I have recently begun to understand the concept of surrendering in an entirely new way. I used to think of surrender as only connected to battles won/lost, as in Lee surrendering to Grant, of Umezu to MacArthur, France to Germany, Emperor Napoleon III to Kaiser Wilhelm I, king of Prussia, and so forth.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III surrenders to Wilhelm I (2 September 1870)

It’s a humiliating thing to surrender after being defeated. In fact, some cultures have recommended that losers fall on their swords, literally and metaphorically. Winners write history and all that.

But, if one is surrendering to save lives, is it still ignoble? Can surrender be a good thing?

To be humiliated is bad. To experience humiliation could be a bad thing, too. But to have humility, that’s a fine thing. Being humble is right, most of the time. To be modest, respectful, to be seen as having virtue–those are qualities associated with being humble. But not the kind of humble that is extremely poor, or shabby, in rags. Dickens writes a lot about humble folk–some are good, some are evil–either designation depends largely on whether they have humility or whether they seek to humiliate others.

The fascinating thing about English is that our language encompasses such a range of meaning in one word. It comes from the Latin word, humilitas, being lowly or submissive, which comes from humus, “i.e. the earth which is beneath us” which also refers to “any organic matter that has reached a point of stability, where it will break down no further and might, if conditions do not change, remain as it is for centuries, if not millennia.”


There are some interesting connections, eh?

If I surrender to something bigger than myself, am I being humble or am I being humiliated? Or is surrendering in some cases, the noble action, the right course? Can the right thing to do be easy? Ever?

I think surrendering to a cause can be a fine thing. I’m thinking of Rhett Butler. I recently wrote about Gone With the Wind and how it colored my view of the South (having never set foot in the South prior to four years ago). As a consequence of that rambling/writing/thinking (as I explore my encounters with and understanding of the Civil Rights Movement), I’ve been thinking a lot about his character. He is the epitome of a man who knows how to surrender right (correctly) and still be a man. Does that mean he’s open to who he is, fully aware of his place in the world? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s the best kind of man.

Rhett Butler playing cards in a Yankee jail (1939)

He surrenders to opportunity, to Scarlett, to the Cause, and doing what is right, actually, most of the time, despite the fact that he has pursued a somewhat unconventional path (getting booted out of West Point and being the black sheep of his family–and gasp–a professional gambler who associates with women of ill-repute; obviously, he is not accepted by respectable gentlefolk). He even surrenders to his understanding that Scarlett will never “get” the love available to her through him–so he leaves her–and he doesn’t give a damn. She really is a ninny. But he isn’t. He’s fairly well educated and savvy and, even, heroic. Scarlett is opportunistic in a savage way that he is not. Though she is as much a survivor as he is, Scarlett lacks Rhett’s grace. And she never rises to higher level of self-awareness. I’m not sure I could read GWTW again because I would want to strangle her throughout, but if I did re-read, I think I’d have a lot more respect for Rhett Butler’s character than any others (Melanie Wilkes is pretty sympathetic but not dashing like Rhett).

Through this thinking/writing, I’ve come to understand the inevitability of surrender to a cause that one cares about deeply. This is not a bad kind of humble to cloak one’s self in. I like to think of myself surrendering to the situation I find myself in (and I’ve made a few spectacular surrenders recently) and still being able to make the most of it, like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the photo above playing cards. I may be locked up, in, or locked down, but I’ll never be locked away indefinitely. If the Yankees get me for running the blockade, I will nonchalantly throw my jacket around my shoulders, have a cigar, play some cards, knowing I’ll get out in short order. Perhaps that sort of surrender diminishes my chances for being humble, but I think I would rather do that than surrender in humiliation.

It’s just a matter of degrees one way or the other. Given the opportunity to choose, I’m in Rhett Butler’s camp. I perceive his way as the easy way, but it might also be the right way.


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Filed under Old Stories and New Thinking, Open Everything, Open All the Time

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