Our entire lives seem to be a battle between independence and surrender. We seek independence at an early age and relish it for much of our lives. My two year old niece enjoys the freedom of saying “no” and running where she wants, when she wants. My nephews want to help with chores and frequently refuse help for themselves, instead wanting to demonstrate their ability to do it on their own. As adults, we are quick to forget there is any uniqueness in driving where we want, buying what we want, and living how we want.
Age or misfortune catches up to us and we soon find ourselves losing our independence. We can fight this inevitable fate, but it will only breed bitterness and malcontent. Eventually, we must surrender. In the spiritual life, we can learn this gift of surrender earlier. Relinquishing control of our lives, realizing that we are not the ones in control or willing our own existence, can prepare us for the gradual physical surrender that must happen.
My grandparents are aging and I see the fighting that takes place within them. I do not blame their desire to grasp their dwindling freedom or to express frustration at a body that is now turning against them. The simple freedoms are gradually slipping away–no walking around the block, no trips to the grocery store, no single bed for them to share. The task of getting ready for bed, something so mundane one often forgets it, is now one that requires help. Waiting outside their bedroom as they were ushered to bed, I thought of how someday that will be me, helping my parents. And perhaps someday it will be me, being helped to bed. Inwardly, I rebel at the thought. I think that I will break the mold, I will not need the help, I will do it on my own.
When visiting them, I can sense the mounting frustration. There seems to be both a desire to return to health and a desire to die. My grandparents have not aged prematurely. In their late 80s-early 90s, they are as fit as one might expect them to be. Thankfully, they are ill in body but, apart from a little confusion, sound in mind. I wonder what to say—do I speak of suffering? Do I remind them to be thankful of their blessings? Do I try to lighten the mood? Mostly, I just listen. I listen to my grandpa tell me about the picture of grandma now on the piano. He says he wanted it there because that is how she looked when they met. Her beauty floored him. I listen to my grandma talk about one of my many cousins. Her life for so many years has been about others, even now she finds it difficult to draw conversation to herself. I listen to my grandpa’s worries and fears. I listen to my grandma attempt to follow my mom around the kitchen, asking what she needs help with and telling her what to do.
While age has forced my grandparents to lose independence, illness can do the same for others far younger. I have a friend from college who has been battling a debilitating illness for the last three years. It causes her intelligent brain to rebel against reading more than a few lines at a time and forces her marathon trained body to be weak and unpredictable. I refuse to canonize her yet, but I have witnessed the beauty of her striving to surrender herself to God in His inscrutable plan. Such a situation could easily lead to depression and bitterness, but she is fighting the good fight, ironically by striving to lay down her arms.
How do we surrender? It is a choice. We can see physically our limitations. I can really want to do something yet find myself incapable. The spiritual limitations are less clear. With those, we can fool ourselves into thinking they aren’t there or that we have surrendered, simply by virtue of thinking the words once or twice.
In surrendering, we choose to not manipulate the situation, we choose to not be in control. After years of being told that we can do it and that we are the ones running our lives, it is counter-cultural to step back and release control. I can drive myself anywhere I want, I can eat whatever food I want, and I can spend my time as I choose. But I do not will my heart to keep beating, I cannot control the replication of my cells, and I am powerless in making myself continue to exist. For all the little things I doggedly control, I am incapable of controlling all the major aspects of my life. Accepting God’s authority in my life is central to becoming the saint He desires me to be.
Lord, help us to surrender, to admit with our lives that we are not the ones in control. In our inmost being we desire to belong to You and to give ourselves over to You. Grant us the grace to do so.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” John 21: 18