As we turn the corner into a new year, many of us are drawing up some resolutions. Most resolutions tend to be either about exercise or diet, which may get some traction – for awhile, but usually end up losing out to the strain of three more months of winter.
What is emerging for me this new year is not a resolution but a long-standing invitation: to surrender. An invitation to surrender to something deeper, bigger and more abiding than a resolution. Every religious tradition I know of is rooted in this invitation – to surrender the ego to the soul; to surrender aggrandizement to letting go; to surrender to hope instead of fear. Their narratives, symbols and practices may be different – but the invitations from the various religious traditions to surrender remain remarkably similar.
Surrender is different from capitulation. A dramatic example of this distinction is what we have heard and seen for the past year in Ukraine. The Ukrainian people have surrendered to hope and solidarity, which have not only galvanized much of the West, but have been the key factors which have enabled them to refuse to capitulate to Russian brutality.
In our own country, as anger, vitriol and demonizing pick up steam across the airwaves and media platforms, which causes our stomachs to churn and our teeth to clench, the invitation to surrender is urgent, if not necessary. It is tempting to capitulate to the burgeoning polarization by becoming a snarky participant; but that only adds to the confusion, irritation and verbal violence.
We would do well to continue to learn from the people of Ukraine – and surrender to hope and solidarity. We can do this by deeper listening – and by claiming even more fiercely, that we are, somehow, in spite of it all, related to one another as fellow human beings.
Years ago I did a lot of white water canoeing. One thing I learned early on is to avoid getting caught in a hyrdraulic, which happens when the force of plunging water creates an equal force of water pushing back. Canoes frequently capsize when they hit a hydraulic, throwing paddlers into the water. If not adequately provisioned with life jackets, the temptation is to fight the opposing waves and get above all the turbulence. People frequently end up drowning because the water force is just too strong. Accrued wisdom over the years suggests that when one is caught in a hydraulic, instead of fighting to get on top, to surrender by diving down where one will meet a slower undercurrent, which can then carry a person to calmer waters.
On January 6, the western Christian world will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. It commemorates the journey three Wise Men took from a foreign country to bring gifts to a new-born child, whom they had heard was the hope for the world. Theirs was a long journey, full of risks. Tradition has it that they were led by a star. When they reached the baby, they surrendered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Most of the hymns and creches suggest a scene of serenity (“all is calm, all is bright”) But the serenity was surrounded by violence. King Herod was threatened by the birth of the new-born King, and to erase any possibility of competition he had all new-born baby boys slaughtered (December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents). The Wise Men, figuring that they would be slain as well, because Herod didn’t want them telling their story to anyone – particularly in their distant country, skipped out on a meeting with Herod and went home by another way.
They didn’t capitulate to Herod. But they did surrender to what they saw when they left their gifts. They saw hope bathed in light – centered in an on an infant. It was a hope that they couldn’t unsee, a hope which transformed their lives. In The Journey of the Magi, poet T.S. Eliot describes their return: “We returned t our places, these Kingdoms/ But no longer at ease here/in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”
They surrendered to a new life. It wasn’t easy for them. But it led to a deeper, bigger, and more abiding life than the one they left.
Happy new year.