Knowing when to surrender

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(I owe it to Waitbutwhy.com for showing me that relentlessly challenging the status quo isn’t as absurd of a life philosophy as I thought.)

I can still remember how unmistakably shitty I felt after failing a dreaded algebra test in the seventh grade. The feelings of defeat that kept jabbing at me after I received my results only intensified after I saw that I couldn’t succeed even after investing hours of consistent effort. I felt powerless, as if I couldn’t control my performance nor my fate no matter how hard I struggled. After I sought the counsel of friends, most of whom offered sympathy and carefree shrugs, this idea seduced me: Maybe I’m just bad at math. Yeah, that’s right, I’m just not a math person. I relished such a bold declaration, where I could take ownership of the failure as a confirmation of my true identity as a non-math person. The best part about such an announcement was that I gave myself permission to stop trying, and to stop being hard on myself about struggling with the subject: I’ve honestly never felt more free. I’d just invited myself into the not-math-person club, where I could confidently hang all my math failures out to dry in the sun, and meet not scorn, but acceptance and the occasional high five. But as the year progressed and my grades took an even lower dip, larger and larger stones steadily chipped away at my armor until I finally shook myself awake. What was I doing to myself? Was accepting my circumstances for the way they were a wise choice to preserve my mental health and to make me happier, or was I doing an injustice to myself for refusing to go the extra mile with just a little more elbow grease?

The idea of this ceaseless friction between peaceful acceptance and willful perseverance has quietly followed me here to college, where I’m really starting to see its relevance in the conflict between Eastern and Western philosophies, and also in my own quest for personal growth. And so I’ve started obsessively digging for the “best” life motto: to grind up, to properly chew, and to emulate the workings of that one glowing paragon out there who represents to me how I should be.

Defining the meaning of wisdom was the first thing on my to-do list. Duh. People seem to give it such importance, but very few seem to know exactly what it means. To me, it’s a concept that encourages people to accept inevitable truths with poise and equanimity or to view things from a wide-enough angle to see every event as part of a larger fabric. It also seems to be a popular idea in old Eastern philosophies that one should accept universal “truths” and learn to live in harmony with them. For my seventh grade self, my change in perspective– attributing my sub-par school performance to a trait beyond my control rather than laziness or inadequate effort– saved me from an unhealthy stay in the murky realm of self-blame and anxious striving. In Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, Dr. Gawande shows his sympathy for patients who try to fight tenaciously against death at the expense of their quality of life; he believed that only when people could calm down enough to stop struggling against their own mortality could they really make the most out of their time left ( Dr. Ken Murray also gives his two cents about the same issue). In Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, she argues that despairing writers should subscribe to the idea of an external creative “genius” that acts on its own volition and calls all the shots. Many self-help books and religions reveal that the most effective ways to alleviate chronic senses of despair and inadequacy have to do with forgoing some responsibility in life. All of these voices that I’ve heard from different directions during my hunt for wisdom all seemed to point to the notion of letting go.

I’ve also started noticing the steady rise in a counterculture of thought amongst millennials– something riding upon the same giant wave that’s bringing yoga and Buddhist meditation to the West– that the elusive happiness that we crave, comes not from the relentless pursuit of making change in the world, but rather from loosening our grip on the wheel and working instead for more internal balance. Many people are fleeing the merciless race to achievement and the striving for material pleasures because they think that a life muddled in affairs too close to earth or too focused on the tools in front of us aren’t going to ignite the happiness within us. This kind of thinking forces us to stop ourselves in our industrious tracks, making us fumble to justify why we care so much about advancing science or struggling to swim against the insurmountable challenges of life with our measly man-made gadgets and robots. I mean, just think about it: we are just ants walking around on this speck called Earth in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard for the universe to give two shits about your life when it just comes and goes like a finger snap. If a constant state of awareness like that doesn’t make you reach for the nearest bottle of whiskey or start making you really spiritual, I don’t know what will. By the time I reached this point in my quest, ensconced in a deep jungle of quotes by the Dalai Lama and jaded intellectuals, I was convinced that I have found the answers I wanted. A truly wise person, I concluded, is someone who is humble, conscientious, and, most importantly, knows how to surrender.

