid 64.
Photo by Devin Stevens, used by permission.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved