Sometimes Defeat Is The Answer

Susana Rinderle
12 min readJul 27, 2023

For much of my life, fall has been a rough season. Fall has brought the death of loved ones, abrupt endings of cherished romantic relationships, and darkening days that herald the approaching cold. Even as a January baby, I’ve never taken to the dark and the cold. This aversion endures despite my deep appreciation for the shadow side of life, and the importance of periodically plunging our hands into the dank, rotting soil of our lives and rooting around for lessons and signs of new life.

Last fall, I attended a “death café” for folks seeking loving responses to societal collapse. It started out as a warm bath of compassion, communion, and insight. But towards the end, someone asserted that “to accept reality doesn’t mean to accept defeat.” She went on to say, “surrender is not defeat, it’s accepting our limitations.”

The warm bath suddenly turned into a cold plunge as those words pulled me down. I left the event with unvoiced questions: How is surrender not defeat? Why is defeat presented as something “bad”, to avoid? And how is it that people comfortable with the idea of civilization collapse are uncomfortable with the idea of defeat?

A month later, I found myself in a stranger’s bedroom in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, losing my mind. I was several hours into a psychedelic journey, and the medicine had only just kicked in. Two other people were on the bed with me attempting to provide guardrails as I veered wildly towards the abyss sobbing, vomiting, growling, contorting my face like a woman possessed, and screaming “I DON’T KNOW WHAT SHE WANTS FROM ME!” Reality had completely melted. I was sinking down a fantastical tunnel near a massive Tree of Life covered with Biblical snakes. I thought I was probably going to die.

I didn’t die — at least not physically — but that “bad trip” (facilitated by practitioners who lacked the skills necessary to work with trauma survivors like me) was the capstone experience of the worst year of my life. In concentrated form, it savagely exposed what 2022 had been (equally savagely) exposing for 11 months: utter defeat.

That was the capstone experience of the worst year of my life. In concentrated form, it savagely exposed what 2022 had been (equally savagely) exposing for 11 months: utter defeat.

“I have a new appreciation for those who don’t want to go there,” I said to a friend two weeks later. Trained in the same somatic modality as me, they’re also steeped in healing work and offered safe haven to talk about my experience. “I used to look down on people who just want to watch Hallmark movies and not ever do their personal work,” I continued. “It’s fucking daunting to really face the truth. Fuck. Ing. Daun. Ting. Because once you do, everything unravels. Everything. Bliss and ignorance might be underrated. I’m now questioning — is this dogged commitment to healing worth it?”

Fucking Daunting. I felt that was one of the most appropriate uses of the f-bomb ever. My colleague agreed.


Before The Worst Year Ever, I already understood that there are many reasons why people don’t want to “go there” and dig deep into their “stuff”. Top of the list is that most of us simply can’t. Sometimes we can’t because we’re unsafe or lack capacity through no fault of our own. Avoidance is a protective, adaptive trauma response.

But many of us can’t “go there” because we’re never required to. We live in a grossly immature culture that never demands we face the inner darkness and develop spiritual resilience. Spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically, we never really develop beyond early adolescence — especially in the technologically “advanced” Western world. We have become overly domesticated.

This immature culture is neither our natural state nor our birthright. As far as we know, for hundreds of thousands of years, we existed in relatively sane symbiosis with other humans, other species, and our shared surroundings. Darkness, death, and defeat were natural forces to befriend, dance with around the fire, and sleep with at night. This wasn’t optional or extra-curricular, since such forces were our daily experience and played an essential role in our clan’s main job: raising adults. Eco-depth psychologist Bill Plotkin describes an adult as “someone who experiences themself, first and foremost, as a member of the Earth community”, who understands their unique place in that community and embodies it “as a gift to their people and to the Earth community”. In our ancestors’ reality, denying death would rightly be seen as insane, even dangerous.

In the mature cultures of our ancient lineage, the process of achieving adulthood required “revelatory experiences”, including vision quests, which are crudely misinterpreted by our current culture. These revelatory experiences are not for the faint of heart. Many follow the trajectory of “the hero’s journey” — a concept introduced to modern western culture by Joseph Campbell, and which echoes throughout our popular culture from Star Wars to Game of Thrones to Marvel.

However, we have an incomplete understanding of the hero(ine)’s journey, distorted by our immature culture. My wise friend introduced me to the following quote from meditation teacher and life coach Paul Weinfield:

“People constantly throw around the term “hero’s journey” without having any idea what it really means. Everyone from CEOs to wellness influencers thinks the hero’s journey means facing your fears, slaying a dragon, and gaining 25k followers on Instagram. But that’s not the real hero’s journey.

