“Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. I am learning to live between effort and surrender.” ~Danielle Orner
Over a year ago, I boarded a plane and found myself on the beautiful beaches of southeast Asia. My dream was to travel the world, indefinitely, while working independently and living out of a suitcase. I had worked hard in my life to come to this place, and there couldn’t have been a moment that was more positive for me.
However, as I enjoyed sunbathing on the beautiful beaches, I started to feel weary. It’s hard to describe really, but I slowly started to slip into a deep apathy and restlessness. Everything was perfect, or at least it should have been, and yet I was becoming unsatisfied.
In a day I would travel to unknown waterfalls, go hiking, and explore mysterious secret beaches, but I was stagnating on the inside and I couldn’t understand why.
In time, I realized the problem: Before, when I had fought so hard to get to this place, that had been my purpose, and now that I was here in this beautiful paradise I felt purposeless. I had nothing to push for, only something to enjoy, and that wasn’t something I knew how to do.
To combat the monotony I tried to change things up. One trip found me driving through an Indonesian island weaving in and out of mountain passes with my girlfriend, who I’d met there, on a scooter. It was a complete rush, and I should have been lost in the moment, yet I felt nothing.
During that day I remember her being completely full of passion. She was exuberant and full of energy. We arrived at the extravagant water temple in the middle of a lake. I was calm and distracted trying to find how things could feel right for me, trying to understand how I could find that purpose again.
Times before, when I had been deeply challenged, taught me that to overcome such obstacles I just needed to put forth more effort and try harder. Staying true to that pattern, even with all signs telling me not to, I made the decision to drive us back through the mountain pass with the ever dark grey skies clearly delineated.
Sure enough it started raining lightly on the way back as I drove the scooter through the cliffs. Staying on the same course, I kept driving and pushing forward no matter the obstacles telling me clearly to stop and regain balance. Even the sweet girl’s cough in the rain couldn’t get me to pause for a moment.
I was a jerk. Arriving back at my home, I knew something was out of place. My beautiful girlfriend’s sneezing and coughing made me feel even worse, though I still didn’t quite get what was right in front of me.
You see, most things were never easy for me, and what I had learned to be an exceptional strategy was to always push forward. No matter what was standing in my way, I had learned over and over again that I could overcome those obstacles through pure willpower and force.
I had a lot to learn, and it would be a painful lesson.
In the following weeks instead of pacing myself, I pushed myself even harder. I went to work earlier, I worked harder, and I exhausted myself. Out of my awareness, my girlfriend started to distance herself from me. She was taking trips by herself, relaxing on beaches and enjoying her time, while I felt like I was running through quicksand.
At first, it was difficult for me to notice when she was gone completely, but it came hard and fast. I tried to block it out entirely by doing more, but I couldn’t. I recall a half hug one evening that left me feeling empty, but everything else seemed vague and blurry, as I had managed to shut out those feelings.
As you may have guessed, I continued my same pattern of trying even harder in life; whether that was in my relationships or my work, I believed that was the solution. I increased my working hours, and when that didn’t work, I did the complete opposite and didn’t work at all. Instead, I tried harder in my love life, going on too many dates and exhausting myself.
Soon I came to look for healing with all my force. I read articles and tried to take better care of myself. I saw a therapist and tried to force the problems to go away with all my will, but it was all too elusive.
I felt broken down and completely lost when a good friend offered to take me out for a surfing lesson.
It was a fine day with beautiful weather, and we had just finished applying sunscreen when I looked out and saw all the surfers, young and old, having success on the waves. One that stood out to me and warmed my heart was a child, about eight years old, gliding along the waves so effortlessly.
On the first run, I paddled out and got ready for the wave to come. I could see the white ripples coming, and excitement filled my untired chest, as I knew this moment was coming for me and I would be ready for it.
I propelled myself as hard as I could; viciously, I accelerated as the wave came up behind me, and I knew that this was my moment. Looking up and with perfect form, I did exactly as my instructor had taught me. I put my leg in a star against my other leg, kept my arms firm, and pulled up to stand.
