No, No, After You: On the Importance of Surrender

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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“Your wants interfere with my wants.” This is not merely a sentiment of the selfish but a reality behind most decisions we face. The key lies in how we reconcile the differences. In this article from our series Reconciliation at Work, Sam Van Eman explores an “adaptive” response.

“One human is no human.” That’s what the professor assigned as the topic for our next paper. He was trying to help us understand the non-negotiable reality of being people connected to other people. The assignment came at a perfect time. I had recently burned out at my day job and requested (to my boss’s consternation) an emergency three-day leave to recover from this very thing: being connected to other people.

As a campus minister at a university, it was easy to rack up eighty to one hundred hours a week investing in students. I was relatively good at this type of work, and my ego thrived on the idea of making a difference in the world. The problem was that I always wanted more. “Sam, we’re watching a movie tonight, and we want to know what you think of it as a Christian. Will you join us?” “Sam, have you ever hiked on such-and-such trail? I was thinking we could go this weekend.” “Sam, my professor asked me to take on a special project. Wanna come see it?”

Yes, of course. Yes to all of it.

I knew I needed a break when a student friend stopped by for a how’s-the-weather conversation and it made me angry. I discovered in that moment that a burned-out human is not a happy human. Fortunately, three days alone in a cabin provided some respite to get me back out there at a healthier pace. Unfortunately, it had no effect on curing my thirst for importance, which meant I’d probably run into over-connection issues again. If I hoped to avoid any unnecessary need for reconciliation in the future, I’d have to find better balance.

At Once Communal and Individual

The truth is, we cannot surround ourselves with people continuously and expect to thrive. Introverts and extroverts may have different tolerances, but we both need space.

Nor can we wholly disconnect. Even the cabin stay required permission from the owner, supplies sold by cashiers, and a road system maintained by countless workers.

This need for balance means we have to find ways to reconcile being simultaneously communal and individual. Consider the story above. Since my insecurity was tied to other people, I had to (begin to) reconcile the need for public affirmation with the need for personal rest. And since I had a job, I had to (begin to) reconcile employer expectations with personal autonomy. (Do we ever fully figure these out?)

In every instance, whether we want to or not, we engage a negotiation process between potentially competing sides. How that process unfolds between the two parties—others and self—influences a host of areas, including health, faith, relationships, and employment.

The process is usually so familiar that we enter and exit it without much notice. Getting out of the company parking lot is a simple example. You want to go home. So does everyone else. But you take turns merging because the goodwill given and received trumps the few minutes you could gain by cutting.

It’s when life throws curve balls that the risk of undesirable results increases. My boss, for instance, could have said “no,” or “not yet.” What then? Such moments occur precisely because we are humans dealing with other humans. Your decisions, agenda, issues, and expectations affect my decisions, agenda, issues, and expectations.

At our best, we mimic realtors who strive for win-win closings. We want both parties to experience gain, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, who, after trading a tooth for a tick, “separated, each feeling wealthier than before.” It’s nice when it works out well. But curve balls get their name from breaking norms. They surprise us by being hard to handle, by giving us what we don’t want. Curve balls call for the ability to adapt.

Adaptive Response

Founding director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, Ron Heifetz, describes adaptive leadership in part as the ability to help people face challenges. This definition makes room for all of us, whether we have subordinates or not. It also assumes that to be able to lead adaptively, we must be able to practice adapting. When my boss granted my request to disappear from campus, she adapted to the loss of a team member in a critical season. By also confronting my poor timing, she helped me address how I manage work/life balance. That was fifteen years ago and her lessons remain clear.

Opportunities to adapt and to help others adapt appear daily. From rained-out picnics to corporate mergers, we are constantly processing data to find the best way forward. This reality has been true even this summer as The High Calling ended contracts with its editorial staff. We didn’t get fired. There were no deaths. Yet, we had been part of something good—on purpose, no less—and that thing has come to an end. Sadness is acceptable in this situation. Wallowing is not. So after being told in May, I let myself grieve and then began telling stories of God’s faithfulness through this particular community. I set about reconciling the thoughtful direction of the organization with my own wants, and it soon became clear that the residual benefits of editing at The High Calling will far outweigh the potential losses of leaving this part-time position. For that, I say amen and amen.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face, in whatever situation, is self. The curvier the curve, the more likely we are to forgo generosity. Hard times tend to call for selfish measures. We may be both communal and individual as human beings, but the default setting puts the individual—Me—first. This complicates reconciliation. It muddles negotiation. It creates victims who forget that God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45), and it makes Jesus’ command to deny ourselves a seemingly impossible task (Mark 8:34).

Maybe it’s a good thing that we get a “no” or “not yet” every so often, that we walk away with a tick or tooth not “feeling wealthier than before.” Maybe it’s good, occasionally, for negotiation to become information, where we simply have to accept the news. Loss reminds us that we are not in charge. Loss also has the power to push us, if we let it, toward seeing abundance we may have missed otherwise.

Seeing like this becomes another kind of adaptive response, an act of generosity toward someone, something, other than ourselves. Counting our blessings makes room for a new style of negotiation marked by humility, grace, and praise, all of which are very good, and human, things to do.