AA’s Third Step is more often portrayed as a step about all the deficiencies of self will. But self-will embodied in all kinds of control over everything in our lives—relationships, jobs, goals, medical issues, family, and, of course, addictions
Today, at a third-step table, I realized that much of my adult life was about exits, getting out of relationships and avoiding personal conflict, especially with another person in my life or family.
Whenever I got out of relationships, I often just left in silence. Or, I created some kind drama. Or I just said, in one form or another, “it’s over.”
I vividly remember one night many, many years ago, packing a small suitcase, coming down the stairs, and saying to my ex-wife, “I’m leaving.”
I came to the conclusion, today, that those exits were a clumsy way of taking control. Or avoiding a mature, compassionate response to someone who cared for me. I did that a lot when I was in my chronic alcoholic state.
There were other issues related to that kind of behavior, certainly. However, my drinking just made it easier to keep avoiding reality, especially with intimate relationships.
The twelve-step program opened me up to a whole new world of deep friendships and trust, two issues that were very much at the core of all dysfunctional exits I made out of many relationships and groups.
The program and the fellowship also enabled me to further open up to many communities that I belong to, communities in which I can now make exits that are mature, thought-out, and rational. And, more importantly, without hurting others.
Just some thoughts
There was a time in my life when fatalism had more appeal to me than optimism.
Lately, the old cyclical narrative of abandonment has reared its ugly head.
Sometimes, writing is my own secular form of exorcism.
But sometimes the old devil watches me start to write and steps out on a coffee break, comes back, looks at one of of my exorcism poems and says politely, “a reprieve, my boy. I’ll be back.”
His mother left him once when he was a child,
Would she exit again in another form?
Yes, he decided, in all the lovers he scrapped
For hanging around too long,
Being far too modest in their passion,
Or clinging like an abused dog.
Tragedy would wrap its arms around him
On days when the sun offered solace,
Possibility escaping him every day
As his new friend leasing out
Only the bad news, his best seller.
Someone dying on stage,
Another host’s deliverance,
The happy ending, his Cinderella
In a head-on collision
On the way to the senior prom.
The Higher Power as the “Spirit” of Transformation
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
That power for me is the power of transformation arrived at through service, self-reflection (4th and 10th steps), shared recovery stories in the rooms, silence, human connections, trust, surrender, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, community, listening, surrender, and humility.
Silence can take the form of meditation, or for traditional believers, it can be whatever kind of prayer works. My form of prayer is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “tonglen,” which is a breathing exercise of breathing in somebody else’s pain or suffering (even my own) and breathing out relief and kindness. It is an altruistic, humanitarian, compassionate extension of love.
When I’m at a meeting where the Christian “Our Father” is recited, I stand silently to absorb the mantra-like connection I internalize from the group in that prayer. I find it very nurturing.
And I say the “Serenity Prayer” to remind me to balance my behavior between doing the right thing and acceptance when I can’t change the inevitable, an outcome, or somebody’s behavior ( I”m right now in the middle of trying to accept somebody’s need to proselytize and control in a group I’m in)
That acceptance is also a form of surrender. But I have to know that surrendering to dysfunctionalism, tragedy, or the inevitable doesn’t mean I get off the hook. I have to also surrender to the pain that comes from that surrender.
Surrender can also mean I can’t always control some of my faults and inadequacies. Sometimes I need guidance from others and/or a counselor. And I also need patience in accepting the process of an active Step Program and sponsorship to do their “Refiner’s-Fire” work on those faults.
That power greater than myself I often refer to as the “Spirit” of transformation. In my experience it is expansive, loving, engaging, and inclusive.
My lovely agonist,
In your cheap eye-liner,
I want to lust for you
As my first drop-dead date
In concrete basements,
But you were sent
By some official
Dressed in green pants
With a name tag
And ugly shoes
I cannot trust
But give me time.
For I need a lover,
As young hearts do,
Some quiet face
That doesn’t nod off
And eyes that do not close,
And long-fingered hands
On warm washcloths
And piano keys
On a Sunday afternoon.
