“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice” ― Maya Angelou
“The greatness of the man’s power is the measure of his surrender” ― William Booth
Sometime, towards the end of 2013, I had the strangest feeling of all. From right out of the blues, I felt a prodding to write about my deceased uncle. The usual pattern had been to think about something consciously for a while – then, feel a push to write about it. I hadn’t even been thinking about him in the months or years leading up to that moment. I had simply accepted his passing, mourned him and moved on. So, there really wasn’t anything ‘bottled up’. I didn’t expect the ensuing post to make enough sense to complete – so I never bothered with starting. But, there was something else about that moment.
I would later find that it coincided almost to the minute with the timing of Paul Walker’s fatal crash. That definitely caught my attention. What ghastly coincidence! Made me think a little more than I was prepared to about the uncle. I started to think maybe there was a little more to that nudge I felt.
But, in another rather strange dimension, memories of this uncle (whenever I invoked them) always came bundled with those of Ayrton Senna. Paul Walker had forced me to think about my uncle – and he in turn was reminding me of someone else. Illogical triangle of thoughts. I knew (about) all three entities in quite some detail – but I couldn’t, for the life of me, see what linked them.
Ayrton Senna was, without doubt, the greatest Brazilian to grace the Formula 1 scene. Nerves of absolute steel and the ultimate nutter on the tracks. He executed the most manic of maneuvers and challenges – calmly! Nothing could ever shake his resolve to win. And, the more races he won, the harder he worked on details others took for granted. He was so good even the best called him the best.
But, one day, the impossible happened. Ayrton Senna, untouched and totally in control of his car crashed into an unprotected wall and died. No one could have seen it coming – not him, not his crew, not the audience! In fact, after pulling him out of the wreck, rescuers found an Austrian flag in his car. Upon winning, he had been planning to dedicate it to a rival who’d also been in a fatal crash. Such was the assurance!
Past repeatedly voicing a desire to race F1, there was absolutely no link between my uncle and the sport. It was all just talk to me until I felt it up close. One day, he got hold of a Toyota Starlet I was in, and started pushing 110 through 130Km/h in the rain. There were a thousand and one reasons to be mortally afraid – and I took them all. Bad enough that you’re speeding on a Nigerian road, in a featherweight Toyota Starlet, but to do all of that in the rain was borderline suicidal in my frightened opinion. His way of calming my nerves was to remind me of his Formula 1 dream. Funny how, in spite of his glorified recklessness behind the wheel, I don’t recall him ever crashing a car he drove! But, one day, all that control didn’t count for much from the passenger’s seat.
So, after the initial hesitation, I could see why my mind linked him to Senna: Formula 1. I also understood the link to Paul Walker; both had been advertised gearheads, driven to death by other people. But the puzzle was still missing a critical piece; I couldn’t see what linked all three. Little choice but to bookmark and abandon the disjointed thought!
Then, one blessed day when I got to ride in the passenger seat of a supercar, it all came back to me. The driver pushed the engine so hard it felt like it would lift off the ground. And, I couldn’t blame him one bit; it’s something I do fairly frequently too. I recognized the urge and thrill. Yet, it just felt terribly different – somehow. I was now at the other end of the spectrum. As a (race-)driver, your mind is programmed to process the faintest of signals. Your instincts are sharp as the surgeon’s blade. You learn to anticipate, detect and adjust without even thinking. But, what’s all that worth in the passenger’s seat? Who undergoes any training to become a fantastic passenger? How can one even learn to be at the mercy of others? But, isn’t that what life itself is about?
That moment marked the unraveling of the illogical triangle. I could finally see the link: despite their proven dexterity, my uncle and Paul Walker had clearly been at the mercy of things outside their control. Senna too. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but the Italian Supreme Court eventually linked his crash to “badly designed and badly executed modifications”. Senna’s engineering team had made a critical error while modifying his steering; one that effectively nullified all of his control behind the wheel and ultimately cost his life. Totally crazy!
You work unspeakably hard to perfect every detail, then some ‘tiny’ thing sneaks up and threatens to undo it all. From where I stood in 2013, the coming year looked no different from a giant spreadsheet. I had a formula in every cell and a ‘foolproof’ plan for every corner. Maybe you did too – but I even had a backup plan for every backup plan. Then 2014 hit me smack in the face; Murphy’s Law. All of a sudden, my most intricate plans seemed like mere wishes that bore no input from reality.
The harder I fought to regain control, the faster it slipped away – and it just left me in a heap of frustration. I felt like a driver in the passenger’s seat – or a winner with a botched steering. In the end, it just made me realize the finiteness of human effort. We cannot but try – but, even at the very peak of our genius, with the most coordinated of our efforts, there’s only so much we can control! Eventually, we realize we’re not always in the driver’s seat of life’s affairs. And when we are, we quickly learn that the steering doesn’t quite control everything.
The impeccable driver who’s never hit a fly could get slammed into by a drunk soul. The ideal graduate could be in a field that’s not recruiting. Even the perfect human could be madly in love with someone who simply isn’t available. A vital part of the puzzle just always seems to lie outside us.
This truth is terribly hard to swallow, seeing how much we love life on our terms. We like to etch our own paths. We love to be in control – and we work doubly hard to master ourselves and the world around us. We’d give anything to know everything in advance: weather, traffic, drive-time to work, everything! But, can we really predict a factory defect – or even a flat tire? We check history, weigh the odds and bet on Usain Bolt to win. We don’t see that he can be disqualified in a false-start.
I guess 2014 just taught me a little about surrender. It’s not the same as ‘giving up’ as one might be tempted to think. It’s simply accepting that, while we owe life nothing less than our best efforts, they bear no guarantee in themselves. Absolutely nothing ‘sweet’ about this admission – but it’ll save us a lot of frustration when things go off course. It’s sometimes all the difference between walking away deflated and persisting, regardless!
Have no fear; this is not a vote for slothfulness. Nothing of the sort! Be the very best you can be; go in with unbridled resolve. But, if or when things don’t go to plan, realize that beating yourself up ultimately solves nothing. There’s only so much a human is designed to control.
Have a truly fantastic February!