The Art of Surrender—Hard for Men




Shortly before I sat down to compose my inaugural post for the Whysmen Virtual Pub, I was scheduled for rotator cuff surgery. I had fallen some weeks earlier, landing hard on my shoulder and, having been reassured by doctors (plural) that nothing was broken, I assumed the pain would subside. I carried on with my life, even going on vacation—but the nagging pain in my arm did not go away.

Turns out, I was asking the wrong question. No, nothing was broken, but I had torn my rotator cuff. I came to understand that the rotator cuff is a group of four tendons that form a “cuff” over the upper end of the arm and provides stability to the shoulder joint. This enables you to lift and rotate your arm so you can throw a fast ball, hoist your kids in the air, change an overhead lightbulb, etc. My fall caused a partial tear in two of these tendons and a total tear (in medical jargon: a full-thickness rotator cuff tear involving the anterior supraspinatus) in a third. Surgery was the only solution.

It was to be out-patient, arthroscopic surgery with a local anesthetic. I had recently been through some far more serious medical crises (I’ll share these stories in future posts) and so I figured this would qualify as a relatively minor procedure. Wrong again! During prep for the operation, a surgical team of a dozen or so doctors, nurses and technicians scurried about making sure that my vitals were stable, my recent encounter with someone who tested positive for Covid was not an issue and results from a traumatic brain injury from a decade ago were carefully recorded to alert doctors that I was not having a stroke while under the (tiny, arthroscopic) knife.

Giving up control

They administered a nerve block in my shoulder that made my entire arm a dead weight and I was told that the (heretofore-advertised as local) anesthesia would put me under. As the oxygen mask closed around my nose and mouth, I realized that I had no choice at that moment but total surrender—to trust the doctors that I would regain consciousness and that my healing process would begin. It was then, as I slipped from consciousness that it struck me how hard it is for men to give up control.

We men are never taught the art of surrender, how to relinquish power with dignity and grace. In fact, the opposite is true. I consider myself a “liberated man” (is that term still viable?), not wed to traditional Western images of manhood—the strong, silent, warrior/protector type. I value empathy and inclusivity, being a facilitator and a healer much more than a dominating force that gets one’s way through power or deviousness.

We men are never taught the art of surrender, how to relinquish power with dignity and grace. In fact, the opposite is true.

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Yet, I grew up in the US during the reign of Gunsmoke and The Gipper. I see these cultural icons as artificial and unhelpful, but try as I might, those old tapes are deeply embedded and emerge in times of uncertainty, doubt and fear. But there, on the operating room gurney, I had no choice but to trust and succumb. 

While my body lay inert (a nerve block is a powerful thing!), my mind skipped and hopped from subject to subject and I thought about my new commitment to write periodic blog posts for the Whysmen Virtual Pub. For the past six years. I have written a weekly blog that weaves together three strands—personal anecdotes, reflections on ancient texts and commentary on current political and cultural issues (you can find all 300 posts, listed chronologically, here). My writings have been for a general audience and so I intend to shift the focus, targeting men—mostly men “of a certain age”—about issues that confront us. So while awaiting the anesthesia to take effect, I thought that the “art of surrender” might be a good place to begin. By exploring this topic—in all its anti-traditional male trappings—and applying it to what it means to be a man in our 21st century world, might be a good place to start.

Acknowledging my limits

What, then, are the elements in such an artistic pursuit? First, and perhaps most difficult, is to recognize and own our limitations and to be okay with them. We need to acknowledge that there are times when our capacity is not unlimited and that we must give in to achieve our full manhood. Part of my career was spent directing improvisational theatre and I’d frequently share a principle with our actors that to create successful improvisations, you must lose to win. How do we lose in the moment while maintaining our integrity? This becomes the challenge.

The next step is to acknowledge our limits as we reach out for help to those who are closest to us. As I write this, I am at this stage now—asking my wife Blythe, my life’s partner, to undertake certain rudimentary (and sometimes humbling) tasks that rotator cuff recovery renders impossible because I cannot lift my arm.

Pain as a sign of strength

A third step is to continually weigh the temptation to slack off in repairing (a shoulder, a reputation, a relationship) because it is too much effort while recognizing the need for the rest or reflection necessary for healing. As an athlete in my youth (including a brief cup of coffee in Division I intercollegiate athletics), a central tenet in the mythology of the all-American male, was “no pain, no gain.” To play through pain was normative. Dreading the idea that I would appear “soft” to coaches and teammates, the idea of stepping back when encountering pain or distress was anathema. Only much later did I learn that acknowledging pain and identifying its source was a sign of strength, and an essential part of the art of surrender and in the healing process that followed.

The ultimate victory

Finally, it is important to recognize and affirm that the discipline of accepting limited, temporary surrenders can lead to ultimate victory does not mean denying talents and capabilities, or living in fear or shrinking from responsibilities, but recognizing their limits and building those limits into a lifestyle that is open and aware of who you are and how you can live your life as a strong and generous man grounded in love and empathy.

  • Well said, Bob, as always! Thinking about Marshall Dillon being imprinted in my brain as a man in his 70’s is illuminating and helpful.

  • Thanks a lot dear Bob for reflecting on this important subject and aspect of surrender.
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts.
    Thanks s lot!

  • Thank you Bob. Wisdom. I’ve enjoyed reading this and realize how hard it is for me to put surrender into words, but I have reflected on what “surrender ” in my world looks like , and reflecting and posting this here is cleansing for me.

    Here are a few of my recent surrenders. My comment reflects the context in your blog of surrender as it refers to “knowing my limits”

    My disabled brother has type 2 diabetes is mentally challenged. I am his caregiver. He only eats carbs, mostly bad ones. I have been trying to get him to change his eating habits for three years with the help of a dietician . His latest blood test had an A1C of 7.2 ,not good. He refuses to change his diet wants to rely on medication. I surrender.

    My closed Monday men’s group wants to remain small and insular even though I am running this global connection “Pub” and have been trying to get them broaden their perspectives. I surrender

    This community I’m building, this Whysmen’s Pub , I Surrender to the men who want to get involved and take the Pub to places i could never imagine. My limitations of who I actually am will deny this work of “what it could be” – in order for it to be all it can be – I must surrender

    Thank you Bob

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