We had two contrasting topics at an AA meeting this morning—Happiness and Grief, emotions I have struggled with so much of my life.
Today, because of my sobriety, they are emotions I have learned to be comfortable with.
My sobriety has been guided by the 12 steps, sponsors, service, meetings, the stories people share, and the Higher-Power Spirit of my understanding. That Spirit, for me, is the power of transformation I continue to experience in AA.
And that sobriety has given me the kind of happiness I never experienced in my alcoholic drinking days.
It is the kind of happiness I call “chronic happiness.” The kind that makes me smile warmly at a friend’s success, laugh at a corny joke, sit contentedly watching a nostalgic film without getting cynical.
At the same meeting, someone shared their grief, grief jump-started by gut-wrenching trust issues.
I am always amazed how the program is able to absorb those two emotional extremes without telling us that we “must” be at a certain level of happiness protecting us from too much grief.
Or even that grief has a more intense emotional content than happiness, which I believed during my heavy drinking days and much of my early adult life.
Over the many years in the program I have discovered that happiness and grief are two sides of the same emotional coin.
I don’t remember, exactly, how those two emotions completely dovetailed when I got sober. But I do remember one incident, in early recovery, when I totally internalized a deep grief in having hurt my wife by my drinking and recklessness (I vividly remember the feeling of overwhelming grief in that Episcopal Church basement). I realized, then, that I could truly “feel” something for someone.
Once I internalized that deep sadness for another person, happiness began to arrive in small doses. I am convinced that that first experience with grief in the rooms of AA made it possible for me to experience other emotions, especially happiness.
I find it interesting, even ironic, that happiness often arrives with a tinge of sadness for me, almost as if the fullness of that happiness is too much to bear. Or that feeling of being overwhelmed by an experience. I think that’s what happens when people experience “tears of joy.”
I also found that if I can truly experience happiness, which is a deep form of connectedness to the world, then I know, conversely, I am capable of grief, another form of connectedness to the world.
One is about fullness, the other about absence. And my experience has been that they play off of each other.
And more importantly for me, to experience grief over a broken trust makes it more probable that I will experience happiness, for the kind of hard-hitting grief we’re talking about here often seems to give a deeper texture to happiness.
Finally, happiness and grief seem to juggle my psyche in ways that deceive me into believing that they are totally unrelated, when, in my experience, they are not.
It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined is not worth living.”
I suppose it was my religious upbringing that instilled in me the importance of self reflection, even though that religious heritage had limited objectives by encouraging children, at an early age, to reflect, almost exclusively, on their sins.
The objective was to make sure that all children become aware of just how inclined to evil we all were, no matter how much it preached the pollyanic, but contradictory message that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.
Self-knowledge (the “unexamined life”), then, was more like self-flagellation than it was about any deep soul searching. A cathartic walk through our faults was seen, by the church, as the only way to heal our, essentially, sinful selves.
Nevertheless, I did learn something about interiority. I did learn that it was permissible, if not encouraged, to be silent with myself, to circle back into my psyche.
The Braggart, the Victim, the Innocent
It is not difficult to spot someone with a big ego. Aside from the fact that they are often hiding their insecurities, they tend to let you know, up front, that they are authorities about everything—-kids, relationships, mortgages, the best deals, doctors, schools, books, current events, relatives, religion, social media, even sex.
As an adult, however, I found that egotists come in many, many shades. Or they express their egos in different ways.
As a classical recitalist, it is impossible to get through a Schubert song cycle without encountering the word “Sehnsucht,” (longing or desire).
Buddhism’s second Noble Truth tells us that “craving” is at the root of all “suffering,” which is the reality the First Noble Truth informs us is the malady every human will experience in life.
And desire certainly drives advertising in Western culture—in magazines, in newspapers, on cable tv, on billboards, on metro busses, on the radio. Even if we didn’t know we had the desire for that SUV, a tv ad will energize that desire into a purchase, for only $200 a month and $3,000 down.
