Oh, Sweet Surrender

How to Accept the Unacceptable

Exactly what does it mean to surrender? Give up? Concede? Capitulate? Acquiesce? Fail? The word seems to have a universally accepted implication of doom, right? It’s about defeat. Oxford’s interpretation is “cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” Ugh. Who wants to do that?

But I sensed there’s a bit more nuance to the word. After all, Surrender is the title of the new memoir written by one of the world’s most prolific rock stars. U2 singer/songwriter Bono’s purposeful and intriguing use of the word piqued my interest. I wondered about its meaning to this man who writes and sings in mystical parables. As a longtime fan of Bono and U2’s music, I can safely assume he envisions another perspective. While Springsteen bellows defiantly, “no retreat baby, no surrender,” Bono softly counters with, “if I wanna live I gotta die to myself someday.”

Throughout his career, Bono’s lyrics have embraced contradictions: “cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.” And, so, I submit, surrender without waving the white flag.

It seems to me that surrender is a paradox—a contradiction in gradients. When we surrender, we open ourselves up to acceptance. We succumb to the unknowable, undefinable—maybe the inevitable. We’ve had enough. We refuse to stand and fight. Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of courage. Sometimes out of exasperation. Surrender enables us to lean in to our curiosity, our discomfort, our pain. Surrender becomes a conduit to and of peace.

How do we decide when to fight on and when to surrender? Well, it’s not an either–or proposition. We can surrender to one’s power over us while still resisting. Often, we compromise. We fight here and surrender there to achieve an equitable disposition, resolution, closure. Sometimes we must lose to win. The concept is dualistic—and puzzling.

I thought about the fight–surrender conundrum recently in regard to one of my therapy clients. He was suffocating under the weight of his self-expectation, experiencing a slow-rolling existential crisis. Still, he fought every day to accomplish what he told himself he should—until one day when he came into my office and surrendered.

He questioned his belief in performance above all else. Why? Nobody seems to notice or care. Except him. This young man had bought into the macho mantra of never give up, an all-or-nothing reprise that fails to address context and subtlety. It fails to consider grace and the artful deliberation of sensing when to fight and when to yield.

Would my client’s family and friends love and respect him regardless of his achievements? The answer was an unequivocal yes. Yet, this young man was unable to get off the hamster wheel. He never considered that he might be accepted for who he is, that his regard is not conditional. He is loved, liked, and respected because of his kindness, humor, compassion, effort, generosity, and spirit. Sadly, not everyone can say the same.

With this newly minted understanding, my client decided that, moving forward, he will do what he has to do and what he wants to do. He will stop doing what he has been telling himself he should do. Then he finally exhaled a long, deliberate breath and surrendered.

Truth be told, my young client is decades ahead of me. I’m just now learning to surrender. My default stress response has been “fight,” except on the occasions when I freeze. When I feel like my fortunes are being controlled by outside forces, I fight like hell to wrest control. I lash out at inequity. No fair, I cry. The refrain of a 5-year-old still lives in me. Well, I hate to break it to myself, but life isn’t fair. I’m learning to surrender to what is not mine to control. I’m learning to surrender to my feelings. All of them.

Maybe, the true essence of Bono’s experience of surrender is this: If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re anxious, be anxious. Go with it. Feel it. Embrace it. Develop a relationship with it. Be curious. Understand the “what and why.” Reframe your fear. Breathe. Reconcile. Let it go. Surrender to the opportunity that lies within. Explore—with eyes wide open, knowing full well there are no simple answers. There may be no answers at all. No certainty. No triumph.

Not everything can be known, identified, labeled, and reconciled. Sometimes it just is.

Surrender is about letting mysteries remain unsolved and the unknowable unknown. Surrender is about catharsis. And freedom. If we can learn to accept that what is is, we can experience the kind of surrender that Bono knows. His advice to you and me: “close your eyes to look around” and stop “running to stand still.”

So go ahead. Give in. Give up. Withdraw. Throw in the towel. You’ll live to fight another day.

Oh, sweet surrender. We can accept what’s unacceptable. Until we can’t.

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