A client came in the other day with a perplexing problem.
She had been reading a book that suggested part of healing chronic pain and living with illness was “surrendering” to it.
This bothered her. Surrender felt like a negative – waving the flag to say, “I give up.” It was the opposite of what she felt she was working on. She was finding the strength to keep going, to look farther than she thought she could – stretching, claiming the hard path, and not giving up.
What do you think about “surrendering” she asked?
A great question, and a complicated one.
The common definitions of surrender do have that implicit sense of stopping, letting the other side – stronger, bigger, more threatening – win. It is not a route to healing or wholeness – it feels more like defeat.
But there is a more subtle aspect of surrender – what Nietzsche describes as amor fati – to love your fate. This is the process of accepting what is, not giving up to the illness, or the pain, but refusing to resist it.
This process of accepting the reality of what is paradoxically opens the door to freedom and new paths. It releases the energy that was spent on resistance and sometimes resentment, and creates a space where you can say, “Here I am. This is my life. What do I want from life? What do I want to give?”
When the great mythologist Joseph Campbell was asked about amor fati, he responded, “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”*
Swallowing your demon. What a metaphor! When I shared that with my client, she laughed.
“I don’t have one demon,” she said. “I have a host of little ones that are always underfoot! The demons of loss, and why can’t I get my shoes on, and I hate this pain, and I’m always running late and people blame me, not my invisible illness. I’ll be swallowing all day and night!”
We each made a grimacing smile at the reality of her assessment. Maybe that existential “Big idea” wouldn’t work so well in the daily daily of chronic illness.
But she continued to think about what it might mean not to “resist” so much.
“I do spend a lot of time wishing things were different, wishing people understood how hard things are for me. I resist the reality of my RA a thousand times a day. What could it be like if I was willing to say ‘This is it. This is my life. What do I want to make of it?’”
It is a work-in-progress, not a simple philosophical solution. “Surrendering” has turned into “non-resistance.” That is easier to talk about and makes more sense to my client, and maybe to you. It is a process of “swallowing the little demons” and she finds that indeed, life’s reply has been great. She feels less burdened, and has room to get back to making art and having time with friends.
It is a journey and we find what works – and let go of what doesn’t. The ideas of spiritual teachers, healers and philosophers abound. Letting go of what you don’t need – whether it is advice, definitions, or prescriptions, is a form of surrendering so that you are clear and open to receive what will help.
I wish you all clarity and courage for the journey!
*The ideas about Campbell and Nietzche came from a book titled The Rise by Sarah Lewis.