[We] have to let go in order to be; we have to stop forcing ourselves, or we will never enter our own belonging.John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Life is challenging and complex. Do you ever get tired of hearing that? Even on our best, most hopeful, and most fulfilling days, we are reminded that there are intractable problems inherent to our existence. Things happen that we cannot fix. This can be a difficult concept for us to accept.
A few days ago, we experienced one of those intractable challenges and I found myself in the following exchange with my three-year-old grandson:
“Where did Ripley go?”
“We took her to the vet”
“They fix her?”
“No Coop. Ripley cannot be fixed.”
We watched last week as our bulldog seized, collapsed, and struggled briefly through her final breaths. It was excruciating. It was also exquisite. As painful as it was to watch this little dog, who was a part of our family for the last ten years, die, there was a glorious gift in being present in her final moments. We simply loved her, and one another, as she passed. There was no frantic reaction or fearful grasping. We surrendered to something we could not fix. We accompanied her as best we could as she left us. We held her and watched as her eyes lost focus and that inner light we call life went out. Excruciating and exquisite.
No Fixing It
Cooper’s question was a good one. As our dog lay there, my problem solving mind raced through options. How do I fix her? We all share an innate gift and curse: how do we change the course of something to get our desired outcome? If we don’t like a result, we seek a way to change it. When we don’t get the answer we want, we look somewhere else for another answer. When something breaks or doesn’t go the way we want, we move our will toward fixing or changing it. The gift is a will toward progress and problem solving. The curse is a culture that cannot take ‘no’ for an answer. In general, we have great difficulty accepting that there are things that cannot be fixed.
Anxiety stems from those places beyond our control. Fear assaults us with the ‘what if’ of uncertainty. In those final moments with Ripley, there was no anxiety or fear, just the sharp pain of loss followed (eventually) by the joy of having cared enough to experience it. Why were we able to experience it this way? I cannot make any rational claim to wisdom or poise but credit our entire experience to God’s Grace. We were able to peacefully surrender to the inevitable.
How do we know when to surrender? When is it time to quit fighting, cease exerting our will, and accept something for what it is? A national magazine recently published a piece providing a collective psychoanalysis of a large part of our population that concluded that we were not unintelligent, but lacked good judgment. Perhaps. Maybe we lack the ability to discern the proper course in certain moments or don’t have the proper data to support the right decision. The piece was pretty well reasoned but it missed another element of our collective psyche: surrender has never come easily to us.
To conclude that we have poor judgment is too simplistic. Our resistance to unfavorable outcomes is born of a natural desire to get what we want. Let’s face it, as Americans, we’ve gotten really good at getting what we want. We’ve grown accustomed to winning – a trend that has only fueled the expectation that we will continue to win while making anything else nearly intolerable. We have an almost visceral reaction to losing. In this fashion, progress and success have two edges; they have driven prosperity unlike the world has ever seen while simultaneously creating a population believing itself entitled to the ongoing presence of success. We really don’t know how to lose.
Therein lies the gift of death. Death is the ultimate arbiter of our finite limitations. We’ve tried to make science our god but it fails to answer the final questions and it’s ongoing success only reveals more unknowns. The unavoidable end reminds us that, at some point, we must surrender. Against some things we will not prevail. This is a healthy reminder that our lives are not just about us. There is power in a humility that comes from understanding our limits. Peace hides in surrender.
Returning to the notion of surrender, maybe there is a pathway to discerning when to fight on and when to let go. My suggestion? Follow the signs. Though we naturally rail against loss or the unwanted answer, we also hold within us the wisdom to discern, if we allow it to happen. In the heat of the moment, the noise and intensity can make it difficult to “see” the signs but they are there. There are always little indicators. Sometimes it’s a quiet voice whispering. Sometimes it’s our gut sending a signal. Sometimes it’s the casual comment from someone else. If you’re really fortunate, it may be a burning bush giving specific instructions. Sometimes the ultimate grace is having the patience to let something unfold.
If you stop long enough to consider it, surrender might actually apply to either letting go or fighting on. Think of it as submitting to something more than your own desires. Imagine that, an absolutely correct answer derived from universal principles. Something for another discussion.
As I watched death win again this week, the humbling reminder brought me to the edge of gratitude. A vast, open landscape lying beyond and revealing all of the gifts in my life – many of which I did nothing to earn. Neither perfect decisions nor perfect behavior brought me here, yet I still breath, love, think, feel, and experience in ways I could never have imagined or earned. The uncontrollable reminds me that it is not all by my hand and that it doesn’t need to be. All I have to do is keep showing up for as long as I can and doing the best with what’s put in front of me. That is a comforting thought. Perhaps surrender isn’t so bad after all.