10/18/2012 06:50 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012


"Know when to hold 'em, Know when to fold 'em" are lyrics from a famous Kenny Rogers song, and they apply to life in so many ways. When do you give up? When do you throw up your hands and let things take their course despite being unhappy with the state of it all?

A recent post on depression received some push-back from people who felt that the insights offered were "airy fairy" and "pie in the sky," and it made me think about the times when I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel, either.

It's true. Sometimes, you just want to give up. Whether it is too hard to go on or it seems useless to do so, the mounting despair can seem permanent and unmovable. Is it ever OK to just give in?

Yes, I think it is. The skill comes in knowing how long to surrender for.

The Buddhist teacher will often instruct to surrender to an emotion. Whether it be anger, sadness, despair or hurt, the path to enlightenment is to allow the negative emotion and meet it face to face.

Most people fear that if they allow the negative, they will never get away from it, so they fight it and find it coming back over and over again. Meeting it, surrendering to it, does not guarantee that it won't come back, but it will shift the emotion and you in a way that I believe prepares you better for the next time you have to face it again.

For example, a year and a half ago, I had two major business disappointments back to back, followed by my youngest child needing to be hospitalized for an experimental treatment that might improve his cognition. As I went into the hospital with him, I was prepared for a sleepless few days and was feeling very low. I kept fighting to understand why all these things were happening. With the help of my own adviser, I remembered to surrender. There was nothing I could do at that time about any of my concerns.

"Something is trying to emerge," she said. "Just let go."

I stopped fighting. I spent all my mental awareness on my son and his healing. I tossed and turned every night as I cursed the contraption that hospitals call a bed for the caretaker, but I did not despair. I could feel the delicate balance of meeting the angst and depressive feelings head-on, and watching how doing so was not an indulgence but rather an exercise in splitting them, like waves crashing on the rocks. They were not overtaking me. I was breaking them by inviting them to my shoreline.

I came out of that hospital with my son having been changed for the better by the treatment, and I had been, too. New ideas came flooding in that to this day are a new part of my business and a source of joy.

I can still sense the people who might say they don't have the privilege of coming out of the dark experiences with the same resilience. And to them, my heart goes out. What I do know is that depression is a teacher. A very unwelcome one most of the time. A very inconvenient one, and one that slows life to a pace that does not match the world that is whirling by begging us to keep up. But it is a teacher nonetheless, and it demands our attention.

There comes a time with every student where we can only learn more if we go out on our own. We surrender to the wisdom of the teacher and the pace of the teacher, but eventually we must rebel or be launched by them against our will.

When do we "fold 'em"? We surrender to what dominates, but only long enough to learn what will release us from it. To meet it head-on does not mean to let it take over and squeeze the life out of you like a boa constrictor might do. It means to respect the power it holds, observe it, learn from it, maybe even thank it -- but only as a way to get it to slither by. If it never leaves, please seek help.

Surrender to win.

For more by Laura Berman Fortgang, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.