Most people associate surrender with failure. The white flag goes up. You’ve given in. You’re defeated. But surrender is not always a negative thing. Sometimes surrender is the best strategy, the only option or the easiest path to happiness. Giving up can also involve letting go. Letting go can mean releasing pressure, tension and expectations.
There is joy in surrender, particularly when the things you surrender have been the cause of stress, anxiety and complexity. Surrender can simplify your life.
When you’re diagnosed with a life threatening illness your mind naturally goes to the consideration of a bucket list. What haven’t I done that I wanted to do. If I only have so much time left then how do I want to spend it. What will I regret. What will I remember. Some people actually make a list and work through it. Others find themselves counting all of the things they’ve already done and feeling pretty happy with their lives.
I don’t have a bucket list. I sat in Monet’s garden in Giverney with my daughter last year, months before we knew I had cancer. We’d left Paris late and arrived around 3.00pm expecting the crowds that everyone told us were the main feature of the garden. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Take a photo. Shuffle, shuffle shuffle…..and so on. Due to the late hour and an unfulfilled prediction of rain that day the tour buses were few. Those that had risked the weather had been rewarded with a spectacular day and they were now heading back to their hotels. We shared the garden with about twenty other people. It was glorious.
We wandered the spectacular colour of the upper garden. Due to a late end to winter followed by a sudden warm spell the whole of Europe managed late flowering tulips and early flowering daffodils all at once. This freak of the weather had delivered a once in a lifetime display and we were here to see it. We sat at the end of the water lily pond, looking back towards Monet’s famous bridge and watching the changing light. I thought to myself, “Now I can die happy.” Monet’s garden was the last thing on my bucket list.
No, I don’t think ticking it off had anything at all to do with me getting cancer. I’m pretty sure that twinge in my right breast as I boarded the plane from Sydney was the tumour growing, and not the pulled muscle that I attributed it to. I still have plenty of reasons to live. I’ve always lived the kind of life where wanting to do something meant coming up with a plan to do it. I’m not inclined to jealousy or longing. How pointless.
Instead of a bucket list I’ve been working through a sort of surrender list. Things to give up. It started with Monet’s garden. As I sat there watching the clouds reflect in the pond, drifting behind the actual willow I’d loved since the first time I saw a photograph of Monet’s work, sliding behind the actual waterlilies that I seen depicted in dozens of his paintings, I gave up any notion of being an artist.
I spent a couple of years at Art College when I was young. I was overwhelmed by the talent around me. I was despondent about the poor employment prospects and low pay for professional artists. ‘Do what you love!’ was what we were told, but what if what you loved couldn’t feed you or pay the bills. I think that for every Bill Gates encouraging us to follow our dreams there are thousands of people that tried and tried and tried and failed. It’s easy to say ‘Do what you love!’ when you’re lucky enough to have become very rich by following that advice, but to suggest that this is going to work for everyone is naive and ignores the observable reality: Most people don’t do what they love. If it were that easy, why aren’t more people doing it?
If we can find employment that plays to our strengths, keeps our interest and gives us a good income we’re doing extremely well. A lot of people will spend their lives doing things they don’t even like to earn a living. I decided to give up the pursuit of what I loved in favour of what I liked a lot.
When I finished my twenty year policing career I went back to painting. Although I expected any talent to have rusted dry, I was actually a better artist than I had ever been when I was young. I was braver. I cared less about wasting paper or paint or getting it right the first time. I cared less what people thought and that set me free. I did some nice paintings and even sold a few of them. The fibromyalgia made painting more difficult. Taking up the cello as a way to deal with post traumatic stress disorder consumed my time. I stopped painting. But I always thought I’d get back to it.
Sitting in Monet’s garden I realised that I love painting for my own enjoyment but I hate showing or selling my work. I’d rather give it away. I don’t want people buying things that match their decor. It feels like giving away little pieces of myself.
The curious thing is that giving up any dream of being a professional artist didn’t make me the least bit sad. I felt lighter. Happier. The pressure was off. I didn’t need to prove anything or achieve anything. I could paint, or not. I could draw, or not.
It seems to me that some of the best decisions I’ve made have involved surrender. I’ve given up on relationships that were toxic and destructive. I’ve surrendered my need to be right, to win other people to my way of thinking. I’ve relinquished my borderline obsession with the ‘right’ way to do so many household tasks and let my beautiful husband do things his own way.
I still own too much stuff. I keep moving things out, giving things away or donating them to charity. Each small act of surrender makes me feel lighter and happier. Stuff needs time and care and energy.
I suppose there are other things I’ll surrender between here and there. I’m still in the process of surrendering my youth, accepting that ageing is going to happen and that I will never look any younger than I do now. I’m hoping I can age gracefully, without resorting to having injections of anything. There’s nothing wrong with growing older. It sure beats the alternative.
My daughter moved out this week and I surrendered myself to that, too. Yes, I will miss her but at 21 she needs to be out in the world, sharing time with her partner and deciding what kind of life she will make for herself. I believe it cripples young people to keep them at home and she’s only been here this long because she was studying.
There are some things I don’t want to give up on, like holding my grand children if my daughter decides to have children. I don’t want to give up on trying to be a better version of myself or trying to be kinder. I’m not going to surrender my dream of being healthy to the fears that come with this disease or the side effects of the treatment. There is no upper limit to how well I can be.
But I do plan on spending some time this week thinking about what else I can move out of my life. The physical stuff is easy to sort. The internal landscape is a bit more of a challenge. What expectations do I still have. What am I still asking of myself. What aren’t I noticing because it’s become so routine that I don’t question it. How can I simplify my life?
Sometimes when I’m alone I say this out loud: ‘I give up.’ Sometimes I say it over and over. I let the sound of it carry away my emotional garbage. It lifts away the tiny slights against me that have accumulated while I wasn’t looking; the man in the four wheel drive that tail gaited us on the way to chemotherapy and swerved in front of us as he overtook us; the woman that saved up her unhappiness and sent it all to me in a rude message; the broken promises; the harsh words. I surrender my anger.
Some days when I’m in pain and I still have chores to get through I give up. I recognise my limits and I stop. There’s something to be said for not giving up at the first sign of discomfort but it’s also important to know when to stop. Sometimes I need to surrender to my own physical limitations.
I suppose it’s a case of picking my battles. I will never give in to cancer. There will be no white flag. It will never make any difference what anyone tells me regarding a prognosis or my chances of survival. If I go down to cancer I will go down fighting.
I hope I live past my eighties. I hope I die quietly in my sleep with no warning at all. If I reach a time when it’s clear I can’t have either of those things then I’ll surrender them too. But not yet.