Terms like “resignation,” “surrender,” and “submission” are practically cuss words in Western culture–certainly in America, anyway. Americans are brought up to believe that we should never give in to anybody, never submit to anything, and always be in control. We’re led to believe that strength always requires this kind of control, and so we tend to think of things like drug trafficking, terrorism, and our own habits as things we need to wage war on rather than things we simply need to find solutions to. Drug trafficking and terrorism are way, way outside the scope of this site, but there’s a crucial lesson about habits here. That lesson is resignation: to truly conquer bad habits, we need to surrender to our own best choices.
The kind of surrender we’re talking about here isn’t the kind where you give up your will to another person, or another force, or someone else’s ideas: instead, it’s letting go of things that may feel comfortable or at least familiar but that are holding you back, like broken ideas, and being willing to make new choices. It’s giving up the things we think we want, when necessary, to achieve the goals that are actually most important to us.
One example that many of us struggle with on a daily basis is priorities. If a person honestly has more things to get done than they’re able to handle, as many of us do, really taking control of the situation requires, strangely enough, letting go of some control. To put it plainly, if I have more to do than I can accomplish, then I’ll be able to handle things best if I resign myself to the fact that certain of those things aren’t going to done–and use that new point of view to make sure the most important items will get done.
Failing to resign ourselves in situations like that means that the things left undone are determined by whim and chance instead of by choice. If I “need” to practice some music, buy some new shoes for my son, exercise, answer some e-mails, and look up a new book I heard about, yet don’t have time for all of those things, then I run the danger of running out of time and (for instance) not getting the shoes and not exercising. As a matter of fact, I may naturally gravitate toward the least important and most immediately appealing of those things, like playing the music and surfing the Web reading reviews of the book. When I explain why I didn’t exercise or buy the shoes later, I may say “I just ran out of time.” Yet in actuality, not resigning myself to the time limitations in the first place meant that I really would have been choosing to do the less important things over the shoes and the exercise. If I resign myself to not having time to learn new music and buy new books, I might get done everything I actually need to get done, and while this may seem less appealing in the moment, over the long term I’m likely to experience more pleasure and more happiness because of having made these seemingly less appealing choices.
Which leads us to another important place for resignation: easy pleasure now versus happiness in future. For instance, I regularly do push-ups, building up my strength both for general health and as part of my Taekwondo training. In the moments I’m doing them, push-ups are hard to enjoy: they make me breathe hard and cause my muscles to strain in a way that feels suspiciously like mild pain. Yet if I don’t resign myself to experiencing this mild pain, then I’ll tend to avoid push-ups most of the time and won’t experience the pleasure of having that strength and being able to do the things push-ups allow me to do (even if that’s mainly just more push-ups).
Another kind of resignation that can make a world of difference in self-motivation is resigning ourselves to take responsibility rather than putting the blame outside ourselves. For instance, if a person has major financial problems but fails to take action because they feel those problems are mainly other people’s faults, they’ll most likely continue to have financial problems. It’s giving up that excuse of blaming outside conditions and resigning ourselves to take responsibility for our own lives that enables us to have some power over our situation.
There’s a surprising and wonderful side effect to resignation, too: it makes unenjoyable things more enjoyable. When I resign myself to doing push-ups, I’m no longer telling myself “These are hard. These are painful. I don’t want to do these.” Instead I’m saying “Time to do some push-ups. I can manage this.” This doesn’t make the exercise any more physically comfortable, but it frees up my attention to focus on things like the power I’m feeling in my muscles and the joy I can take in increasing my personal record, doing a few more push-ups than I’ve ever done in one go before. There are elements to enjoy in virtually any seemingly unenjoyable step to a worthwhile goal. Even hunger can bring a smile to your face if you resign yourself to a little of it (in a healthy context) and begin to experience it as the sensation that often goes with your body burning stored calories–and I say this from experience. But more on enjoying the unenjoyable in another post, because that’s a big subject.
So how do we know when to use resignation in our lives? Resignation is needed whenever we know what we need to do but are having trouble bringing ourselves to do it.
Resigning ourselves, as much as it sounds like knuckling under, is really much more like bravery than cowardice. We can go out and face the dangers that worry us and surrender ourselves to the possibility that we might be hurt, might have to go through something difficult, or might fail; or we can hide and hope that things will just somehow work out, often ensuring hurt and difficulty and failure. Surrender here means not giving up what’s important, but giving up what isn’t: more often than not we need to give up things we think we want in order to get the things we really want.