Tuesday, July 23, 2013


I don't want people to get the wrong impression about this blog or my personal philosophy on life. While much of this blog (perhaps too much, back to game design?) is dedicated to thinking through proactive actions I want to take towards being a better person, there is a nasty downside that must be addressed.

By reaching towards action -- by being predisposed towards feeling like if we do nothing we have failed -- we develop a very strong feeling of Meritocracy and Just World Fallacy. We, in essence, start to believe that through our own actions, on the other side of struggles and depressions that there is an inevitable payout. IF I am careful with my money, THEN I will have financial security. IF I am always honest, THEN people will believe me and I will have a good reputation. IF I love someone, THEN they will love me back. IF I am a good person, THEN good things will happen.

But, quite honestly, the world doesn't work that way.

I'm sure we all know this to some degree. You just have to check the news and see all the pain and suffering in this world. Random natural disasters change lives indiscriminately and without warning. Charlatans roam the streets taking things away from the good and honest. We like to say that "crime doesn't pay" and yet plenty of criminals safely hoard away cash. Otherwise healthy people mysteriously get cancer. Loved ones get in an accident and are suddenly gone without warning. Reputations are sullied by slander and never restored. It is no wonder many are bleak and cynical; seeing the universe as uncaring and random.

But just like the Gambler's Fallacy, we expect things to eventually even out. A kind of Westernized Karma that eventually people will get their just rewards. We like to think if I just prepare hard enough I will be ready. If only I had done X, then Y wouldn't have happened. We prefer to feel like we have agency in our lives and control, especially when things seem to spiral out of control. On the flip side, successful people must have done something special to make it. CEOs spew out books of how to succeed, and people gobble them up (even as they contradict each other). Biographies of stars give prime real estate to particular mantras they lived by and millions quote them trying to graft them onto their lives.

I approve of this mindset. Most of this blog is about me working through active motions towards a better me. But this world-view has a costly downside. As discussed in this TED talk, meritocracies tend to have a strong correlation with rates of depression. The more you feel you have agency over your success, the more dissatisfied you become with your current state. Some argue that this may be OK, and people merely need to toughen up and keep striving. But eventually the world will come crashing down, and you will have no agency whatsoever over the circumstances. What then?

I propose that we practice the concept of surrendering.

First, let me break down what the word means. It is an active word. I do not propose you "give up" since that is resignation and has passive connotations. I argue surrendering is the active motion of intentionally surveying the situation and choosing it is better to surrender than keep fighting. Also, surrendering typically has a second-party component. You always surrender to someone -- or something -- else. Armies and nations surrender to one another. You can surrender to your circumstances or emotions. Someone or something else will accept your surrender and occupy the dominant position.

So, what do we surrender to? I could probably write a series of posts on this alone, but let me run through a few examples briefly.

First, be able to surrender to your emotions. The Usual Error uses the phrase, "We're made of meat" to describe how we as humans are giant barrels of needs and sloshing chemicals. We are not perfectly rational creatures, try as we might to pretend otherwise. We irrationally desire affirmation, even when we cognitively know we are secure. We will feel depressed and lonely, perhaps even after a rousing party with family and friends has just ended. And I think that is OK. I try to allow myself to have feelings and not rail against myself for feeling them. Instead of fighting them, and more importantly instead of wallowing in them, you can try to process them. The act of surrendering also means not going down the rabbit hole of understanding the why of the emotions. You Are Not So Smart's article Misattribution of Arousal details how terrible we are at deciphering why we feel the emotions we do. So surrender to them. Be able to feel them and don't fret over the reason.[1]

Surrendering to circumstances is also important. This is perhaps very obvious in most situations. As a given I don't own a house nor have a million dollars, so I act appropriately. But this is also important when thinking about other things. As much as I may love milk products, if I develop lactose intolerance due to my genetics I can no longer enjoy them (at least without buying medication or suffering lots of gas). I can fight it all I want, but my body and genetics will say otherwise. If circumstantially someone has to move away for perhaps a job, it is important to come to terms with that. Missing them is natural (see previous paragraph) but you can't pine over them forever. To a small extent we can control our environment, but at the end of the day you have to accept what is around you.

I would also argue we need to work on surrendering to others. Too often we think of ourselves as the most important thing in the world. I am right, I am important, it's My time you are wasting, the list goes on and on. But service and humility are huge in my mind. From a practical side it helps realign your perspective to focus on others instead of yourself. Turning in on yourself is perhaps the most surefire way to become depressed. This also encompasses a broad spectrum, including submitting to others' advice and accepting help. At the very least be able to concede some measure of pride, ego, and control. This comes up in debates all the time. Fred Clark write that debates end up being about winning and showing yourself in control and right. Being able to concede to superior arguments and seek truth is extremely hard to do in our bubble-echo-chamber world. We would rather temporarily concede and come back with more arguments in our salvo. Instead, submit with respect when beat.

As a Christian, I would say the greatest surrendering is towards God. In his post trying to detail what Sin is, Zack Hunt writes, "The sin of Adam and Eve was their attempt to become God. The sin of Adam and Eve was idolatry... We grasp at divinity." In this context, Sin is not from legalism or "missing the mark" as much as rejecting God and putting ourselves in his place. We think we know better and can do better and go trotting on our merry way towards death. The cure? Surrendering to the will of God. Taking on His goals, burdens, and values and trying to live life with His mindset. This is also a form of extremely active submission. This is not about just giving up on certain actions. More often it is being prodded towards particular other actions. Submission here is more about doing the actions God calls us to do. And, if you believe the Bible, it also means God will use His power to work through you and empower you to things you couldn't do on your own.

Practicing surrendering is not the same as giving up and crawling into a shell. One piece of poetry I find impactful is "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" (Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas). I don't think we should just float through life. We can swim and aim for goals. But don't be afraid to let the currents take you somewhere else. Find a balance, or else you'll just tire your arms and legs and drown. And just remember, life will always go on. Some would even say "It's just a ride" (Bill Hicks). So stop micromanaging everything. It's not your fault. You have permission to feel, to stumble, and to give something else power over you.

[1] While most of this post is very bleak and on coping with negative things, surrendering to emotions is a great example of the flip side as well. When you feel joy and happiness and contentment, surrender to it!

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