Surrender as Victory
Gregg Levoy

  

Much of the pain associated with callings comes from avoiding them, from not surrendering to them.  However much sacrifice may be involved, much of the pain we feel in surrendering to callings actually comes from our anticipation of the pain and not from the actual capitulation.  Once we do surrender, we often feel a sense of great relief, and just as often we are bewildered about why we didn't do it years ago.

We mistakenly equate surrender with defeat and sacrifice with annihilation.  We bring to our renunciations the same panic and anxiety--"Oh God, I can't give that up"--that we often bring to our deliberations about intimacy, the fears of being devoured and overpowered, of giving our lives away.  Granted, parts of us are broken into smithereens in the process of following our calls, and they experience real compromise and real compromise and real suffering, but this is not defeat any more than a flower suffers defeat by going to seed.  Furthermore, says theologian Frederich Buechner, "What's lost is nothing to what's found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup."

In the religions, myths, and psychologies of the world, surrender is envisioned not as defeat but as liberation, and sacrifice typically precedes a resurrection.  

It's about swapping something temporal for something transcendent, about turning suffering into victory.  It explains why God proved merciful once Jonah finally took the plunge.  It explains why the feast days of the Christian martyrs--those extremists for liberation--are celebrated not on their birthdays but on their death days, because that's when they were considered to have been truly "born."  Like evaporating water, we give up an earthly bond in order to rise.

Historically, that which is sacrificed is also venerated.  It is, as the word sacrifice itself suggests, "made sacred" and not simply tipped over the side and done away with; sacrifice is not merely a means to an end.  Many sacrifices were made on altars, which elevated whatever was placed on them.  By making sacrifices, we honor not just what dies but also the act of death, the skill of the dying, by which we also honor the ultimate fact of life, the way the game is played:  we get and we give, we win some and we lose some, and life is the trapeze act we perform between the two.

Whatever we have to give up to follow a calling is, in a sense, giving its life for our benefit.  We sanctify it by recognizing that we wouldn't be able to liberate ourselves  to follow that calling without it being sacrificed.  Gratitude, of course, is less of a stretch in hindsight, once we've safely negotiated the passage and can look back and see how critical it was to our unfolding.  If we can let go of the trapeze platform and make our necessary surrenders, we may be liberated, but if, while still suspended in empty air, we can say "thank you," we're damn near enlightened.

* * *

Although surrender is not defeat, the unwillingness to surrender is defeat, and one reason we're often unwilling is that we can't abide one of the corollaries of sacrifice, which is that every sacrifice involves some suffering.  Our avoidances of suffering demonstrate that we're afraid to suffer.  But the degree to which we're able to bear suffering  largely determines the degree to which we intend it to happen.  If we don't volunteer for it, we are more likely to turn bitter about it. . . .

By refusing to make sacrifices, we defeat our own purposes.  Our most desperate hopes elude us, and we spend our lives merely catching sight of their heels disappearing around corners.  Late in life, we may find ourselves trying to buy our souls back from the devil or striking desperate deals with God.  No amount of security, accomplishment, or busyness will distract us from the knowledge of what we gave up.  No amount of success, money, food, sex, or booze will take the place of the offering that needs to be made.  There are no substitute sacrifices, no cheap adaptations, no cosmetic changes.  If the status quo has got to go, working double-time to prove its merit will not appease the soul, which is no fool.  If you feel restless about using your talents and attempt to assuage that restlessness by constant travel because you figure that the antidote to restlessness is motion, you're playing a shell game with the gods, who can see through stone.

If a sacrifice doesn't put you out, doesn't hurt a little or even a lot, it's probably insufficient to bring on the changes you're after.  If your partner is crying out to you for attention, giving up the occasional golf game probably won't suffice to call your relationship back from the brink.  If you feel called to share your art or writing with the world, but you show it only to friends and family, you're not stepping all the way up to the plate.  If your body is telling you it needs more exercise, then taking the staircase up to your second-floor office instead of the elevator is little more than a symbolic gesture, faint praise, a plastic Jesus.
    

Callings is the first book to examine the many kinds of calls we receive and the great variety of channels through which they come to us. A calling may be to do something (change careers, go back to school, have a child) or to be something (more creative, less judgmental, more loving). While honoring a calling's essential mystery, this book also guides readers to ask and answer the fundamental questions that arise from any calling: How do we recognize it? How do we distinguish the true call from the siren song? How do we handle our resistance to a call? What happens when we say yes? What happens when we say no?

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As I started to picture the trees in the storm, the answer began
to dawn on me.  The trees in the storm don't try to stand up
straight and tall and erect.  They allow themselves to bend and
be blown with the wind.  They understand the power of letting
go.  Those trees and those branches that try too hard to stand
up strong and straight are the ones that break.  Now is not the
time for you to be strong, Julia, or you, too, will break.

Julia Butterfly Hill

 

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