On Surrender

This is a longer post, one that is close to my heart, calling to be shared. Now. May it be of service.

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I’ve been thinking about Surrender and Resignation, of late, and how different they are even though we often use these words synonymously. The flavor of Surrender I hear about in faith communities and spiritual circles, and even in my own coaching profession says “quit fighting what is.” I used to find this a most ridiculous concept. Why, on this great, blue green planet, would I surrender to that which I object to? Why would I resign myself to accept less than I expect or deserve or see as just, for another? Why ever would I give up?

I wouldn’t. I’m a problem solver. I have a voice and words and the will to use both. I have relied on my intelligence and resourcefulness, and neither have failed me. I am a strong-willed and stubborn woman. I liked being a lawyer, back when I was a lawyer. My grandmother moved to Canada from Korea, a single mother with her three teen and young adult children. Nobody messed with our quiet matriarch who was surely birthed from fire, itself. My mom is a fierce, social justice advocate and leader. The women of my line ensured I would never tolerate or surrender or resign myself to pretty much anything. Surely surrender was for those who lack imagination. So I believed.

One October day in 2012, my Doctor’s office left me a voicemail message confirming that the sudden onset, acute pain in my shoulder had, happily, finally been diagnosed. The woman’s voice went on, and I took it in as best I could, after weeks of tearfully waiting to hear something that made sense.

The MRI confirmed I had some bizarre syndrome. I was told that this infernal pain – the pain in my upper arm and shoulder that I iced on the hour, every hour, day and night; the pain that meant I couldn’t pick up my four year-old daughter when she reached for me; the pain that leveled me to a puddle on the floor, along with whatever was in the cup that fell from my hand when the shoulder spasmed – would last anywhere from six months to two years, but they would prescribe oxy for that because the pain was really going to be bad. (This, I knew already.) The good news? Definitely temporary. As this syndrome goes, the chronic pain would subside quite suddenly, and paralysis would set in. I would lose function of my arm from shoulder to finger-tip for another six months to two years. And then I should be good. 

“But call us at the office if you have any questions.” The voice ended on a perky, upbeat note that was as confounding, in its own right, as the content of the message, itself. I played that message from beginning to end, again.  

Only later was I enraged that this life changing diagnosis was left by voicemail, and my eyes still narrow sharply to think of it. But that buoyant, anonymous voice was so clear and absolute as to leave no room for debate or argument or what ifs. It was, in the strangest way, a relief. There would be an end and there was nothing I could do to undo the diagnosis. Every medical and pain and physical therapy appointment thereafter supported the original diagnosis-by-voicemail. Me being smart had not a damn thing to do with anything. My Juris Doctorate was useless to me. And I could not for the life of me figure out where to direct my sense of injustice in the face of crippling, tooth-grinding, pain. I was determined to resist narcotic pain meds at all costs, which at least gave my stubbornness a place to focus. There was no choice I could see but to settle into the new normal. So I did.

I quit fighting the pain. I stopped being mad about the pain, being offended that I was in pain, or pretending I wasn’t in pain and trying to force a smile at the grocery store. I accepted the limits of my range of motion, deciding make-up was non-critical and short hair served me well. I prioritized fiercely, by necessity, and if it didn’t rank, it didn’t get my attention. A dear friend rearranged my kitchen so I didn’t need to reach for things. And I let her.

With the softness that came with this new way, I began to notice rhythms and subtle changes and could time the ice just so and avoid the worst spasms. I clued into my kids’ health and moods, again. I noticed the sound and smell of rain, and that autumn had turned to winter in the Pacific Northwest. I wondered at the metaphor of wanting and being unable to reach for: I hungered for an apple from the center bowl at the table, or my food needed more salt, but I could reach for neither the fruit nor the shaker. ‘Where else is it true in my life that I cannot reach for that which I want?’ I wondered.

I marveled at my body as a messenger that could shut me down with no regard for my plans and responsibilities. I was curious about cause and effect, and why ice helped make the pain manageable for longer periods, one day, and why it barely made a dent on other days. I was attentive, honoring the ebbs and flows and seasons of discomfort. I didn’t take for granted the windows of relief that showed up, and I knew the worst would move on, again. I fell in love with my own stillness, when the discomfort might fade from extreme to middling.

This, it turns out, is surrender. It brings with it wide open spaces of peace, in spite of circumstances. With surrender, there was no suffering in my inability to plan for or fear the future. No. There was freedom.

There were days of outrage, when I didn’t want to feel at ease, or be responsible for my own peace and emotional state anymore. I got tired of being all spiritual and cool about it. I wanted to wrap my arms around my daughters when reading bedtime stories, or when they fell off their bikes. I fought peace itself because it made me mad, and I ended up tight and angry. I wanted to be petulant, so I was. When that wore off, usually with tears and a breakdown, the release of that tension made surrender sweeter. Outrage, after knowing surrender, turns out to be hard to sustain.

On those darkest of days, the way out was illuminated by the faintest glimmer of an almost-idea that someday, this might be a story worth telling;

Other days, despair caught me in her grip and robbed me of will and hope. I wanted only to turn myself over to the twisted fates who had cursed me and left me, a pawn in some cosmic joke. Nothing mattered in the face of this. No thing was worth my attention or the trace shreds of what small amount of energy I had left.  And this, it turns out, is resignation. Resignation extended suffering into my otherwise healthy head space, my perfectly sound belief and faith and the order of things, and into my emotional self, too. Neither release nor relief followed. Resignation grew roots and sucked me dry and robbed me of the will to eat because what was the point, anyway? It’s not like I could reach the salt. I resigned myself to despair and abdicated my power and my authority over my own experience in the world. I decided I would not heal.

On those darkest of days, the way out was illuminated by the faintest glimmer of an almost-idea that someday, this might be a story worth telling; Someday, I might be better and stronger for having survived this, and only by surviving this might there be any possibility of it having meaning and purpose beyond my own humbling exercise in weakness and humiliation.

And with that glimmer in my sights, I would stir up enough of myself to surrender, again; I would choose to quit fighting what is, again, and stop pretending I was powerless.

The disease progressed exactly as predicted, though I moved through both stages rapidly: seven months of acute pain and eight months of paralysis, and then recovery. I know now I was a speedy patient as a direct result of surrendering to the course of the disease. (For the most part, anyway.) Pain and paralysis are excruciating lessons in presence. My smarts and degrees have not much mattered since, and my opportunities to surrender to all kinds of situations have become more plentiful. I never did completely resign myself to a lifetime of pain or paralysis, rather I surrendered to the season, one moment at a time, until it was, quite suddenly, over.


Q: I would love to hear if you have lived the distinction between surrender and resignation in your life? How does this make a difference for you?


Click below for information about the Threshold Program. This one is for the sisters.