Cotton Candy and the Art of Surrender

I once shared this idea with our members on GYE:

One of the greatest successes of the Twelve-Step Program is in teaching addicts how to surrender instead of fighting against desires that they feel “powerless” over.

But the question often comes up: What does “surrender” really mean, and how is it really different from “fighting”?

I thought of an analogy that might help us understand better how this works. Let’s imagine a six-year-old child who is crazy about cotton candy — he simply can’t resist it. He passes by the cotton candy man each day and uses his pocket money to buy himself the delicious treat. But his dad keeps telling him that it is bad for him, it is just plain sugar and will make him fat and give him cavities and make him sick. But he just can’t say no. Each day, as he gets closer to the cotton candy man, his mind begins fighting back and forth, he knows it’s bad for him and that Dad doesn’t approve, but he just can’t resist the temptation and keeps falling for it. The fight is basically a foregone conclusion for this six-year-old. He simply doesn’t have the maturity of thought, nor the self-discipline or the ability to visualize the future damage that he may be causing to himself. Could we expect more from a six-year-old?

But now, let’s imagine that his father is taking him for a walk. Soon they are about to pass by the cotton candy man, and the young boy begins to imagine the sweet taste of the candy and wishes he could run and buy the treat. But he is holding his father’s hands and feeling his father’s love. He knows that his father only has his best interest in mind always, and even though he is perhaps too young still to fully appreciate it, he is so grateful for his father’s presence in his life. As they get closer, he remembers how his father always chides him about buying the treat, and he knows deep down that his father is right. After all, he is just a little boy, and his father is so much older and wiser.

Does the boy have to struggle not to break away and go buy himself the treat? His father’s will for him is so much stronger than his own, and he knows that it’s for his own good. The boy doesn’t have to fight anyone, neither himself nor his father. He will just naturally “let go” of the notion as they pass by the cotton candy machine and continue walking down the street. And he notices how his father gives him a big smile as they pass by, and he feels his love more than ever.

Perhaps this is how surrender is supposed to work. Addicts are like six-year-olds facing the irresistible cotton candy. We’ve lost the ability to think rationally or visualize the future damage that we are causing ourselves when we act out, and our own strengths can’t win this fight. But the Twelve-Step Program teaches us how to bring God, our Father, more into our lives. We learn to rely on Him more, and we trust fully that He truly has our very best interests in mind at all times. We begin to feel that He is holding our hand, even when we feel down. Then, when we pass the temptation, we no longer need to fight with ourselves to give it up. We simply surrender to a Will that is so much larger than our own, in the knowledge that we are being cared for by Someone so much greater and wiser than ourselves.

So the next time the temptation strikes, let’s try to imagine we are walking hand in hand with God, feeling His love, and trusting that He only wants the best for us… And hopefully, we will see that instead of fighting, we can simply surrender our will to our Higher Power and move on with a smile.

When I asked Rabbi Twerski if I had expressed the idea of “surrender” correctly, he responded as follows:

The mashal is very good, the only problem is that you need a lot of emunah. Because the child knows he is holding on onto the father’s hand. The “shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid” is where it breaks down… The addiction is a massive attack against emunah. And as Chavakuk said, all 613 mitzvos can be summed up as emunah. The addiction attacks all 613 mitzvos by attacking emunah. But I agree with the mashal (because that’s what the Step 3 is all about — “turning our will and our lives over to the care of God,” and Steps 4–12 all teach us how to do Step 3 the best we can). I think you expressed it well — it’s very good. Although there are probably different aspects of surrender, this one is certainly very good.

How Do the Twelve Steps Make Us into Menschen?

I sent this email to Rabbi Twerski and asked for his feedback.

In yesterday’s chizzuk email, we discussed how the Twelve Steps represent the fundamental moral principles of what it means to be a mensch, and how we addicts need to start again from the very foundations. Afterwards, Ahron sent us the following email:

Another incredibly powerful chizzuk email. Very compelling — I’m convinced and ready to become a mensch! Now tell me the foundations that I can’t find in mussar sefarim…? Please don’t leave us hanging!

