One thing I know for certain is that our struggles in the little world of our own hearts, minds, and relationships are inscribed on the big world that comprises the institutions, communities, and movements that human beings make. Turn the conventional assertion on its head: As below, so above.
I was talking with a visiting friend the other day about the Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance. “That’s a tough one,” he kept saying. The one thing on which we agreed was this: that there are legions of people whose certainty that they know exactly what needs to happen to resolve the conflict isn’t disrupted by the fact that they cannot have a civil conversation about it with someone who espouses a different solution.
And so it goes with every example of what are called “wicked problems”: complex and unique problems without easily defined alternative solutions or boundary conditions, usually connected to or embedded in other problems, and therefore requiring unique responses. On the grand scale of a society, wicked problems are also called “social messes.” Racism is a social mess; so is our economic crisis; so is finding a modus vivendi between the universe of the Tea Partiers on the one hand, and their left-wing counterparts on the other, two sets of people whose world-views are infused with the panic that attaches to believing they are under perpetual attack by dark forces infinitely more skillful and powerful than themselves. On all sides, people are locked in struggle, in positions of opposition that absorb infinite energy without producing resolution.
You know how life sometimes puts reminders in your path of whatever you need to face? In the ancient history of television, Groucho Marx hosted a quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” At the beginning of each episode, a secret word would be announced. If a contestant used that word, a large, floppy prop chicken would descend from the ceiling bearing a prize of $100. This week, if the secret word had been surrender, my living-room would have been littered with $100 bills heaped high as leaves after an October windstorm.
The surrender my wise friends are counseling isn’t about waving the white flag in defeat. It has to do with releasing the anger, resentment, and fear that often besets people like myself, who have set a course in life in the hope of awakening conscience and justice tempered by love, a course that pits us against the powerful people who like things the way they are and resist such change. Fatigue and despair are ever-present temptations, the seductive discouragement of measuring one’s impact by outward signs: legislation passed, poll numbers, money raised, media headlines; or closer to the little world, whether contrarian artists (including writers like myself) are seen, are supported, have influence that is immediately evident.
The surrender my wise friends are counseling entails dropping the illusion that strength derives from others’ approval, and reorienting one’s work around doing what we know to be our task in the world. It entails doing that work for its own sake and for one’s own pleasure, and not taking account of response.
I know how crazy this sounds in a world driven by measurable reaction, so that in mainstream politics, positions turn on a dime when the numbers say so. I also know that what passes for social imagination and political morality in that world is the product of this debased idea of what truly matters.
So this week, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I’m wrestling with surrender, aware that even my metaphor is a contradiction. I comprehend the logic of surrender and can find no basis to argue with it. Yet I resist. I am certain that my personal difficulty with surrender is not a unique idiosyncrasy, but a shared struggle. When I dissect my resistance, trying to see what makes it tick, I see two motivations I’m a little embarrassed to admit. The first is fear rooted in a conviction of the awesome power of the forces of darkness and destruction: if I’m not actively on guard and opposing them all the time, won’t they annihilate me? The second is an inner voice that insists it’s my right to sing the blues: a stubborn entitlement to my suffering that is so deeply rooted, it must be genetic.
It’s this last bit I’ve been thinking about recently. Personally, politically, what would it be like to surrender to what is, acknowledging that I am gaining nothing by fearing or resenting opponents? What would it be like to accept that they feel as they do, and to carry on with my work, giving it total attention—not only full creative effort, but also pouring into it all the energy formerly wasted in resistance?
This question had me in its grip when someone sent me a video clip of The Mother (Mirra Alfassa, a spiritual partner and supporter of Sri Aurobindo and founder of the Auroville community in Tamil Nadu). The topic? You guessed it: “Surrender.” It wasn’t a $100 bill delivered by a prop chicken, but it really felt as if I’d said the secret word. It’s well worth watching the whole six minutes just to experience a phenomenally articulate and coherent explanation of surrender as a spiritual concept. It is not a sectarian piece, and is unlikely to present obstacles to those of any faith: the person who posted the clip is a rabbi, for instance, and not a disciple of Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga.
In the clip, we hear The Mother’s voice explaining that in a time characterized by conflict “between the forces of truth and light wanting to manifest and the opposition of all that does not want to change, which represents in the past what is fixed, hardened and refuses to go,” individuals are caught in confusion. “Don’t expect human appreciation,” she says, because of this general condition of conflict and difficulty, and because people may resist what they don’t understand. Support that comes from the outside is inherently unstable. Instead, look inside yourself for the strength to persist in what you know you must do, and you will find it, “like a flame that is always burning straight up.” She counsels leaning back into the presence that can be discerned within.
A few years ago, I read quite a remarkable story about how Darryl McDaniels (DMC of the pioneering rap trio Run DMC) was released from suicidal feelings by listening to Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful song, “Angel”:
I turned the radio on. Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” was on the radio. That record saved my life. Wife. Kids. Fortune. Fame. I didn’t give a f— about none of that. I turned the radio on—and I’m tryin’ to express to you how it’s so funny. I turned it on and I heard Sarah McLachlan’s record and something that day said ‘Life is good. It’s good to be alive.’ “So I go and I buy that record and everything Sarah McLachlan ever made. I listen to Sarah McLachlan for one whole year. At the end of the year the Grammys come around and my manager says ‘D, let’s go to the Grammy party. We’re gonna go to Clive Davis’ party.’ I didn’t want to go. I didn’t care about s—. All I cared about was Sarah McLachlan records. So we go to the Grammy party, I get there and who do I see sittin’ across the room—’cuz she was on Arista Records under Clive Davis—it’s Sarah McLachlan. She was ‘that lady.’ I go ‘Oh my god, it’s that lady!’ So I’m gettin’ all nervous, but then I go ‘No, I gotta go over there and tell Sarah McLachlan what her record did for me.’
Read the whole story if you have time, and ponder the role of both surrender and music in healing the human heart. Then listen to “Angel,” a song about surrendering, about leaning back into a supporting presence. The thing about being locked in struggle with whatever you oppose is that no matter what else you are, you are locked in. My intention for this week is to pour out my resistance, and pour that energy into the work that calls to me. Wish me luck.