What Does It Mean to Surrender?

What do you think of when you think of the word “surrender”? Giving up? Losing? Admitting defeat? “Surrender” is frequently used in the context of speaking about a battle or in giving up something you don’t want to lose, such as your rights or property. In the traditional sense of the word, surrender is not such an appealing concept.

But what if surrender could mean all of those things—battles lost, giving up, and admitting defeat—and actually be a positive action? What if, instead of being a mark of failure, surrender could bring our greatest success?

“When first challenged to admit defeat, most of us revolted. We had approached AA expecting to be taught self-confidence. Then we had been told that so far as alcohol was concerned, self-confidence was no good whatever; in fact it was a total liability. There is no such thing as personal conquest of the alcoholic consumption by the unaided will.” (AA Twelve And Twelve, 22)

We have been fighting battles against ourselves and our alcoholism for longer than we can remember. Though many of us come into AA expecting to find the weapons to finally “win” the battle against addiction, we find some very different suggestions. In the battle with alcohol, our aim is not to beat it or subdue it or to put ourselves back in charge. The very idea is to give up, to admit defeat, and to quit fighting.

Though the idea of defeat and giving up suggests weakness, those who are recovering from their alcoholism find that it is actually their greatest source of strength. Instead of the never-ending cycle of attempt and failure, AA presents us with a new opportunity: lay down your weapons, stop fighting, and embrace powerlessness.

“Such is the paradox of AA regeneration: strength arising out of complete defeat and weakness, the loss of one’s old life as a condition for finding a new one.” (AA Comes of Age, 46)

This is a scary prospect. We assume that if we admit defeat then we are, in essence, handing ourselves over to alcoholic death. That isn’t the idea. You are not choosing to succumb; you are choosing to end the battle.

When an alcoholic drinks, he or she must constantly swim against a raging undertow that threatens only to drown and destroy. The alcoholic, prideful and maybe a little delusional, insists that the challenge can be met and overcome. But time after time, they find themselves pulled under. For the one who is an alcoholic and who cannot control his or her drinking, the suggestion is not to swim harder and it isn’t to succumb to the threatening waters. There is a wiser option and it is simply this: get out of the river.

In AA, alcoholics admit defeat and, paradoxically, they gain the victory in doing so. Alcohol no longer has the upper hand—it is no longer a part of the equation.

As addicts we need to reframe our understanding of surrender and begin to see it as the very healthy and life-giving act that it can be. When we surrender the fight with alcohol, we are free to live a battle-free life in sobriety. We are free to grow and develop as people, to know God, to serve others, and to live lives of purpose. These are the spoils of war—the goods we have the privilege to claim if we will simply raise the white flag.

And the concept of surrender in recovery goes beyond the admission that in the battle with alcohol we will lose every time. This initial surrender and admission of powerlessness is only the beginning of a long life of ego reduction through surrender. We find that we surrender into God’s care not only the battle with addiction, but our entire lives as well. We see that we often don’t know what is best for ourselves and we begin to trust that God does. In continuing to surrender to God’s will for our lives and in remaining committed to not fighting the things we cannot change or control, we gain a freedom unlike any we had ever known.

“When we look back, we realize that the things which came to us when we put ourselves in God’s hands were better than anything we could have planned.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 100)