Surrender, But Don’t Give Yourself Away

By Kurt Keefner

(This post is a response to one by Carrie-Ann Biondi, just preceding it below.)

As part of a discussion on Facebook, my friend, philosopher Carrie-Ann Biondi, defended the occasional positive connotations of the term “surrender.” At first this idea stuck in my craw. I knew she did not mean “turning the other cheek” or “Resist not evil” or any such New Testament notion of being submissive, but I was concerned that surrender inherently meant splitting oneself in two, into the part that surrenders and the part one surrenders to. Carrie-Ann assured me that this was not the case and later wrote an essay about usages of the term “surrender” in The Fountainhead. After further consideration, I think I pretty much agree with her about the positive connotations. I’ve written this follow-up essay to elaborate on and extend her ideas. I don’t claim to have captured everything that Carrie-Ann meant, but I think I’m on to something worthwhile regardless.

There seem to me to be several kinds of surrender that are healthy. They are diverse, but they have a similar underlying emotional dynamic. The overall pattern seems to be that one exerts a kind of control that one gives up in favor of allowing oneself to be vulnerable to something or someone. When I say “vulnerable” I mean allowing oneself to be affected by something without the attempt to protect oneself from it or manage it, so that you’re “giving yourself” to whatever it is.
Here is my heart, open to the world.
I prefer the metaphor of vulnerability to the metaphor of surrender, but “vulnerable” does not have a verb form, so I will use “surrender” with the caveat that what I mean is “allow oneself to be vulnerable.” Let’s examine some of the forms of control and surrender and look for deeper commonalities.

A first and basic kind of control is what we might call self-management. In this variety a person is focused on a goal and drives oneself to achieve it. One’s actions and even one’s mental states are planned and disciplined. This form of control is most prominent among ambitious people, but it can be found to varying extents in almost anyone who is not completely impulsive. People who self-manage to a high degree can have trouble letting beauty or tenderness into their lives, and to do so they have to learn to relax and surrender to the moment instead of always living in the future. We see an example of this in the scene in Atlas Shrugged where we first meet Dagny and she hears the melody of Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto. She tells herself “Let go—drop the controls—this is it.”

Randy Elrod's portrait of Dagny Taggart
Randy Elrod’s portrait of Dagny Taggart, available at

Second, we have the control of reserve. Even very open people do not completely expose themselves to strangers. One has to get to know and trust a person before one “surrenders” to them by “letting them in.” To let someone in is to allow oneself to be vulnerable to them. This form of surrender can range from friendship to romantic love. This is the paradigm example of surrender as trust.

Our third kind of control is sexual. One does not let just anyone in—to one’s bed or body. While I do not wish to overstress this matter in the way Ayn Rand does, I would say that this is a somewhat asymmetrical situation, that men do most of the pursuing, women do most of the resisting (controlling) and surrendering. Women are more physically vulnerable to men than the other way around, although men and women are of course both emotionally vulnerable where romantic love is concerned.

Fourth is what I took Carrie-Ann to mean in an earlier discussion of surrendering. Here the form of control is refusing to admit that you are wrong when at some level you know you are. What is necessary here is to surrender to reality, or, to be exact, to give up the false belief you have been clinging to in favor of what you really know (at whatever level). Maintaining the false belief dis-integrates the self, because you are holding your deeper knowledge at bay and compartmentalizing yourself. Surrender in this situation heals the breach. Note that even in this epistemological situation there is still an element of vulnerability because you take a chance on your ability to survive without the false belief.

A quote from Eugene Gendlin is appropriate here:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Fifth and last for this essay is the desire to overmuch control one’s experience that in Killing Cool I label “Pretending.” What one Pretends is a false self defined by a pseudo sense of life, as when one tries to be hip or chronically ironic or inappropriately seductive. When one Pretends, one falsifies reality and reduces other people to convenient cartoon figures. In the book I develop several methods of addressing the problem of Pretending. One of them, which I call centering, involves letting reality in and thus could be said to be a form of surrender or allowing oneself to be vulnerable.

Due out September 2014

There is a sixth form of control and surrender I wish to discuss, but it would take a disproportionate amount of space, so I will save it for another essay. I’ll say this much about it: It has to do with the nature of focus. Focus, or paying attention is how we cognitively engage the world. But as it turns out there are several ways of focusing one’s attention and they have different effects on the organism. It may be advisable to stop focusing in the typical Western, problem-solving way sometimes for the sake of mental health. Doing this may also be experienced as a kind of surrender.

