We must learn to live comfortably between effort and surrender."
One morning I awoke with these two clear and distinct ideas in my head. And then they merged gracefully into this nugget. So I decided to break it down to see what I could learn.
What can we really control?
Our phones and computers typically behave as expected. Until Google Chrome hangs or an app crashes over and over again. We turn on the faucet marked “H” and water flows out and warms up after a few seconds. Until the day it doesn’t. And we discover our water heater needs replacing. The weather pays us no mind at all, regardless of the forecast. Traffic during our commute ebbs and flows without any obvious pattern… or concern for how late to work we are.
Human interactions provide perhaps the greatest opportunity to see how little control we have over outcomes.
Years ago I was in a new relationship. My inner romantic surfaced one afternoon and in an attempt to be charming I gathered a bouquet of local wildflowers for my date on the way to her house. When I arrived and presented them to her at the front door, she looked surprised, then awkward, and said “Thanks, but I don’t believe in cut flowers. I think they should be left in the ground for everyone to enjoy. I do love potted plants, though!”
Um… ok then. So much for good intentions! And so much for our relationship, which ended shortly thereafter.
When we contemplate how much of life is within vs. outside of our control, we can see that there is very little over which we have true agency.
When life throws us curveballs, we have 2 primary options:
1. Get frustrated or even angry. React negatively.
2. Practice acceptance. Remain calm. Take it in stride.
Right, acceptance. The oft-suggested panacea for all things troubling. A spiritually-evolved way to go through life.
Let’s try it out.
Walking down the street, we inadvertently step on a large canine land mine on the sidewalk. Deep breath. Cue positive mental attitude: “No worries… I’ll just clean that out of the tread of my shoe with a toothbrush when I get home.”
Another deep breath. Aaack—that stinks! Nope, hold the breath… hold the breath! Try positive self-talk again: "Ah, it's ok. I'm so relieved I'm not wearing my new boots!" Resume calm. Continue walking.
It begins to rain. “Oh well, so what… I’m getting wet. It’s only temporary. Every other time I’ve gotten wet I’ve dried. Plus, my shoes might be getting clean now! No worries.” Mental peace recovered again.
But acceptance without discernment is not the solution either.
I have a few friends who love to use the phrase “it’s all good”. Whenever anything negative occurs. From mildly bad to utterly horrific. And to be honest, it irks me sometimes. It’s as if they have become numb. Like nothing at all affects them anymore. Overly passive. Not real.
I know this because it’s happened to me too. I’ve tilted towards that extreme before. And it didn’t bring me true peace. Because it didn’t feel authentic.
The other extreme? What we’re more likely familiar with: control. Being a control freak even.
Planning and thinking and scheming and scheduling and predicting. Exerting our will. Being strong. Fueled by our extreme ability to calculate and process and analyze and conclude. Often correctly. And then moving further on that insight.
Otherwise known as taking action. Without which nothing in this world would get done.
Clearly action, and the effort we generate that catalyzes it, is key to life.
Yet still we miss flights because there is a pile-up on I5 and we can’t get to SeaTac despite leaving our house in plenty of time.
What’s the answer?
The key I’ve found is to position myself between these 2 extremes.
In the middle ground.
I do my best. Take whatever action I feel is most appropriate. But I turn over the results. Release them. Surrender. Because I don’t really have control anyway. Not over other people, places or things. Complete control is an illusion. And letting go is a big step to freedom.
I call that state of mind “the sweet spot”. Living comfortably… between effort and surrender.
And then I make it my home.
That is my daily practice in a nutshell. And my aspiration. I certainly can’t sustain it 24x7 (and some days 10 minutes is hard), but I try. Applying effort here is key.
If there is a single perspective I’ve held in my life that’s brought me inner peace despite turmoil, and steady progress without excessive pushing, it is this mindset.
May you find it swiftly. And may it bring you inner peace too.