I would now like to attempt to answer Ahron’s question to some extent:

Dear Ahron,

The way I see it, the addiction is only a symptom of a larger

“disease,” which is a general “disconnect” from the very root of what makes us menschen. The Twelve Steps were designed to give a person a refreshed perspective of what it means to be a human being — created in Hashem’s image, at a level so basic that even goyim can understand. Once people have these yesodos, they can go on to become true Yidden and great Yidden.

The truth is, that all humans — especially Yidden — can gain a tremendous amount from the Twelve Steps perspective. After all, our addiction is only a “symptom” of the disease. Unfortunately, though, many Yidden have this disease — even if they did not

develop the symptoms that we did. So in a sense, we are fortunate as addicts to be forced to refresh our very foundations, because we know that otherwise, we are finished.

So what are these “basic foundations,” already?

Well, for us to be able to heal — and we must heal — we addicts must learn to completely surrender our lust to Hashem. Not only that, but we must also learn to surrender our right to lust, as well as any expectation of ever achieving lust. All of this is surrendered to Hashem so that we can heal.

But this is a tall order.

How can we, who have lost all control in this area, successfully learn to surrender all this to Hashem? How can we achieve a level of surrender so profound that we no longer even need to fight to overcome lust and Hashem does it for us?

I think the answer can be found in two words that appear in the first pasuk of Shema: “Hashem echad.” The unification of Hashem is perhaps the most fundamental and constant of all of the 613 mitzvos. But what does this have to do with us? Let me explain.

This overriding mitzvah of divine unification is not just about believing that there is only one God. The chassidic masters have taught us that our entire lives, every second and everything we do, should ultimately be an expression of Hashem’s unity.

But how? As human beings, we have our own desires and needs, and this seemingly conflicts with Hashem’s absolute unification. After all, if there is only Hashem and nothing else, why do I want to do my own things, things that often conflict with His will?

And so, in order for a Jew learns to live his life as an expression of Hashem’s absolute unity, it means that he has to learn to completely let go of “self-centeredness” and have Hashem in mind in all his deeds. And when a Jew does everything for

Hashem’s sake and not his own, then even his eating and his sleeping become expressions of Hashem’s unity. And this is the underlying message of the Twelve Steps: Completely letting go of self-centeredness.

This is achieved through the following fundamental moral principles:

  • Dependence on Hashem. As addicts, we have no choice but to learn the deepest and most profound connection to Hashem. A complete “life-and-death” dependency on Him, analogous to the dependency of a one-day-old baby who is completely and absolutely dependent on its mother. If we read Tehillim, we can see that David HaMelech expressed this type of connection with Hashem again and again throughout Tehillim. “Kegamul alei imo — Like a babe who suckles from his mother.” Who imagined that we could reach a level anything close to David HaMelech? But we can. We have to.
  • Humility. Achieving absolute dependency on Hashem requires total humility. This is not hard for the addict, for he has completely surrendered and admitted that he cannot do it alone, and he knows this with a hundred percent clarity. Through this admission of powerlessness, he is able to achieve a very high level of humility, analogous to Moshe Rabbeinu, who said: “V’nachnu mah — What are we?”
  • Pure Faith. We are forced to quit playing God and let Hashem run our lives. We acknowledge that we are no longer in we control and give ourselves over to Hashem’s care, who will do with us as He sees fit. This leads to drastic life changes, not just in the area of the addiction. We are able to achieve a high level of the Torah’s commandment: “Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha — You shall walk in perfect faith with the Almighty, your God.”
  • Honesty. In order to heal, we are forced to learn rigorous honesty with ourselves, with others, and with Hashem — in all our affairs. This allows for a host of vital life changes, such as true introspection, learning to discern when the yetzer hara/addiction is talking to us, as opposed to the yetzer tov, and it also allows us to squarely face our faults and make amends wherever we have erred. We are able to achieve a high level of the middah of emes, something that the biggest tzaddikim spent lifetimes to achieve. And as we all know, emes is the foundation of the entire Torah. “HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emes, v’chosamo emes — God is Truth, and His stamp is Truth.”

