Control for Surrender: Henry Miller’s Stunning Letter to Anaïs Nin About the Value of and the Antidote to Despair

“When you surrender, the problem ceases to exist. Try to solve it, or conquer it, and you only set up more resistance.”

Control for Surrender: Henry Miller’s Stunning Letter to Anaïs Nin About the Value of and the Antidote to Despair

“Letting art is the paradox of active surrender,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her superb meditation on how art transforms us. “I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.” But letting life is also a paradox of active surrender — we have to work for life too if we want life to work for us. (That is what Maya Angelou meant when she observed that “life loves the liver of it.”)

The paradox is that much of what we think is work at life — all the ways in which we try to bend reality to our will, all the ways in which we clutch at control (which only ever means the illusion of control) as an organizing principle — is in fact an escape from the true work, which is the work of letting go: letting go of the illusion, of the systems of belief and magical thinking by which we fancy ourselves in control.

The subtlety — sometimes devastating, sometimes deeply rewarding — lies in learning the difference between the false work and the true work of life: that elusive art of active surrender.

That is the essence of it Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) explores with uncommon self-awareness and sensitivity in one of the many miniature masterpieces of insight into human nature collected in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller (public library) — the record of the layered and durable relationship between these longtime lovers turned lifelong friends, comrades in the republic of literature, kindred rebels against the tide of convention and the tyranny of circumstance, forever bonded by their shared devotion to shaping themselves and reshaping their world through writing.

Henry Miller

In 1946, he wrote to her from Big Sur.

If you are willing to surrender, it is no longer a problem. You will only make it more difficult to resolve or conquer. I am very certain now that… if I truly become what I wish to be, the burden will fall away. The most difficult thing to admit, and to realize with one’s whole being, is that you alone control nothing. To be able to put yourself in tune or rhythm with the forces beyond, which are the truly operative ones, that is the task — and the solution, if we can speak of “solutions.”

He observes that when we don’t fully surrender to those currents of life larger than us, some part of, however suppressed, knows it. Out of that quiet, gnawing knowledge arise the feelings of guilt that often haunts our days without an easily identifiable source — for the source lurks in those secret strata of being, half-opaque even to us. It’s a combination of interior knowledge and interior guilt. This inner knowing is impervious for outside judgement, yet independent from the outside world. In our desperate search for a source we project it often outward, and then place it in others.

Miller is a writer who demonstrates a strong faith in the human condition.

One thing I don’t worry about… is what people think, how they misinterpret things. There’s nothing you can do about that… What amazes me more and more is how much people do understand when you give them the full dose, when you hold back nothing.

Kanagawa’s Great WaveHokusai (1831), Japanese artist. Available as a printed version.

He considers the importance of despair and how it is only when we reach emotional rock bottom that we are fully open to all the truths in our lives. How the ego moves at an erratic pace below the surface of illusion to prevent us sinking into the surrender that is the redemption we seek from our struggle.

You must allow people to be desperate and to feel completely lost. Only then will they have the ability to hear the right words, then they can access the truth. The crime of withholding it is to do so. To nurse them is worse. That is exactly where the majority of conflict revolves. It is the MenschThe fallacy instinct of wanting to avoid the pain of others (which, in some senses, is the means of his salvation) is false. The subtle temptations, insidious, and malicious ones that are so entangled and confusing, can be found here. On this so-called human plane it is the ego which commands — often in the most amazing disguises. It’s tempting to try to please, or to help others, and it can get us to spend a lot of time. It’s the last ruse, I feel, of the ego.


Even from far, I can create a clamorous and exaggerated atmosphere all around me. Me. I’m sure of it.

Henry Miller with his beloved bicycle

Sharing with Nin the news of an elder local woman’s extraordinary generosity in making his dream home available to him, giving it up herself for “it is now inside her [and] can’t be lost,” he adds:

Do you not think I have become increasingly aware that what I truly desire is possible without suffering? … All the struggle, then, is phantom play. It is fighting with shadows. This is all I know.

Complement with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the interplay of control and surrender in living with presence and some timeless wisdom on control, surrender, and the paradox of self-transcendence from Tove Jansson’s Moomins, then revisit Miller on the measure of a life well lived.

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