Another Look at Surrender

During a recent Wisdom Practice Circle, one very sensitive and insightful woman suggested to me that, in terms of surrender, women might either consider it differently or at the very least might hear the instructions differently. Her suggestion has prompted me to take another look at surrender in order to more deeply plumb its dynamic. In this, it is continuously necessary for me to face my own shortsightedness toward experiences of others that are undoubtedly very different from my own. And so that would necessarily include not only women, but also people of color and segments of the population that have been persecuted or marginalized in any way. Rather than a movement in the direction of political correctness, this seems an essential attempt to widen one’s Wisdom perspective in order to include the viewpoint and experience of all others.

Surrender is a central, or perhaps, the central dynamic of a Wisdom Christianity. Based on the key passage from “Paul’s Letter to the Philippians” (2:6-7), Jesus’ path is characterized by the complete outpouring of love and being. It is encapsulated in the Greek work, kenosis. And, just as Jesus’ path is one of surrender, that is exactly the same path to which we too are called. But what does Jesus’ surrender really mean?

In our everyday parlance, amongst other nuanced definitions, “surrender” can mean giving up or giving in—capitulating to some degree or another. Unfortunately, to a woman’s ears this may sound a little too much like the dictates of a male chauvinistic culture, forcing a woman into the strictures of limiting stereotypes and repressing both her capacities and her freedom. Or to a person of color this may sound like a movement toward subservience and complicit inequality. If we are going to continue to use the term “surrender”—as I sincerely hope we shall—we must use care in how we present and explain it. Specifically, we need to be sensitive to how this may be heard and understood by women as well as men and by the marginalized as well those in power. It, thus, demands a continuing exploration of its deepest meanings.

In the Wisdom lineage within which I mostly work, the foundational benchmark explanation of surrender can be found in Cynthia Bourgeault’s, “The Wisdom Way of Knowing.” Initially, she uses two images. The first is that of an acorn that is transformed into an oak tree. The second is that of a candle that gives of itself in order to engender light. Both the acorn and the candle surrender their being at one level in order to manifest it at another. She wisely suggests that there is a sacrifice involved and notes that this sacrifice comes at a cost. But it is in the sacrifice that being is more than just used up or given over; it is made “holy” and “whole” (the root meaning of “sacrifice”). Jesus expresses this transformational process in terms of a dying: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12:24) Christians know that Jesus’ sacrifice included death on a cross. So, are we to give over our lives in this manner?

Well, maybe we are, and maybe we’re not. Let’s look more carefully. Here’s how Cynthia expresses it: “The act of dying to the outward form of our selfhood, akin to setting the candle aflame, is what releases and makes visible the inner quality of aliveness. At the moment this inner aliveness is released, it becomes available as psychic force, a vital nutrient for the feeding and building up of the planetary body, but particularly for our human kinship and dignity.” (“Wisdom Way of Knowing,” p. 68.) Here in a unitive framework I discern a dance between the universal and the particular. In this, it would seem to me that it is the dying that is the universal part, and it is “the outward form of our selfhood” that is the specific and particular part. In other words, the surrender in dying can take as many different forms and expressions as there are individual human beings.

What is the outer form of selfhood in your life that might be surrendered? Just to use the most extreme of examples—If you are a white male in our society, maybe it might include letting go of power, privilege, and prestige. But if you are a woman who is used to getting “the short end of the stick,” maybe it is surrendering your deference, compliance, and submissiveness. The point is, it is our identifications—whether they might be deemed “positive” or “negative”—that are surrendered.

The mistake that is sometimes made in the understanding of surrender is that we have to give up our substance to the point of diminishment of our personhood or even extinguishment of our lives. Although I am not ruling anything out, this is not necessarily always the case. In fact, often the surrender of our identifications can deliver us to new capacities of strength and power. Less subsumed to the tight orbit of the protection and enhancement of the smaller sense of self, we can be freed to see and act more clearly and decisively. Indeed, our capacities may grow and strengthen, supporting our work in the world on behalf of the greater human collective. That certainly seems true of Jesus. Although in died in total surrender of a cross, he also lived to actively affirm the dignity of every living being. 

So, allow me to add a third image to Cynthia’s other two—and that is the image of a bellows. If you are old enough, you undoubtedly know what a bellows is. It is a device consisting of a flexible bag attached between two rigid boards. The bag is an airtight cavity that can be expanded and contracted by operating the two boards or handles, allowing air to enter the cavity when the handles are pulled apart and thrust forth when the handles are pushed together. A bellows is a powerful and useful tool to direct air into a smoldering fire, bringing the necessary air directly to the ashes in order to encourage them to enflame.  

So, rather than terminating itself after its initial push outward of its contents (that is, the air that is directed to stoke the fire), the bellows allows itself to expand again as it takes in more air in order to repeat its task. The apparatus itself is neither diminished or destroyed in the process; it lives to repeat its active work and purpose. 

In some ways, I think that we can use ourselves like a bellows. The movement back and forth of the two boards is possible as we remember more deeply who we really are. Surrender is the means by which this re-membering takes place. Otherwise, lost in our identifications and trapped in our smaller self-identities, we try to take the entire apparatus and wave it back and forth in front of the smoldering fire in order to try to fan the flames. Obviously, this is an extraordinarily inefficient and unproductive way to use both the bellows and ourselves. 

But once we can loosen the attachments to our smaller identities, we are freed to use ourselves as we were intended. By bringing the two wooden planks together, we contract the flexible bag and we breathe out love and compassion. That can be expressed in the form of care and concern for others, but it can and should also be expressed in the form of the active pursuit of dignity and respect for oneself and for all others—regardless of differences in color, creed, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. That is precisely what enflames and enlivens the fire of life and hallows and sanctifies the human collective and life itself. 

And then as we pull the wooden plans apart, we expand the bag and take in more air—maybe in the form of solidarity and support from those around us in respect for our own dignity of being and the acknowledged and valued position of all persons and beings in the human collective. Thus, we are not extinguished, but live to continue to both advance and receive the love and dignity worthy of us all. In this sense, what is surrendered are those lesser versions of ourselves whereby some were given the dignity and worth of their inherent nature while others were denied this.

The bellows, of course, will not last forever. It will eventually wear out and be discarded; but not before it has breathed life and air to fan the flames of the unfurling purpose of life—that we shall all be one in love and solidarity.

I use this image of the bellows to remind us that through surrender and the detachment of our lesser identities, we may come upon the experience that our capacities are sometimes expanded and deepened. Rather then, than coming into capitulation or rather than giving up, we are delivered in our surrender to new and productive life wherein we can give ourselves to others through freedom, choice, yes, even power.