When Surrender Isn’t Defeat

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We’re a nation of fighters. From our very founding, we’ve fought for independence, individual rights, safety, influence, control, selfish interests, altruistic interests, religious freedom, and self determination. Our brawling political system remains as antagonistic as ever and our society has evolved incredibly effective tools to enable us to confront each other at pretty much every level of our existence. On top of it all, we love the sports that manifest our fighting spirit in less bloody (usually) conflicts on fields, courts, ice, and the arenas that contain them.

Oh, yes, we are fighters, and, we like to win. We will go to great lengths to make sure we win. Conversely, we hate to lose. We may go to even greater lengths not to lose.

And why not? The winner takes all, right?

Within all of this fighting, all of this winning and losing, we move about as individuals. Sometimes we win or lose as a team, but more frequently, we face the wins and the losses as a single human being. How so? Because the biggest battles we face are in our own heads, within our own bodies, across the fields of our own hearts, and amid the mysteries of our own souls. Yes, we’re still fighters, but our fights are rarely upon open fields with clear rules of engagement or enemies, more often, we fight guerrilla wars among the shadows and brokenness of our own selves.

An Exhausting Process

Once you get past current headlines of Ukraine and COVID, you find many warning calls about the health of the citizens of our country: mental and physical. The last two years have left us mentally and physically exhausted. People are slowly emerging to re-engage with physical providers of medical care. We will undoubtedly see a major spike in all sorts of health-related costs as we rediscover all of those old diseases that did not retreat as we fought COVID.

But hand-in-hand with the physical ailments comes the trickier issue of our mental health. We are fighters but it seems that many of us are walking around with old wounds that did not disappear behind the pandemic and new ones that have emerged amid the destruction of the novel coronavirus and our reactions to it. Isolated in so many ways for months, our individual battles have evolved into full scale wars, fought across the landscape of our very being.

To top it off, that new war is sitting on top of all of the normal battles we face in our struggle to thrive: aging, finances, purpose, professional pursuits, relationships, and the myriad uncertainties of what feels like an increasingly hostile world. Here, we feel fully that weight of our aloneness as we recognize that the biggest fights in our lives are the ones that we must face alone.

Proudly, we pick up our cross and carry it forward. Stubbornly, we resist the assaults and press-on. Fiercely, we rail against the indignities foisted upon us, resisting and wrestling until we prevail or exhaust ourselves. Here, the winner takes all as we enjoy the fruits of our victory or agonize over the punishments of our defeat.

Of course, victories tend to be short-lived and defeats perpetuate themselves. What an exhausting process.

Perhaps we need to consider a different strategy. Maybe there are other ways to face these struggles and redefine what it means to win, to lose, and to prevail. What might it all look like if we substituted the pride of battle with the humility of surrender?

Please, resist that visceral, reactive surge welling within you right now and read a bit further. I realize that the notion of surrender is repugnant to our fighting spirit.


Our traditional view of surrender is defeat. We fought the fight and were forced into submission and then to full surrender. But surrender can take another form. Rather than retreating into submission, what if we consent? Rather than retreating from the struggle, what might happen if we assent to the realities of its process?

Think about it, when we assent to a thing, we are recognizing it and allowing it to be. When we give our consent, we assert our power in our permission. So often, we resist as we work to assert our control. Time and again, we throw ourselves against the rocks of realities over which we have no control. And there we lie, broken and exhausted.

This is not to suggest that we stop trying, nor am I condoning the retreat of giving up. No, to assent is to acknowledge the struggles for what they are: an integral part of life. Consenting to the things we face is to view them as points along a continuum and necessary to our evolution as a person. When we consent, we take control of ourself, own our choices, and face the realities of the battle, particularly the reality of our limited control. Assenting to the struggle, we realize that the ultimate goal is to do it well, regardless of its outcome. Sure, we still want to win, but that “win” may take unexpected forms.

When we surrender to the necessity of the struggle, we release the notion of the universe conspiring against us and face the reality that we can only grow through the tension of life’s resistance. In this way, we refuse to retreat but take our rightful place within the great game of life, asserting our choice and span of control within the context of the greater movements happening around us. We accept the realities of the game and do our best within the limits we recognize as our own. Here, we consent, not to winning or losing, but to living, understanding that we must accept life’s rules in return for our opportunity to play.

Beyond Assent

Forgive me for just scratching the surface of something that needs far more unpacking and is by no means an easy pathway. We’ll have to revisit it more deeply at another time. I want to close this post by touching on some places where we move beyond our assent to the struggles we face, to where we can bolster our strength by improving our overall wellbeing. My approach here is very simple but it might help the reader frame his or her own approach to assent and struggle.

Where do we have control and what strengthens us? Let’s talk about fundamental choices, the places we can focus that are core to our being: mind, body, heart, and soul.

Mind – what are you choosing to put into your mind? How are you choosing to think? The struggles will come and the feelings will press upon you. A strong mind is one that is actively used. Thinking makes the mind grow and reinforces its battlements. Read. Listen. Puzzle. Postulate. Question. Stay curious. Your mind must be engaged meaningfully and you must own its healthiness in how it is used.

Body – what are you choosing to put in your body? How are you choosing to use it? At whatever stage of life you find yourself, care or lack of care for the vessel that carries you will affect everything in your life. Your mind cannot function well if your body is ailing. Your body will tire, it will age, and it will get sick. Sometimes you will feel that your greatest struggles are with your own body. You can fight it, or you can love it for what it is and steward it for where it is.

Heart – what are you choosing to love? How are you choosing to love? We are social creatures. We are made to be with others. Your heart is meant to be shared. It will be broken. It will feel lonely. It will struggle. However, you can care for it by using it. Giving of it freely. Choosing to love, to share, to walk together is choosing to strengthen it. Choosing to forgive also strengthens it. Use it. Often.

Soul – what are you choosing to believe in? How are you choosing to engage your spirit? We all believe in something. We all give our soul to something. To what do you give your soul? What is it that you worship? Money? Power? Prestige? Pleasure? The crazy thing about our soul is that much of the way we develop it is counter to the culture within which we live. We strengthen our spirit by denying our self. We build our soul by giving of ourself fully and without expectation. We deepen our spirit by contemplating the big questions and meditating on the very struggles we face. We fortify our soul by assenting to those struggles and suffering well.

The Greatest Battles

I am no psychologist, therapist, preacher, or priest. I am just a fellow traveler, and fellow struggler, working my way through this sometimes brutal and stunningly beautiful thing we call life. Hope remains amid the despair. Possibility exists amid the dead-ends. Surrendering to the necessity of the struggle is not retreating from it. Assenting to the difficulties we face is acknowledging that they are simply part of our opportunity to live, that we cannot grow without them, and that within them, we still have many choices.

By all means, keep fighting the injustices, the poverties, and the evils of this world. Just remember that your greatest battles will always come from inside, and those dark moments must be fought with different weapons. Perhaps surrendering to their inevitability is the first step in bending before we break.

Showing 2 comments
  • Trish+Berry

    You have touched my soul!

  • Jerry Berry

    Am I wrong, for some reason I feel like you are referring to our last Presidential election!

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