In the real hero’s journey, the dragon slays YOU. Much to your surprise, you couldn’t make that marriage work. Much to your surprise, you turned forty with no kids, no house, and no prospects. Much to your surprise, the world didn’t want the gifts you proudly offered it.”

When the dragon slays us, we are defeated. We profoundly learn we are not all-powerful. We truly learn we do not have control almost all the time. We deeply learn we are not the most important entity in the Universe — in fact, we’re not important at all. And, we learn this is exactly how things should be.

When we are defeated, we see right through the bullshit. Bullshit like: You can be whatever you want to be. You can accomplish whatever you set your mind to if you work hard enough. Everything happens for a reason. Time heals all wounds. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Loving someone enough will change them for the better.

But what they don’t tell you is that truly seeing through the bullshit ends life as you know it. Giving up the lies of our culture leaves us naked and alone in the dark.

When we are defeated, we see right through the bullshit. But what they don’t tell you is that truly seeing through the bullshit ends life as you know it. Giving up the lies of our culture leaves us naked and alone in the dark.

When we are defeated, we also see right through our own bullshit. My bullshit: I’m noble for trying to make the world better (instead of trying to fix my own brokenness). I’m a good person because I’m so generous and “selfless” (instead of controlling and fearful). I can’t (shouldn’t) rest until racism is ended. I know better than everyone else. If I just say it louder and more often, they’ll finally “get it”.

Now that I’ve been defeated, I see how every aspect of my life was driven by my wounding: my various jobs and professions, my various moves to different geographies, my various love relationships and friendship, and my grandiosity in writing and speaking. They were my search for a home I never had — a desperate need to belong and matter, a quest to be justified and validated.

I’m not unique in my wounding or being driven by it. But now that I see through the bullshit, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what to do next. “I” have been defeated.

This is why most of us don’t “go there”. It’s a survival instinct. We’re too terrified to die.


Denying death was insane, dangerous, and impossible in our ancestors’ reality, but it’s still insane and dangerous in ours. The difference is that now it’s normal. Our death-denying culture is another symptom of civilization’s mental and spiritual illness, in which we regard death with silence, shame, and fear. We pretend that death is optional, even when it’s one of the few features of human life that’s not only inevitable, but universal. So, we do all we can to resist signs of decay in ourselves and hide them from others. We dye our hair. We subject our bodies to brutal procedures and poisonous substances. We take on unnecessary challenges that are too much for our bodies to handle, then celebrate our suffering as achievement. We utter ridiculous phrases like “age is just a number”. And even in hospitals and mortuaries, we hide corpses.

When we do these things, we’re denying the truth to avoid our feelings. We’re attempting to disown our grief and terror. We’re trying to prove to ourselves (and others) that nothing’s changed, or that “it’s not that bad”. We lie to avoid feeling the intense pain of inevitable loss.

We also lie to suffocate our shame. We try to prove to ourselves (and others) that despite the losses and passage of time, we still have value. This shame is the logical outcome of clear, consistent, pervasive messages that our ideal state is the taut skin, abundant energy, and voracious attitude of youth. These are coveted and elevated only because they fuel the exploitative, extractive capitalist machine of relentless “progress”, narrow innovation, and growth at all costs — all of which is also insane. To approach death — to age — is to lose our value. To show that we’re approaching death is to fail.

source: ErreCh/Shutterstock

We’re not crazy or bad for behaving this way. We deny the truth and lie to ourselves and each other out of self-protection in an insane culture. We know deep down we’re powerless to stop death, and that the messages are a trap. But integral to the insanity of death denial is the idea that losing is bad. That failure is bad. That “loser” and “failure” rank among the worst kind of person to be. We believe such people are weak, defective, and unworthy. To be defeated is to be wrong and less-than. Death, after all, is the ultimate defeat and “failure”, so aversion to defeat is a natural extension of death denial.

Notice the subtleties in how we talk about losing and how we treat failure. Many startup companies have a “fail fast” policy, but the true purpose of those policies is to avoid ultimate failure (and such companies are usually failure-averse and chronically terrified). We reward “losers” with consolation prizes and participation trophies, so they don’t feel bad (feel like “losers”). We cheer for movie characters who say, “failure is not an option”, which is an insane statement. We teach stories of historical losers only because they were eventual winners. We romanticize losers for having gone through defeat so that they could eventually “win.” We eroticize suffering by proselytizing others to be grateful for their experience of oppression or injury because those “made them stronger”, or “who they are today”. Winners who were once losers collude with this cruelty by preaching a lie that if they could do it, so can (should) we! And we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on cancer treatments per year in the USA alone, celebrating those who undergo debilitating and maiming procedures to “fight” cancer, mourning those who “lost their battle” with cancer, and reacting with alarm (and a psych referral) to “otherwise healthy” individuals who prefer hospice over chemo and radiation.

