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A case against surrender
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You've heard it before. "Let go," they say. "The universe provides." Yet, we love fighters and the winners. "Don't give up," they say. "God helps those who help themselves." Should you "Breath, be present. You are enough as you are," or "You are what you make of yourself. Get busy?" My personal favorite to chew on is the juxtaposition of "Everything is perfect, just the way it is" and "If you don't like the way things are, do something about it."
So, which one is it? Should you surrender and go with the flow? Be happy in the moment? Do something? Strive? Does life flow when we relinquish control? Is being "out of control" the same as "relinquishing" control? Does "letting go" result in "not in control?"
If it looks like I am taking an issue with control, it's because I surrender my pretense that I condone platitudes and generalizations. Also, I admit to having repeated many without thinking or while thinking I was saying something profound. These days, I like to question even my questions from time to time to ensure that I don't fall into a grove and a life of unexamined beliefs and opinions. The Buddha said that wanting causes suffering, but I think that living on autopilot does more. It leads to a zombie life in conflict with the truly living. A zombie has a hard time catching up to someone alive, alert, and on a mission. It lives to feed. It knows no joy. It sits and waits until something makes a noise, and then it shuffles its feet in that direction. I'd rather be the noisemaker chasing a rainbow.
But enough about me. How about Einstein? What if he did let go of the drive to figure out how things work in the universe? What if Mozart let the notes in his head stay? What if the thousands of scientists, millions of doctors, teachers, writers, and just about everyone chose to let go of their dreams, inspirations, passions, and drives? Where would we be now?
Why are we born with the ability to experience passion and told to let go of wanting? What if Mother Theresa let her passion for helping the misfortunate go and stopped wanting to help? The very things we admire in others – a sense of purpose, drive, talent, and making a difference- manifest because they bring them out of themselves through work, dedication, and perseverance.
Every time we make a choice to do something, we exercise agency and influence the events to follow. That's a form of control. "Agency" and "control" have a funny relationship, sometimes synonymous, and sometimes the opposite. If we do nothing, that's still a choice, and it still influences what's to come. So we are still within our agency but end up not in control because now things will happen without our input. Behavior is the expression of agency. Behavior and outcomes have a causal relationship. Therefore, every time we behave, we cause an outcome. That's a form of control. We can behave consciously, deliberately, mindfully, and outcomes will follow. Or we can behave unconsciously, reactively/accidentally, mindlessly, and outcomes will follow. If we want a specific outcome, we need a plan for how to get there. If we behave according to plan, we stand the chance of experiencing that outcome. Goals are outcomes. Visionary projects like preserving voting rights, justice, and a livable environment require a lot of action, activism, policy making, community organizing, education, and communication with others. Those are things that we should never let go of and must continue to strive toward achieving.
We may not control circumstances around us and obstacles on the path, but we remain in control of our intentions, dedication, motivation, and effort. We may not be in control of everything, but we are always in control of enough to make a difference.
I don't think the question should be whether or not we have control, but whether or not we make choices/behave mindfully and deliberately. A person skiing down the hill only trusts their body to do the right thing after practicing for hundreds or thousands of hours, choosing their equipment, their level of challenge, and the very day they are out there. That's agency. That's controlling the outcome by doing all of these things. Doing all of these things increases their chance of having a great time and not getting injured. Anything different would be stupid. They may still crash. They may have an exceptional day beyond their wildest imagination. That's something they have no control over, but by having skills and equipment - something they have control over, they increase the chance of a great time and no injury.
Control is one of those words that gets a bad rep by confused people. It's neither positive nor negative and yet gets lumped with all things bad or undesirable. Kind of like wind or a hammer, control just is. It only matters what you do with it. And that depends on your life-skills level.
I can even make the argument that we "flow" only after massive amounts of work and skill-building. When we become skillful enough to control what matters within ourselves, we can flow with what comes our way. We become resourceful, optimistic, and consequential. We matter.
Some moments and places may be perfect the way they are, but if you feel inspired or driven to do and create something, you've been called to make another moment and another place better by your effort. Answer the call. The price you pay for doing nothing is depression. Contributing nothing, you mean nothing, and you feel nothing. Get busy.
The only thing you should be relinquishing is your notion of what you can and can't do. So keep trying to figure things out. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." Nothing is ever a question of success or failure. Only a question of intention, showing up, doing the work, and learning. The final outcome may or may not be exactly what we envision, but it is always something interesting, a stepping stone to the next thing, to another reality we shaped as we went along. In that sense, the only thing we should relinquish is being set on a specific outcome despite all our efforts. A vision is like a lighthouse. It guides you to the shore. But what the shore looks like at the moment you land can be wildly surprising, amazingly different, and just another point from which to launch the next adventure. Unless all our goals are moving targets, we'll get bored and out of things to do as soon as we achieve them. Yet, we never know exactly where we want the target to move to until we get closer, have some experience, and learn something about ourselves along the way.
So, are you "enough as you are?" To assert this would be to imply that there's nothing more to do, that you are finished with "becoming." Unless you are on your death bed, I don't see how this would be true. Enough of what? Enough for what? You are always only good enough to get started. You are always only smart enough to know that you need to learn more and what you need to do next. You are always only equipped enough to get better equipped for your next mission in life, should you choose to accept it.
If you say that "you are enough as you are" in the context of a relationship, tells your partner that you don't want their feedback about things that would make you better for yourself and both of you. It's a great way to grow apart instead of growing together. Or, more accurately, to stay in place as your partner moves along. We should consider ourselves lucky to be functional enough to be of value to someone who wants to be in a relationship with us. The arrogance of believing that we are enough as we are sure spells out conflict and disaster after the butterflies fly away. The best thing about a relationship is having someone who loves you enough to hold up a mirror and show you what you need to do to love yourself, to do better, to clean up your act, to be a better human. If you don't want to hear it, get a dog. Actually, get a cat. Cat's don't care as long as you put out the food on time. Dogs feel your conflicts and suffer trying to please you.
There are indeed times when you need to stop, regroup, retool, reorganize, and stop bleeding. Times when you should move on. Times to say no. But those are not moments of surrender of your deepest desires or your effort to make the future brighter and better. You say no, so you can move on. You quit one direction so you can keep moving in another. It's a re-orientation based on accepting the facts of your situation and actively participating in a correction. You don't surrender your agency. Instead, you use it to stay whole and make things right.
Finally, should you trust the universe to provide? I don't know. Who do you think the universe is? Your wealthy, magical, and generous uncle Joe? Last time I checked, the universe is this mostly empty and vastly expansive container in which we all float unnoticed by anyone or anything outside of Earth until we die. I'd love to think that the universe wants me to be happy, but I don't believe the universe knows or wants anything. It just is. It just is.
I consider myself lucky to exist, and not just because my mother had several abortions. Didn't scientists estimate the odds of being born to be one in 400 billion? That's a reason to celebrate! I remind myself of this when I feel down or when I catch myself wasting time. I feel compelled to live the heck out of this life. I am grateful to be in charge of my own path. Because the same cannot be said about women in all cultures. I've surrendered all magical thinking. I stay busy dreaming, working, playing, growing, exploring. I live!
Here's to having to provide for ourselves and having to figure it out! Here's to those that do and inspire us. Here's to the rational thinkers and the philosophers. Here's to the passionate lovers and the explorers.
Here's to you for reading this and thinking about it. I'd love to know your thoughts. Comment below! If you LOVED it, please share :)