Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Struggle and Surrender

Much of what we do in life involves struggle. For billions, of course, the struggle is for survival. Most of us in the so-called developed world, however, do not have to be concerned with survival: we have shelter, clothing to wear when it is cold, and enough food to eat. Yet we do struggle. We struggle to get, to win, to accomplish, to measure up, to understand, to control. In fact, we spend a significant part of our lives in struggle.

The root of most of our struggle is “I want”—to buy a better car, to hurt my spouse (because he or she hurt me), to be a great cook, to make my father proud of me (finally), to understand why someone suffered and was taken from me. We want to control our own lives and those of others, often because we are afraid of change or of loss.

Winning the struggle often brings the illusion of happiness, but that “happiness” soon disappears because a new want presents itself and we are right back in the struggle. The Buddhists say that desire is the root of all suffering and that our suffering will not end until our desiring ends. And we do suffer for our desire; the suffering is called stress in modern-day terms.

I wonder if we know all this but are somehow compelled to continue the struggle—to keep on wanting—perhaps because we know of no other way. Our parents struggled, after all, to feed and clothe and educate us and pay for Christmas presents and vacations and weddings. And we see struggle all around us, often in the form of conflict, presented in TV news stories and “discussion” forums, in movies and TV dramas, in personal relationships. We even see it in the Church: progressives vs. conservatives, modernists vs. anti-modernists. Read a few pages of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and you will immediately recognize the constant struggle that takes place within your own mind.

What if we just stopped for a moment and thought about what we are doing, to ourselves and to each other? What if we considered another approach?

“Surrender” has never been a particularly positive term in our culture. It has usually meant giving up, conceding defeat. An army surrenders to a force of superior power or strategy; the losing side is shamed. A fugitive surrenders to authorities and is seen on TV in handcuffs and leg shackles—humiliated. We are outmatched in an argument and reluctantly surrender, embarrassed at our ineptitude.

And none of these surrenders is complete. The defeated army is eventually rebuilt and made ready to fight again. The fugitive surrenders his physical self because he has been outnumbered and outsmarted, but it is unlikely that he has surrendered his heart in humility and contrition for his crime, if indeed he committed one. We vow to regroup and win the next argument to heal our wounded pride. The struggle, then, does not end with the surrender.

The only time we see surrender in a positive light is when a person surrenders his or her heart to another in a romantic relationship. The other night I watched with a friend the beautiful film Tender Mercies, in which a broken and defeated and angry man gradually surrenders his heart to a struggling young widow and her son. I have watched this movie many times yet it never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Each of us is, to some degree, broken and defeated. Yet we struggle on, seeking victory over our unhappiness. We try to fix our brokenness by working harder, playing harder, planning and plotting more intensely. The last thing we want to do is to acknowledge and accept our brokenness, our defeat.

But if there is no struggle, there can be no defeat. If there is surrender to God’s love, there can be an end to desire and a beginning to happiness. This of course does not mean that we stop working, go on welfare, and meekly accept everything evil that takes place in the world. It is more about a change of consciousness—from a mindset of struggle to one of surrender.

Like many others, I have been angry with the Church over many issues, especially homophobia, which touches me personally. I know that my anger is ignored by the Church and harmful to me, yet I allow myself to be controlled by it.

In a recent post on the blog The Open Tabernacle, blogger Terence Weldon wrote about “attending the launch of theologian James Alison’s new book ‘Broken Hearts and New Creation.’” Terence noted that in the interview and Q&A that were part of the launch,

Alison again placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of not allowing ourselves to fall into a feeling of “victimhood” because of our position in the Church. Victimhood, he says is a dead end. Instead, it is important that we relax into a new identity, given to us by God – for which we must wait, based on trust. One danger in creating our identity based on victimhood is that we then shape our identity in terms of the other victims like ourselves, and set against the others who do violence against us.

Alison’s idea of relaxing into a new identity equates, I believe, to the idea of surrender. If we think of ourselves as victims, we struggle against the forces that “victimize” us rather than surrender to God’s love for us, no matter who we are, thereby neutralizing the effect of the “victimization” and offering instead an example of charity and humility.

Can any of you, for all his worrying, add a single cubit to his span of life? If the smallest things, therefore, are outside your control, why worry about the rest? Think of the flowers; they never have to spin or weave; yet I assure you, not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown in the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he look after you, you men of little faith? (Luke 12: 25-29)

I know that this passage speaks to me as much as it does to anyone.


  1. Great to read this. It makes such sense. Especially after coming from a site with this comment: "Those deviant homosexuals have been deceived by satan and his millons of serpents." I am not kidding, someone actually said this. I know I shouldn't have but I made a snarky reply. Guess we better stay away from those reptile houses. Sorry.

  2. " To accept defeat and offer the victory to others", is our greatest gift to ourselves and to others....