Such death denial and failure aversion are as dangerous to our species now as they were to our ancestors. We spend tremendous energy and effort on maintaining the cognitive dissonance of the lie — energy and effort that could be used for genius or pleasure. The lie deprives us of the opportunity to mature through normalizing, experiencing, feeling, and navigating failure and defeat — as a valuable process in itself and not as a means to “winning”. The lie unnecessarily and unfairly marginalizes, blames, and devalues those who experience failure and defeat.

Ours is a culture out of touch with reality and how this planet works. Death is inevitable. Defeat is life. Losing happens every day. And not always as a means to a triumphant end.

Ours is a culture out of touch with reality and how this planet works. Death is inevitable. Defeat is life. Losing happens every day. And not always as a means to a triumphant end.

This denial of reality is perhaps the biggest danger. Such disembodied detachment from the natural laws of life on our incredible planet makes us capable of tremendous violence. This violence starts with our own bodies. Not heeding our body’s “no’s” or pain — in the gym, in relationships, at work — habituates us to ignore danger and accept abuse. It therefore conditions us to also perpetrate violence on other people and ignore their pain and “no’s”. Death denial and failure aversion are close cousins of our war culture, and in war, death is reserved for the conquered. It’s reserved for those who deserve to be vanished or subjugated. For while others may be the conquered losers, we will not. We adopt a conqueror attitude not just towards our bodies and other humans, but also other species and our remarkable planet.

Death denial and aversion to defeat not only keep us in an immature state, they threaten our very existence. Ironically, death denial could lead to our collective demise.


Despite our best efforts, denial of death and defeat don’t always save us from the dragon’s cave. Some of us go searching for it while others are dragged in, kicking and screaming. But no matter how we end up in the dark, and no matter what happens there, we’re usually unprepared for what happens next because our culture leaves out the part of the hero’s journey where the “heroine” returns home. Contrary to our culture’s propaganda, the hero(ine) doesn’t return to glory or celebration, but to alienation. Those who go on the journey come back changed, while everyone else stays the same. Our compatriots don’t — can’t — understand what we’ve been through. This is why Frodo accepts the invitation to sail to Valinor (“die”) rather than remain in the Shire after The Fellowship destroys the ring.

Photo via New Line Cinema

To those who seek to avoid death by the dragon’s claws and fiery breath, Paul Weinfield counsels:

“If you are foolish, this is where you will abort the journey and start another, and another, abusing your heart over and over for the brief illusion of winning. But if you are wise, you will let yourself be shattered, and return to the village, humbled, but with a newfound sense that you don’t have to identify with the part of you that needs to win, needs to be recognized, needs to know. This is where your transcendent life begins.

So embrace humility in everything. Life isn’t out to get you, nor are your struggles your fault. Every defeat is just an angel, tugging at your sleeve, telling you that you don’t have to keep banging your head against the wall. Leave that striver there, trapped in his lonely ambitions. Just walk away, and life in its vastness will embrace you.”

Those of us who choose to remain in the Shire, or wherever we call home, have a whole new journey ahead. We are newly marginal members of society — or marginal in new ways. I’m on that journey now. I’m still being shattered. I’m still learning how to be humbled without feeling humiliated. I’m still learning how to de-identify with those parts of me and my culture that insist on incessant knowing, doing, striving, and winning.

I sense this path is good and worthwhile, but I wouldn’t have chosen it. It’s Fucking Daunting. So it’s a good thing I didn’t have to choose it. It’s a good thing Spirit, Life, or the Earth required it from me, since my culture would not.

I’m awkwardly and fitfully walking away — from the cave, from the bullshit, and from the Shire. I don’t know what’s next. I’m not in control. The biggest leap of faith I’ve even taken is to embrace my stateless, homeless, orphan self and trust that this time — maybe — Life will embrace me back. I have no choice now but to trust its vastness, for I have been defeated.

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Susana Rinderle

I write about civilization, personal healing, dating, politics, and the workplace. You know, light topics! I'm a trauma-informed coach.