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Surrendering to Impossible Odds

We are an optimistic people as a whole. We believe in beating the odds, in luck, in winning against the improbably. Our culture is infused with these beliefs, from superheroes saving the day and defusing the bomb with seconds to go on the clock to sports teams that pull out amazing victories from nearly certain defeat. We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that there is always a way to win, and that more often than not, luck or fate can swing our way, which explains why casinos are perpetually crowded.

What do you do, however, when you face a situation in which you cannot win? How do you deal with facing truly, legitimately impossible odds?

The answer, from a martial perspective, might surprise you. You surrender to the inevitable. In the martial arts, there are specific techniques for this, sutemi-waza, sacrifice techniques. Rather than fighting all out and wasting what resources you do have left on a fight you can’t win, you surrender and go with the flow – and sometimes, just sometimes an opportunity appears that was previously invisible, an opportunity perhaps not to win yourself, but to play a part in an ultimately successful outcome.

In truly unwinnable situations, this might be laying the groundwork for someone else to take up your fight, whether it’s sabotaging enemy supply lines or feeding your enemies bad information to make it easier for your allies to win after your capture and execution. This might be focusing all of your remaining time to raising money and championing the cause of an organization dedicated to defeating the disease that killed you. Ultimately, it’s about taking what resources you still have available and using them for maximum effect before your time is up, whether that’s a moment on a battlefield, a year until your corporation declares bankruptcy and locks the doors, or a decade until a disease claims you. Use what you have while you are able.

The ultimate unwinnable fight is against death itself. Not too far from my office, there’s a centuries-old graveyard that I walk through at lunch when it’s pleasant out. Walking by the headstones, I get brief glimpses of lives and people I’ve never known. I see headstones denoting deaths of people who, when their time came, were younger than I am today. It’s a stark reminder that we’re all only here for a little while, and to make use of what resources we have during that time for maximum impact.

As I walk, I wonder – in two centuries after my death, what will people be pondering as they stroll past my grave?

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