And then I started reading about Elon Musk. Actually, not just Musk, but a whole breed of similarly awe-inspiring visionaries that have dotted human history and repeatedly turned humankind’s understanding of reality on its head with their contributions: the earth being round, the discovery of subatomic particles, the invention of light bulbs, just to name a few. Many of these people accumulated a cult-like following, and have become popular targets of both envy and admiration. Yet when it came to the respectable sage-like presence I pictured according to my definition of wisdom, scarcely any of these influential thinkers fit the bill. I didn’t have to scroll down far in the Wikipedia articles about Steve Jobs or Isaac Newton or Thomas Edison to see that they were pretty uncompromising, a little bit egotistical, and ruthlessly ambitious– a far cry from whatever qualities I had previously thought were so admirable in my role models.But you know what, these dudes are like the real MVP’s. I admire these people like the true fangirl I am.

These are the people who won’t surrender, and never will. These are the people who throw their lives on the line and put all their eggs in a single basket to challenge the status quo. Many of these stalwart visionaries are so invested in their convictions and ideas that they would unblinkingly bust through every barrier of skepticism with nothing but an ironclad will and a flaming ego. How could they be so unwise… yet so ahead of their time? These people, were, for lack of a better word, foolish. Look at any brash and naive child who won’t seem to stop announcing that he would be the greatest (blank) in the world when he grows up. Imagine twenty-year-old Elon Musk telling his skeptical superiors with the conviction that he would one day send humans to Mars, or start an electric car uprising. Delusional, then, but prophetic now. These people have shamelessly marched right into some of the most “unwise” stunts in history, survived, and forever changed humankind in their wake. Foolish visionaries are the ones that question if these so-called “unstoppable forces” of fate that people have drawn in the sand are actually as insurmountable as they appear. To them, the real wisdom isn’t in surrendering to these arbitrary boundary lines, but in constantly trying to test them or overstep them. Perhaps I, in the seventh grade, could have instead told my superiors that I would stop at nothing to be the world’s most influential mathematician. Me, not a math person? No such thing. Realizing the enormity of what I just realized made me experience a phenomenon that some people colloquially call, a mind-blow. I didn’t exactly see bits of skull and grey matter fling at the walls around me, though I could probably imagine it.

Watching the select few steamroll right through obstacles that would otherwise be declared “out of one’s control” made me seriously wonder if all of this know-when-to-surrender indoctrination is really doing us any disservice. A doctor nobly writing the message, DO NOT RESUSCITATE on his chest in a statement to show dignified surrender in the face of death receives deference and respect. But a parent writing DO NOT VACCINATE on his child is a heinous injustice that would provoke outrage, as we agree today that illness, unlike death, is an obstacle that has been conquered in the past, and can be controlled. Surrendering is only a noble thing when the walls around you are impenetrable, and you can say for sure that there’s no alternative. But I know now that I would never know for sure if there will be such a case. The walls are soft. You might remark, there will always be some things that we can’t tamper with– like death! All living things before us have reached their inevitable deaths, so therefore death and aging is a universal law that we have no choice but to get on our knees and surrender to. Well, actually, not so fast: apparently there’s a budding field out there called cryonics (which I think is worthy enough to plant a seed of doubt in the absoluteness of death in my humble opinion), and you could also beat down the inductive reasoning of the previous statement with a similar argument that applies to every piece of technology that we have today: No large rectangular rocks that existed in the universe in the last trillion years had ever been able to produce vibrant moving pictures of football games and emit sounds from its surface, so therefore, their nonexistence is a decree by cosmic law (preposterous!). The realization that we really don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t fundamentally know what we can’t know, is startling. All I can say is, I know now not to throw my hands up and surrender too soon.

Needless to say, these thoughts made me draw a red line straight through whatever I had first written down in my brain labeled as the “best life motto”. I still believe in being conscientious and putting things in perspective, but now I don’t see so much harm anymore in rolling up my sleeves for a proper brawl against my toughest math classes.

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Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student || gloriawfeng.com

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