So what is the common emotional dynamic to all these forms of surrender? I would say that it is trust. Trust means letting your guard down and allowing yourself be vulnerable. Normally when we think of trust we think of trusting another person, but trust more fundamentally means trusting yourself. Before you can “drop the controls” or admit that you were wrong, you have to trust that you can handle the situation, that being vulnerable won’t get you killed or badly hurt emotionally. Even when one is sure of this, there can still be a raw edge to the experience of vulnerability that makes the experience that much more piquant and valuable, much like love—for there can be no love without trust, no trust without vulnerability, no vulnerability without surrender.

7 thoughts on “Surrender, But Don’t Give Yourself Away

  1. I like that a lot. Both of your essays raise some interesting issues about moral language.

    It’s interesting that Carrie-Ann’s initial suggestion stuck in Kurt’s craw, because it stuck in mine, too. When I hear the word “surrender,” I associate it immediately with one of two things: (1) giving in to an enemy, or (2) giving in to moral weakness (as in “surrendering a principle”). “Surrender” seems something bad, and when a bit of moral language refers to something bad, it’s very hard to re-think it. Once I read the two essays, it occurred to me that there might be other senses to the word, but those weren’t my initial reactions, and the initial reactions took some doing to get over. I wonder why that’s the case: why is it that words that mean a variety of things so strongly pick up some associations that exclude others?

    A similar word is “sacrifice.” Conventionally, people use the word “sacrifice” to refer to the relinquishing of anything of great importance, regardless of whether or not the relinquishing yields a net benefit. On this conventional usage, it can make perfect sense to say, “I sacrificed a lot of time, but it was worth it.” Objectivists restrict the word “sacrifice” to contexts where someone relinquishes something of importance, but the relinquishing yields a net loss. On this usage, it follows that if you engaged in sacrificed, by definition, doing so wasn’t worth it. Most non-Objectivists find the Objectivist usage overly restrictive and artificial. Objectivists regard the conventional usage as a problematic and confusing “package deal.”

    Yet another example: “altruism.” Conventionally, it means genuine concern for another and benevolent action for her well-being. On the Objectivist usage, it means concern for another that comes at the cost of sacrifice to oneself. Yet another example: “humility.” Conventionally, I think “humility” means “non-arrogant acceptance of one’s flaws.” But personally, I take “humility” to refer to abject lack of self-regard. (I suspect most Objectivists take it that way.) More examples I’ve encountered: “pride,” “selfishness,” and “envy.” (John Rawls argues that there are excusable and inexcusable forms of envy.

    What’s interesting about all of the examples is that they show that there’s a fine line in English between linguistic nuance and downright equivocation. They’re all cases in which it looks as though there is a moral word with a “good” sense and a “bad” sense, and the two senses are species of a common genus. But that appearance is misleading: they’re not species of a common genus; they’re two different concepts that happen to be named by the same word (without being mere homonyms). It occurs to me that we need a technical term–a concept of method (IOE, pp. 35-36)–to refer to cases like this. They’re interesting, and they occur pretty frequently.


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  2. It’s interesting that you would pick the same problematic terms that I would: sacrifice, altruism and selfishness. I think Rand made the battle to convince people much harder by her usages here.

    Sacrifice simply does not mean what she thinks it means: it means giving up something precious for the sake of something more precious. It acknowledges that the price we pay for values is often quite high. Example: he sacrificed his family life for the sake of his research into cancer.

    I think Rand and Peikoff would defend her use of altruism by saying it was the original one intended by the concept’s coiner Auguste Comte. Yet we do not always use words in their original sense, and no one gets upset about this, including Rand, who in her marginalia would call people she was mad at bastards, without ever meaning that they were born out of wedlock.

    Which brings me to selfishness. I haven’t checked the OED, but I believe the original meaning of the term is still the primary one, namely thinking only of yourself (when you should be thinking of others also). Think of a selfish lover who cares only for his own pleasure. Self-interestedness is a secondary meaning. It simply confuses the issue to call selfishness a virtue. That sounds like Max Stirner, at least as I understand him at second hand. If you want to say egoism, say egoism, or praise rational self-interest. I would borrow Nathaniel Branden’s designation of his therapeutic approach and call the Objectivist ethics biocentric, and for rhetorical purposes I would borrow the language of the Declaration and say that people have a moral right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That would have resonated with readers far more than Rand’s provocative language.

