According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, the meaning of the word surrender is as follows:
1. to yield to the power, control, or possession of another upon compulsion or
to give up completely or agree to forgo especially in favor of another;
to give (oneself) up into the power of another especially as a prisoner;
to give (oneself) over to something (as an influence)
The antonym is, of course, to resist, to deny, or even to fight. In the context of a battle, resistance is typically championed, while surrendering means defeat. However, in many of the meditation and yoga classes I have taken, the connotations of both words are more often reversed: resisting that which you cannot change leads to suffering, while surrendering is likened to acceptance and equanimity. When you bring rheumatoid arthritis- or any chronic disease- into the picture, both of these concepts, with both of their connotations, are often at play.
When I first developed symptoms of RA, I was petrified.My body was suddenly full of pain, and I had no idea why. I spent the week after the first tests were done waiting anxiously for the results. Deep down, I knew something was wrong, but I wanted to resist and deny that it was true as much as possible. I did my best to carry on, pretending everything was the same until one day during that week, I tried to practice some simple yoga poses. The pain was so great and so restrictive that I wasn’t really able to do much more than lie down on the floor and put my feet up against a wall. My emotions had also hit a metaphorical wall, and finally, I came to the realization that pretending all this wasn’t happening, resisting my reality was only making me suffer more. I let the fear come in as I lay on the floor, and I let myself cry. I surrendered to the idea that something beyond my control was happening, that it was scary, and that it was bigger than anything I’d dealt with before. As soon as I let myself acknowledge all the fear and worry I had been holding at bay, I felt a little better somehow. I was able to move past the fear and focus instead on actions I could take once I knew what was behind all the pain and swollen joints.
But it wasn’t before long that this act of surrender gave way to full on pity, and then resistance once again. After finding out that the culprit was a nasty chronic disease, I went about resisting everything about it that I could. I didn’t want to surrender my heels, my vigorous yoga practice, or my social life. I didn’t want to have to change my life, because changing my life felt like I was losing myself, and that felt like the RA had won. My greatest fear was that I would become a prisoner to this disease, forever under its power. And yet, I had no choice but to put the heels back in the closet in favor of more practical shoes, and my vigorous yoga practice faded away into evenings spent on the couch feeling sorry for myself.
Finally, I decided to fight back in whatever way I could. I decided I wasn’t going to surrender what was most important to me- something that felt integral to my self-identity: traveling. Before my meds even kicked in, I began planning a huge trip to South America with friends that would span three weeks, encompass three countries, and include several physically challenging stops along the way. I accepted the fact that I would have to make some concessions, like taking the train to Machu Picchu rather than hiking along the Inca trail. I would have to adjust my medications and take an arsenal of others with me ‘in case.’ But I knew this was something I had to do- I had to prove to myself that I could still be me, even with RA.
When I got to the top of a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu and surveyed the majestic, magical place below, I felt triumphant and victorious. I had reclaimed my sense of self in the face of a difficult, unpredictable disease. And yet, in that moment I also felt a sense of peace, of surrendering to all that I could not know, imagine or control about my life, including how RA would continue to impact it.
In the years since, my understanding of these two concepts in relation to rheumatoid arthritis has continued to evolve and fluctuate. At times, resistance in the form of rebellion gives me a momentary feeling of accomplishment; the defiant act of slipping on a pair of too-high heels for an evening brings with it a sense of delicious, if naughty, satisfaction- a little coup against the regime of rheumatoid arthritis. But I have also learned that surrendering isn’t always a bad thing- accepting the fact that RA is a part of me and a part of my life has helped me to bear the bad days a little more gracefully and keep things in perspective. It has made it easier for me to take care of myself by resting rather than continuing to push push push all the time. Surrendering has, in many ways, given me permission to slow down sometimes and to savor the little pleasures in my life.
Sara is the author of the blog The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.