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Waiving the White Flag: What Surrender Really Means

Written by on 09 Sep 2014

Ahhhh waiving the white flag…

This simple gesture might be one of the most symbolic images in history.

And a vivid one, at that.

Just hearing the phrase “waiving the white flag” brings a few colorful scenes to mind. I’m sure you have a few as well. They might go a little something like this...

In the distance, a downtrodden, exhausted, battle-worn general rides slowing on horseback toward the enemy lines. Alone. Unarmed. Solemn. Broken down by the aggressor. Ready to submit. Agreeing to end the fighting, no matter the consequences.

Facing surrender.

Or what about this one.

Amidst open fire, a sweaty, dirty, beat-down girl huddles behind a blow-up barrier on a large paintball field. Alone. Armed. Terrified. Bombarded with pink, yellow, green, blue shots of paint. Unsure of how to counter-attack. Keenly aware of the surrounding army. The only sign of surrender is the white tissue she pulls from her pocket…

Which she still swears wasn’t for tears, but for sweat.

I’m sure you can venture a guess which image is pulled from the History Channel on TV and which is from the History Channel of my brain.

Regardless, these scenes elicit real feelings associated with impending doom.

When we think about waiving the white flag, we think about surrendering. We imagine scenes of battle in which one side has taken an unbearable advantage and the other has decided to call it quits. We think of words like giving up, conceding, and of course…

Defeat.

But what if we have the whole “surrendering” thing backwards?

What if, we’re completely wrong about what it means to “surrender”?

Go with me here.

Just a little bit of consultation with the Google and some Wiki-research is enough to set us straight about what surrender really means. Turns out, while the white flag may symbolize surrender in the traditional, militaristic sense, it is actually recognized internationally as a “protective sign of truce or ceasefire, and a request for negotiation.”

Think about that.

A protective sign of truce or ceasefire and a request for negotiation—you’re finally safe! Once you waive the white flag, the fighting can finally end. The weary can finally rest. The resolution can finally be found. Without the flag, the fighting continues, the killing continues, and the resolutions continues… only to be eluded.

The white flag is the first step to real resolution, real action.

It is not inaction.

So why can’t we think about surrender in that way?

Think about a battle you’re fighting right now, in your life. Against your neighbor. Against your teacher. Against your family. Or worst of all…

Against yourself.

What would it mean to you to be able to waive the white flag, feel safe from attack, and potentially approach a resolution?

Most especially if you’re fighting yourself.

The art of surrender is simply this: acceptance of what is and faith that all will be well.

That’s it.

You can waive the white flag, accept your present state, lean on your faith, and know that this is your first step toward ending the fighting.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am no master of surrender. I'm trying to get better, but in fact, I struggle with this IMMENSELY.

If there were a better word than immensely, one that conveyed the same sense of magnitude and extremity only bigger, I’d use it here. But, I think you get it.

At times, I’m a crazy control freak who worries that one second of lost vigilance will inevitably result in the worse possibly outcome imaginable, thus my reluctance to let go of control.

Thankfully, this feeling isn’t ever-present. I’ve slowly learned to let go of the little things like where the group wants to eat lunch (what if it isn’t paleo?!) or if I’ve packed every item imaginable for a trip (what if I need a jumpsuit?!) or which peanut butter to buy (why are there so many?!). But, in the big things, and I mean the really big things, I still worry. I still feel that tightening in my face, that tingling in my belly, and that racing in my mind that I might get something wrong. I might not be the best. I might not win.

I’ve recently learned… not everyone feels this way.

This realization… was mind-blowing.

I had assumed that everyone worried about stuff. A lot. Like me.

But then, one year ago, I met Cori.

Cori was my modus tollens… my black swan… my proof that there was an alternate possibility, an alternate way of being, and ultimately, an alternate way of surrender.

Cori and I met in 2013 on, you guessed it, Semester at Sea.

Cori is one of those people with whom you become insta-friends. She gives you every grace and the benefit of every doubt, and chooses to engage. This was evidenced by the fact that, within minutes of meeting, we were planning a trip together. It was also evidenced by the fact that, 3 months later, she made me a goodbye video that included this little gem of a line:

“Incredibly, unconditionally, all the time, no matter what, good mood, bad mood, whatever you need, I’m there for you.”

In short, she’s friggin’ awesome.

She also has this amazing gift that I’ve been envious of and tried to emulate since we met.

She seems to have mastered the art surrender.

She knows how to let go. She knows when to waive the white flag. She understands what surrender really is.

If surrender were a martial art, Cori would have black belt. If surrender were a culinary art, she’d have four Michelin stars. If surrender were a performing art, she’d have a Grammy, Tony, Oscar, and Emmy, all in the same year.

You get the idea.

I didn’t recognize this skill of hers as surrender until a recent trip to the Derby with her and several other friends from SAS.

In our usual fashion, we were sitting under the stars, late at night, discussing life. We started talking about what we wanted to do, see, accomplish… bring to the world… anything. And Cori stayed quiet for a while, but broke the silence with yet another gem:

“You know… I get what you guys are saying about worrying. But I see it differently. I mean, overall, life is pretty good. Yes, there are ups and downs, but overall, things have worked out. So I just keep going, and continue to believe that things will work out in the future.”

Boom.

Drop the mic.

Surrender FTW.

There’s a real, simple beauty in Cori’s words.

Remember, surrender is acceptance of what is (the present moment, any situation) and faith that all will be well (trusting in God, believing in something bigger than yourself).

It’s not inaction. Cori works her butt off, runs cross-country track, goes to college, and takes amazing care of her friends and family. She doesn’t use surrender as an excuse to do nothing. She uses it to fuel her efforts and not waste any energy on worry.

It’s not giving up. Cori doesn’t lament or question—she acts. She goes through life seeking, doing, and caring, but not carrying the weight of it all. She continues to move forward with faith and assurance that all will be well.

It’s not about being “wrong.” In fact, if you surrender the outcomes of all of your actions, there is no “wrong,” because there is no expected outcome. Cori puts her best foot forward and leaves her life open to all the possibilities that come with letting go of one path in favor of any path.

Once again, I suck at this. Don’t be fooled. Even while leaning on my Catholic faith, I often resist letting go of the reins. Life is a process, in that way.

The greatest irony here is that giving into surrender can sometimes feel forceful—like you’re trying to control letting go of control. Making it happen rather than letting it happen.

(If your brain needs a rest after that one, I understand. Mine did too.)

And sometimes it’s the best advice we give to others that we struggle to take ourselves.

But, if you practice it, like any art, you will get better.

In the song 10,000 Hours, a homage to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory on the art of mastery, Macklemore has these choice lyrics about great artists:

See, I observed Escher

I love Basquiat

I watched Keith Haring

You see I study art

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint

The greats were great because they paint a lot

You are no different.

You can be the next master of surrender, if you just surrender… a lot!

Don’t force it. Just practice. Allow it to become a part of you. Pray for it. Bring it into being. Slowly but surely, in 10,000 hours (or maybe less), you’ll get it.

Yes, that may be a long time, but Cori and I would venture to ask…

Wouldn’t that still be worth it?

**********

 What areas of your life could use some surrendering? Who is your personal role model when it comes to the art of surrender?

I believe that stories unite us. These stories can be traced back to one person, conversation, or observation that provided a turning point in our lives. I’d love to hear if you believe this, too.

Did this story resonate with you? Or did it make you think of a story of your own? Share your story or your reaction in the comments below.

Because sharing stories an instinctual, powerful way to touch the hearts of others and change the world around us.


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