    I believe Rand came close (unwittingly) to making over some of her key terms as something like anti-concepts and that furthermore she created a kind of code that the initiated would understand and that would tend to ward off the unconverted. I don’t think she was trying to create a cult-like atmosphere, but that she was quite taken with her own “If this be treason,make the most of it” style of defiant rhetoric. She thereby made the battle harder for the rest of us.


    • I mostly agree with you on “selfishness” but disagree on “sacrifice.”

      I think you’re basically right that “selfishness” has a pejorative meaning, and that Rand’s attempt to rescue it is mostly futile. But it’s worth noting that people sometimes use “selfish” to mean something positive. People completely uninfluenced by Rand will sometimes say, “You have to be selfish sometimes,” where what they mean is either “It’s OK to ignore the good of others temporarily and take a self-centered vacation in an innocuous pleasure,” or “It’s OK to stand up for yourself.” A similar locution is, “I know it’s selfish, but…” where what follows the “but” is a perfectly legitimate expression of self-interest.

      The problem with “biocentric” is that it doesn’t capture motivation. It captures outcomes. “Happiness” is fine, but it’s as misleading as “selfishness.” It often connotes subjective satisfaction. Still, I accept your basic point. The word I refuse to surrender (so to speak) is not “selfish,” but “egoistic.”

      On “sacrifice,” though, I disagree. The problem with that word in contemporary English usage is that it’s equivocal in the straightforward logical sense: it means two different and often incompatible things. It can either mean “giving up but getting nothing comparable in return” or it can mean “giving up a lot, even if you get something comparable in return.” I would reserve “relinquishing” or just “giving up” for the first, and “sacrifice” for the second. In any case, I think we have two different concepts and need at least two different words for them.

      It’s worth remembering that Comte aside, part of the essential idea of a sacrifice is propitiation. A sacrifice to the gods (or God) propitiates the gods (or God). Altruistic self-sacrifice is supposed to propitiate The Demands of Society: you give up what’s of value to you because doing so propitiates the claims that Others make of you, and those Others’ demands have a quasi-supernatural quality to them. You’re not even allowed to bring yourself up when the demands of others are sufficiently urgent. We need a special word to mark out this rather neurotic idea, and in my view “sacrifice” is it.

      I don’t think, in this particular respect, that Rand made the battle harder for us. I think she drew the lines in the right place. That battle is hard because we’re fighting centuries of ossified dogmas that have the status of holy writ, and in some cases literally come from Holy Writ. As a lapsed Muslim, I’m particularly sensitive to the ways in which specifically Christian assumptions structure the moral intuitions and language of even the most secular-sounding people in our culture. (I say as “a lapsed Muslim,” because being a Muslim put me as far outside of Christian ethical assumptions as Objectivism ever did.) Sacrifice is the holy writ of Christianity, enshrined in the Crucifixion. The problem with our culture is that even secular people find resonance in the Crucifixion, and feel they ought to. Goethe’s reaction was apt. He said (well, according to Nietzsche) that he had three dislikes in life: bedbugs, tobacco, and the Cross. Me too.

      There’s more on this general subject in the comments to David Riesbeck’s post on egoism in Aristotle:

      I haven’t read it yet, but I know that Marsha Enright has an essay on “selfishness” in the newest issue of JARS.

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  3. Pingback: Carrie-Ann Biondi on Kurt Keefner’s “Killing Cool” | Policy of Truth

    • I wasn’t denying that people use “sacrifice” in the sense Kurt was describing; I was saying that the usage involved an equivocation.

      In fact, Eid al Adha is a perfect example of the equivocation. The “sacrifice” celebrated by Eid al Adha involves three totally different ideas: propitiation of the demands of a deity, altruistic self-sacrifice, and giving up something lesser for a greater benefit. My point is that those are three different ideas. In fact, altruistic self-sacrifice and giving something lesser for a greater benefit are opposite ideas. It’s confusing to subsume all three under a single concept denoted by a single word. The “sacrifice” celebrated in Eid al Adha is Abraham’s being prepared to give up the lesser object, his son, for the sake of a greater benefit, God’s approval. That is not altruistic self-sacrifice, but people constantly infer that it is because the word “sacrifice” is involved. They’re being confused by the equivocal nature of the term itself.


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