These are some of the basic foundations stones, divided into Twelve Steps, that help us learn to completely remove our self-centeredness. Through them, we develop a true willingness and desire to help others, with no thought of getting anything in return. And this is practiced in all our affairs, and with all those with whom we interact. Ultimately, this can spill over to help us reach the highest levels of lishmah — living our lives and doing all we do purely “for the sake of Heaven.”

But Ahron, it’s easy to write these things down. After all, I did it in a half hour. But to learn to truly live this way takes the kind of life changes that can happen only through joining groups, getting a sponsor, and working the steps into our lives — day by day. In the groups, we learn to live these life-changes by sharing hope and experience, and through helping others.

Now, it’s not that these things can’t be found in mussar, but it has a totally different effect when practiced as a group, as Rabbi Twerski writes over here. Also, please take a moment to see what Rabbi Twerski writes on this page in answer to Question #1 about why the groups are generally much more effective than mussar.

Rabbi Twerski Responds

Your response to Ahron is great.
Chazak v’ematz.

Horse and Rider

I shared the following question from a GYE member and my answer to it with Rabbi Twerski.

I am a real sicko — a loser. I am so subconsciously focused on lust, and I am almost fifty years old. Why can’t I just be normal? I agree everyone has nisyonos from time to time, but it feels like I’m always stuck in the mud!

A great king lived in a beautiful palace, high above the cities that he ruled. One day, the king called in his loyal messenger and asked him to set out on a journey to the cities below on a mission to see where fixes were needed and what tasks needed to be attended to by the kingdom. The king promised the messenger great reward if he returned successful from his journey, and he supplied the messenger with a strong horse to ride to be able to carry out his bidding.

The messenger set out on his journey, but the horse was soon tired and wanted to rest. After a short stop, the messenger was

eager to continue on his journey and fulfill the king’s bidding, but the horse wanted to sleep some more. Finally, he managed to rouse the horse, but then, it wanted to eat. The messenger gave the horse some oats and continued on the journey. Soon, they came across a group of female horses grazing in the field. The horse began to stray off the path toward the mares, and the messenger had no choice but to whip his horse back onto the path. When this situation kept repeating itself, the messenger fashioned a pair of blinders out of leather to keep the horse from getting distracted by sights on the sides. After a few more hours, the horse again wanted to eat and rest, and when they were finally on the way again, the horse stumbled and got stuck in the mud. It took the messenger many hours to pull it out of the mud and continue on the journey.

And so it went at all stages of his travels throughout the kingdom. The horse kept straying, wanting to eat, rest, and getting stuck in all sorts of unpleasant situations. Throughout it all, the messenger kept reminding himself of the king’s mission and his great responsibility. He had to keep whipping the horse into submission so it would stay on track.

When the messenger finally returned to the king after many months of grueling travel, the king greeted him with great pomp and fanfare, personally coming out to greet him with a full royal entourage. The messenger was truly grateful, but he asked the king why he had given him the horse in the first place. After all, it was continuously distracting to him, causing him no end of delays and hardships. The king smiled and explained, “My dear messenger. I knew that the horse would distract you and be a big nuisance, but without the horse, you could never have fulfilled the mission. It was the horse that carried you down to the cities below and allowed you to travel throughout my kingdom and do my bidding. And it is precisely because you succeeded in spite of the hardships that I now wish to appoint you as one of my closest advisors. This mission I gave you was really a test to see if the horse would succeed in distracting you from your duty to the king, or if you would always remember your responsibility to the king and keep the horse in submission.”

Our souls were sent down to this world on an important mission for the King of kings. To this end, we were given a body — like the horse in the parable — to enable us to interact with the physical world and carry out the King’s bidding. But we must always remember that we are the riders of the horse, with full control of the reins! Yes, our “horse” keeps feeling hungry, tired, lazy, and sometimes distracted by the “mares” out there, but we must keep the binders on its eyes and the whip in our hands at all time. When we feel overwhelmed by desire and tell ourselves it’s too hard, we must remember that this is just our horse talking. We don’t need to give in to the horse. We are the riders, and we have an important mission to fulfill!

Happy are those who ride their horse and keep it on track. How wonderful will be their lot when they return to the King of kings after 120; what great honor and reward awaits them!

And woe to those who let their horse ride them!

Rabbi Twerski Responds

Very good.