In the alcohol and drug worlds, desire becomes a deeply entrenched craving, enhanced by a chemical dependency, that seeps into our bodies and minds, taking over our lives. That over-arching control of every aspect of our lives is certainly true for other addictions—food, sex, gambling, relationships, cars, shopping, among others
So, whether it’s romantic longing, an addiction, or an impulse to buy something we don’t need, the common denominator of desire, with all of its variations, is a part of our humanity, at least our modern humanity. And we can add to those modern forms of desire and cravings our finger-driven daily obsessions with Facebook and texting, not to mention the addictive need to scroll our way through our emails everyday.
Aside from addictions or the repetitive actions on our smartphones, both of which have multiple psychological and physical components, desire often arrives because something is missing in our lives.
That absence may be the lack of positive feedback at my job, of a positive image of myself that goes back to my childhood and adolescence. Or I may have had a week in which the second-floor toilet overflowed into the kitchen, my car’s muffler fell off in the Wegman’s parking lot, or one of my kids had a projectile vomit attack in the back seat of the family car in the middle of a traffic jam.
On my way home from work, do I want that new flat screen or smartphone, because my boss gave me a mediocre evaluation? Or just because I need to “come down” from all the craziness of my week.
Desire, I have found, often arrives as a form of emotional compensation. I may buy something because I think I need a pay-back from overwork. I rationalize the purchase saying to myself, “I deserve it; it’s been a rough week at work; the boss has been on my ass all week about my underperforming.”
Or my life sucks; I feel under-appreciated or left out; I can’t stop gaining weight; I fucked up another relationship; I offended somebody again.
Ordering a large pizza and streaming a favorite horror flick on Netflix can be just the right recipe to make us “feel good” in that escapist, prophylactic world where our bodies and minds just numb out the pain of feeling bad.
At the same time, the effect of acting on the desire makes us feel worse. That’s the second level of suffering.
The first level, of course, is that some painful experience enters our life (a shitty week with a boss, a client, a student, a relationship, at home), and we decide to binge.
The second level of suffering is a kind of buyer’s remorse, a regret, because now we’ve put on more weight, food binging. Or we have a huge credit-card bill after purchasing the entire series of “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” Or we wake up with a person we’ve never seen before in our lives.
Just some thoughts in sobriety…..John
Feelings of Worthlessness
I’ve been in a 12-step recovery program for many, many years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people describe themselves, in one way or another, as a “piece of shit.”
Much of this self-degradation comes from the guilt we feel over our behavior when we were actively using: infidelity, disappearances, credit card debt, emotional/verbal/physical abuse, stealing, or, one of my favorites—emotional withdrawal.
Recovery, for many of us, involves taking responsibility for those actions and behaviors. Over time, through meetings, doing the steps, and being emotionally transparent, we learn a better way of living.
We stop having secret lives. We learn to be honest. We start owning up to our faults. And some of us learn to be more humble, especially if we hid behind our arrogance in order to protect ourselves during our drinking days (As someone in the rooms so poignantly said about himself, “I tried to be one step ahead of everybody else so I wouldn’t be hurt”).
But what about those of us in the recovery rooms who have a difficult time believing that we are worth anything? Continue reading
The Realm of the Spirit in AA
The other day, someone at an AA meeting asked me what part I played in my relationship to the concept of God. Several years ago, I came out at as a non-theist, even after thirty-one years in the program.
I became defensive because I believed he was making every attempt, in a non-threatening way, to gently admonish me for my “profound problems with the theology of the ‘Our Father,'” the statement I made at the 12 step table that night. It was clear to me that, in his view, I had not really “surrendered” my own non-theism, even though I have been consistently open about being nurtured, in and out of the rooms, by other people’s faiths, while, at the same time, saying that those sky-god faiths don’t represent my own spiritual journey in the program. Nor do those faiths embody my notion of “The Realm of the Spirit” that I find in Steps two and three.
I would have agreed with him if I believed all sky-god followers to be fools. I do not. However, my experience with human nature tells me that, in any group, there will be some who are really, really naive. And yet, I know many theists who are intelligent, compassionate, and self-reflective. They strive to be good and be of service. They bend the rules when life kicks them in the ass. They often love diversity because they have big, inclusive hearts. Continue reading