I got on one leg and, with waves all around me, I was doing it. I started to bring my other leg up so I could stand, and just like that, another wave came out of nowhere and knocked me off my board and into the roar of the current. I flailed around just as if I had been a floundering fish.
I’d almost had it. I was so close. All I had to do was get off of my one knee and onto my other foot, and I would have been standing there, firmly surfing this beautiful wave on this gorgeous day in Southeast Asia.
You can probably imagine what I did after this. I tried even harder, over and over again, yet it felt like the waves kept hitting me harder and harder.
I didn’t take the rejection easily either. I kept getting back up and throwing myself into the rough water. The same result kept happening. Over and over I got thrashed by the ocean, beaten down by a bully that I couldn’t defeat.
After a while, my friend and instructor looked over at me knowing that I had probably had enough, but I wasn’t ready to quit. He watched on as we both saw the biggest wave coming that had been there the whole day. Again, I used the form he had taught me and again I got bombarded by the waves and thrown violently into the dark blue ocean.
That one hurt. Feeling beat and exhausted, I looked up just in time to see my surfboard smack me squarely in the face, to the point of almost knocking me unconscious. This was the first time the lesson would finally hit me hard enough for me to recognize it.
Meekly, I found my surfboard and paddled back to the shore. On the way I saw the younger children gliding along the friendly waves and enjoying the thrill of winning. Me, I felt complete exhaustion and utter defeat.
Collapsing onto my surfboard on the shore of the sandy beach, I took a moment, actually probably many moments, to collect my breath. It would take me even longer to collect my thoughts, but I had taken away something significant from the moment that had came, bombarded me, and left me to think about things.
Over and over again, I had tried to will myself to victory in every area of my life. My solution was always to try even harder, to be more, and to do more. I had finally realized that the key to life is balance—which means learning when to surrender.
This same drive that had helped me become so successful in life was the thing that was causing me the most pain and preventing me from appreciating life. Always in a hurry to accomplish the next thing or make the next goal, I had adopted a sense of inadequacy that caused constant misery for me on a paradise island that was full of beauty I couldn’t see.
This being out of balance and trying harder at everything finally made me have a complete breakdown. Most of the time when we lose our balance it’s too late, and we’re already on the floor before we notice it. This is what happened to me.
I finally got to see through the illusions that I had been putting up all around me. I understood that I had been hiding my feelings of inadequacy with the hope that they would go away if I just tried harder. I realized that I had shut everyone else out, and most importantly all of these realizations opened me up to feeling again.
A week later on the plane ride back home I put very black sunglasses on. It was a bright morning, but for the first time in a long while I let myself go and allowed myself to feel again. Most likely no one except for me truly knows how painful that airplane ride was, but after you lose your balance and fall it often hurts.
My next challenge would be to restore my balance and regain a firmer foundation. This time, however, I would not have to try harder, because often life isn’t even about how hard you try.
On that sunny day in the ocean surfing, it wouldn’t have mattered how hard I was trying to surf. Nearby an eight-year-old was hardly trying at all, and he was having the time of his life coasting on the waves. Ultimately, we were both going to end up eating water—just as we all fall in life at times—but he was going to be fulfilled and laughing while I was trying to force an outcome and causing myself to be unbalanced.
Floating is natural, just as the waves in the ocean, and the chaos in life. I now have the ability to let go and find stillness so that I can regain my balance and move forward in life. This all came from having that complete breakdown and teaching myself that it was okay to go slow and take care of myself. I had to.
I haven’t yet made it back out to the ocean or traveled since then, but I know that when I do I will be able to let go and relax into balance.
Whatever challenges you are facing, consider that you still have the room to pause, relax, and take care of yourself. You don’t always have to be pushing, achieving, and succeeding. Sometimes it’s just as important to reflect, recharge, and simply be in the moment. With nothing to do or prove.
When I feel myself trying harder or pushing too much, this is what I do now. Instead of stuffing my feelings down, I slow down, let myself feel them, and learn from them what I need.
I also remind myself that I don’t have to fight the current so hard to force things to happen. Sometimes it’s far wiser to surrender, relax, and enjoy the ride. When we embrace peace and balance we still move forward in life—just with far less stress and a greater appreciation for everything around us.