…yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
— James Joyce (Ulysses)
If you have been around young children, you’ve likely encountered the glee toddlers experience when they learn to say, “No!” The thrill of exerting the self against whatever is proposed, even if it’s something the child typically likes, is almost too much for them. No, no, no! Usually by the age of two or three we learn to say, “No!” This is a healthy and monumental achievement. However, the greater and deeper process—which often takes a lifetime—is to learn to say, “Yes.”
This deep Yes is typically called surrender in recovery spirituality. When we become sick and tired of being sick and tired from our addictive behaviors—and here we can include not only substance abuse but also any ingrained patterns of acting and thinking that cause us to suffer—we can be brought to that grizzly and grace-filled precipice in which we contemplate spiritual surrender. When I surrender, I give up the illusion that I’m in the driver’s seat, the illusion that I should get what I want, and that I know what’s best for me. In short, I give up self-will. And what a relief that is! Imagine believing that you knew what was best for you, that your job was to control your destiny and wrest happiness from the world by managing things well, and that your happiness depended on outcomes aligning with your wishes. Likely you can imagine this; it’s how most of us live almost all of the time. It’s also the reason we suffer, at least a little bit, almost all of the time.
Surrendering my self-will means I begin with accepting reality as it is. As the long version of the Serenity Prayer says, surrender is “taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will, that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.”
Accepting reality as it is does not mean we are to be quietists, doing nothing about anything. Quite the opposite: acceptance allows us the freedom to respond clearly and well to a situation at hand rather than flailing around inside ourselves, wasting energy and focus listening to our ego’s complaining. As the philosopher Epictetus said, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” A similar sense is found in the writings of the 8th century Buddhist scholar Shantideva: “If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum?”
I can remember the exact moment I experienced surrender. I was six days into a ten-day silent retreat that involved about twelve hours of meditation a day. On the morning of day six, I stumbled into the meditation hall at the prescribed hour (4:00 a.m.!) and took my seat together with about 50 other men. The bell was struck, and the first of many one-hour silent meditation sessions began. Immediately my inner petulant toddler was off and running. “I don’t want to do this today!” I heard myself think. “Today will be the same as yesterday, just with more back pain. I’ll learn nothing new. I’ll be bored. I’ll be sore. I don’t want to do this! No, no no!”
While I sat still as a stone, the placid look of a “real” meditator pasted on my face, my self-will was running rampant. I was suffering. As my inner three-year-old continued to rant, all of a sudden I heard another voice inside me. It was calm, clear, and much less urgent. This voice pointed out, “You’re going to sit on this cushion all day long whether you want to or not. There is no choice.” (I had taken a bus to the retreat center so couldn’t even run off!) “The only choice is whether you accept today as it is and go with it, or choose not to accept today as it is and suffer.” Immediately my inner toddler was stunned and silenced. I decided to accept my reality as it was, and chose to approach the day with curiosity. As it turned out, I did learn something quite important, even before 4:30 in the morning—I learned that one root of my suffering was fighting against a reality that I could not change and complaining about a reality I did not like.
Those in recovery from addictions know that surrender is a choice of life or death (and of joy or suffering). In admitting powerlessness over addiction and in surrendering to a Higher Power, addicts open the door of their lives to an immense, transformative power. The catch is that, in order to enact this surrender, we have to become willing to turn our will and lives over to that Higher Power (God). And here we run smack up against how most of us had learned to “do religion” since, well, we were old enough to say, “No!”
Many good, religious people continue to suffer through their lives because they’ve come to believe in an odd human-divine role reversal. We are trained to think that, put bluntly, our relationship with God is meant to be manipulative. We decide what we want, choose what is good for us, and then pray hard to convince God to lend power to our plans and make it happen. God, in this model, is the fuel for the engine of our self-will, the muscle behind our inner toddler. Our will is divine, and we just need to get God on board to bring it about. Even if what we want and what we would choose is absolutely holy and good, the critique still applies because the model is still the same.
Surrender turns this around. When we truly surrender, we give up thinking we know what’s best for us (or anyone else). We give up thinking we should get what we want. Often, life is most interesting—and we are most interesting—when we don’t get what we want and have to adjust and be creative. Prayer, from the place of surrender, is seeking to come into alignment with a Divine Will that is greater than our own. We put down the planning book and wish list and choose to listen. We seek to respond in integrity to reality as it is. We put ourselves on hold and engage what reality has put before us. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” as St. Paul succinctly puts it to the Galatians.
This surrender is far from a defeat. Rather, think of surrender as changing to the winning side. In surrender we release ourselves from the backbreaking work of seeking what we want and complaining about what we don’t want, and instead embrace the world with a Yes! We become open, adaptable, creative, and full of power… though not our own power. We accept our limitations, our particularity, and our history. We stop labeling all of reality in terms of whether it pleases or displeases us. We become powerful actors in the world because we no longer act from our own power. We stop being anxious toddlers who constantly ping-pong from a temper tantrum to extreme elation to the next temper tantrum. We become more than ourselves by surrendering ourselves.
Is this a paradox? It can seem so if we’ve bought into the human-divine role reversal mentioned above. Actually, it makes perfect sense. If God is “reality, but with a face” as some have said, our kicking against reality, our complaining and labeling, our petulance in the face of not getting what we want, is in a very real sense a fight with God. This is not a fight we can win. The good news is that God doesn’t want to fight us; it’s us who choose to fight God. What if, instead of fighting, we began to listen, to be curious, to explore the grace in those things we would not choose yet cannot change?
Only by surrender can any of us—whether we are in recovery or not—live a life that’s happy, joyous, and free. As a wise person once asked me, if you wouldn’t let a toddler drive your car, why would you let a toddler drive your life? Perhaps it’s time to put the toddler to bed, take the wheel… and then cede the driver’s seat to a power greater than ourselves. In doing so, we can find joy even in life’s difficulties. We can find happiness when we get what we want, and when we don’t get what we want. We can even sit on a cushion for twelve hours, back and butt throbbing, and say, “Yes!” and find grace.
Image: agracier – NO VIEWS / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)