The Tenderness of Surrender

A month ago I hobbled and stumbled off the trail, brought down to my physical and emotional knees. Instead of covering one kilometer of trail in 15–20 minutes, depending on the terrain, I was up to 45 minutes. I was not in good shape, shaking and nauseous, barely holding it together. My feet were past being angry with me; it seemed they were no longer attached to my body.

I made the right decision to hike in the wrong direction. I was supposed to be hiking further into the wilderness, to complete the Brazeau Loop in the Canadian Rockies, but after my first day of hiking I knew I had to turn around. My body was not able to proceed. It was not a mental game anymore, but a physical reality. It did not matter that I wanted to keep going; I could not.

Nigel Pass, on the Brazeau Loop (halfway between the trailhead and Four Point Campground)

The Brazeau Loop trail is shaped like this: you hike in 14km to Four Point Campground from which there is a 52km loop that circles back to Four Point Campground from which you hike back out to the trailhead. It’s like a lollypop, only my hike did not have the candy on the end of the stick.

On my way in, I realized I was going to have a problem: blisters on my feet. This was not going to be the familiar bad blisters I have learned to tolerate. These blisters arrived earlier than usual in the usual places, and in new places too.

As I approached Four Point Campground on that first day, I had a frank conversation with myself:

No matter how good you feel while having supper, or overnight, or in the morning, you MUST remember how you’re feeling right now.

Your feet are in pain and as a result you are not moving fast enough to safely cover the territory you need to cover over the next four days. You will not be able to move much faster than this, so you don’t have time to do 18km or 20km days.

This is not going to get better. You must turn around. It does not matter that you want to do this; your body cannot do this.

While my ego wanted desperately to continue, the promise I made to my kids the night before I departed on this solo hiking trip came to mind: I will be smart and make safe decisions. I looked each of them in the eyes, separately. I now know I was looking at myself, soberly, before I headed out alone, into the wild, telling myself what I needed to hear.

Tenderness with recognizing my limits

Instead of being on the trail, I quietly slipped home three days early, feeling beat up. My first morning home I tried a walk around the block but only made it three doors down before the pain was too much and I turned around again.

I gathered my journal and the food I would have had on the trail and headed to my wee trailer to make some tea and sit and process and write. I reached into the tenderness of the physical wounds on my feet, both visible and invisible, and of my emotional state.

What I knew for sure: I made the right decision to hike out. When I can’t walk by three houses, there’s no way 20 km of mountainous backcountry terrain was not going to work.

There’s a tenderness that comes with recognizing my limits. It’s both knowing my limits, but also respecting them. There’s a kind of care that comes with this too, because I had to stop harming myself. To get to the car on my own was care. Had I continued, it is possible I would have been a rescue. It wasn’t just the blisters on the hike out, but inflamed muscles and tendons. My Achilles tendons were painful, then numb, and then just didn’t seem to function. The last several kilometers involved tiny steps and the slightest trip would have sent me to the ground, or over a cliff. Looking after myself meant getting myself off the trail on my own feet.

In addition to the tender wounds on my physical body, my emotional body was also tender.

In addition to the tender wounds of my physical body, my emotional body was also tender. I experienced an emotional soreness that involved both being sad and angry for not having been able to complete the hike. I felt the tenderness within as a small child, curled up and crying. I felt the tenderness of having given in and surrendered to the right thing to have done: turn back.

Emotional tenderness comes with acknowledging and accepting the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is a raw, emotional experience to no longer pretend, to no longer deny reality. On the trail, I had to surrender to the reality of the state of my feet and not let ego drive me to complete the hike. Once home, I had to surrender to the small child within that needed care and attention even after the physical ordeal was over.

As I nursed my wounds in my we trailer at home, I met a delicate and strong self. Not my ego self, or what I refer as my Higher Self, but something new. The only language I have for it right now is “a deep inside child-self that is not a child, yet has the vital essence/purity of a child.” Strong and clear, while also fragile.

There’s a journey ahead to more fully meet this self, to learn more about them. To surrender to caring for this self because this means I am caring for me.

Surrender can be commitment to look after self

We all know this feeling of surrender, of turning around or giving in. It is not failure; it is facing reality with a clear commitment to look after self. Nor is this about losing, about having not won. It is a recognition of when we’ve hit our limits and choosing to accept the emotional challenge of not being able to do what we expected to do.

When we have plans to improve city life, it is normal for there to be, at every turn, circumstances that assist or hinder our efforts. Our default way of showing up in city life is to fight our way through obstacles and anything that stands in our way is the enemy. I propose that allowing “fight energy” as our default behaviour denies us the opportunity to experience what we most truly wish to have in our lives because we are avoiding hurt. We are defending ourselves from our own hurts.

Choosing to surrender instead of fighting is not about surrendering to others; it is about surrendering to our own deepest needs and desires.

Choosing to surrender instead of fight is not about surrendering to others; it is about surrendering to our own deepest needs and desires and making ourselves available to listen to and heed their guidance. Surrender is not about fault or blame (of self or other); it is acceptance of what is.

(Caveat: I do believe that there are times when fighting is absolutely necessary. The question: are all fights worth fighting?)

Tending to surrender means giving in, not giving up

As we navigate our work to improve cities and communities, it is important to allow room for surrender. Tending to surrender means:

  • Noticing when it is time to give in. Yes, there are time to power through and do the hard work that needs to be done, but there are times when it is the right thing to release the fight and give in. Fighting should not be the unconscious default.
  • Giving permission to give in. When it is time to give in, to surrender, we need to give ourselves permission to do so. This is a form of care. Had I chosen to continue the hike, I would have been causing harm to myself. Turning around was self care.
  • Caring for the physical body. Wounds need care and time to heal. This means choosing to recognize the care the body needs and making sure it is provided.
  • Caring for the emotional body. Wounds are never just physical; how they come about, self- or other-inflicted, or accidents, has an impact on our emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Care can take various forms: removal from situations that cause harm, time to understand and process events, energetic or clinical help, etc. Care might take different shapes at different times of our lives, or distance from harmful events.
  • Allowing and exploring tenderness. Stay with the tenderness and allow it to reveal new understanding. Running away is avoidance, not surrender. (Take a break from the hard stuff from time to time, as needed. I use Netflix.)

Giving in does not mean giving up. “Giving up” implies maintaining emotional distance from what we wanted to have happen. “Giving in” involves exploration of the emotional territory that comes with misplaced expectations: loss, sadness, anger, grief, relief, etc. Giving in invites expression of our selves.

Giving in is hard work.


  • What is the tenderness in you asking you to pay attention to?
  • What are the qualities of this tenderness?
  • How do you best tend to this tenderness?



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Beth Sanders

Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.