Yesterday I felt first-hand the studded battlement walls of surrender. It was a shock; I had always thought I was doing rather well with the whole surrendering thing – I do my prayers, yadda yadda yadda – but now I’ve touched its actual perimeters and seen that no meek and compliant person could scale those walls.
That morning it had been my turn to lead our creative writing group; it went well, after much hassle of finding lifts (my car has kicked the bucket) and printing out worksheets (my printer is likewise pushing up paperchain daisies) and leaving kids in various places to be looked after. The class had gone well, with one person even commenting that I should run creativity retreats (something I have longed to do for many years). I was feeling rather grand.
With all this excitement, pride and caffeine swishing about my brain, however, I was on such a high that when it came time to calm down, return to a mumsier pace and make a meal, I nosedived. The urge to rush about, achieve things, create masterpieces and be ‘on my way’ (somewhere abstract and shiny) rendered the simplest task of welcoming my kids home and cooking something reasonably edible a crippling, outrageous imposition.
Needless to say, things went swiftly downhill. The tofu I’d just opened was so revoltingly off that I had to shower and change my clothes afterwards, the smell was so offensive (I did wonder afterwards if it was in fact a material expression of the interior stench made by my ego putrefying). Caveboy had a yelling fit. Cavebabe peed on the chair. I drizzled a supposedly über-healthy oil on my food (‘rich in alpha-linoleic oil!’) that made the whole plate taste of floor cleaner. I felt like throwing myself onto the floor and having a screaming fit myself.
The classic picture of the mother in Islam is a patient, obedient woman who devotes herself to her children and husband with unflinching self-abnegation. I don’t really match up to that image, and almost don’t believe that they can ever be real. But then I hear astonishing stories, for instance, of my Iranian friend’s mother who not only breastfed him (the youngest of nine), but also three or four other babies in the village. And then went out to work in the rice fields.
To live a life of conscience, one has to decide at every juncture whether some situation must be changed or endured, and it takes a great deal of wisdom to know which one is right. It is a truism passed down over many generations of Muslims (and many others besides) that the secret to happiness is being thankful when times are good and patient when times are hard. Motherhood is the real training ground for these skills; as Muhammad (s.) said, ‘Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother’ (he might have added ‘because it ain’t a game of tiddlywinks’).
I suspect that the way we have been trained to think in the West has always been in terms of working, fixing, improving things outside of ourselves, developing technology, coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. It’s an approach that is ideally suited to a workshop, an office, a building site. But there are times when striving to make things better on the outside only drains our energy, creates frustration when nothing seems to work, feeds conflicts between differing opinions, and leaves us off-centre and wondering why our efforts aren’t making us any happier.
The answer isn’t to down tools, flop out into any easy chair and wait for the great Pizza Delivery Boy in the sky to bring dinner (well, maybe sometimes it works – think Rabi’a al-Basri and jugs of honey descending out the sky). But I think that it’s this word ‘surrender’ that catches most of us out.
Surrendering to what is necessary and unavoidable is not an easy ride. It might be domestic duties and creative frustrations; or it might be enduring a boring office job, or unemployment, or even going to war. When it is not a matter of ego but of clear need, an obligation made by life and not the command of any dominating authority, there is not need to dither or analyse, or to take pride in personal actions, individual skills, perceived genius.
Finding the clarity to see what needs to be done, and having the guts to do it isn’t ‘surrender’. It’s wisdom made tangible by courage.