Recently, I asked someone I knew if I could talk to him for a few minutes. I will call him Eric.
We walked for a short while. I explained the issue. Then we stopped. I was facing Eric directly as he turned to give what I will call his “verbal position paper” on the topic. He was wearing sunglasses, his face angled upward, his jaw, firm, his body arched backwards at a comfortable level. And then he spoke.
It was clear to me, at that moment, that Eric had total control of the space he was in. I was convinced that his body actually began to stretch upwards, his voice sounding like hot taffy, consonants tapping softly on top of long rubber-band vowels.
I felt I was in a re-run of a 1930s Cary-Grant black-and-white film. Blue-blood, Boston-Brahmin, old-money territory. Continue reading
Learned Emotional Detachment
Now that I’ve got your attention.
It took me a long time to discover that I had learned, from early childhood, to be a detached observer. I was the youngest of five children. My family was in constant turmoil. My parents argued all the time. My two older brothers were always fighting. And my mother’s volatile and often violent mood swings continued to keep the family on pins and needles.
So, kids do what kids do. They protect themselves. They go to their rooms. They stay away from the chaos as much as they can. And when they are in the midst of the family tornadoes, they often withdraw into silent observers. They become recorders, television cameras, quiet witnesses. They learn, very early in the game to passively take in what’s happening and not to participate. It is the only recourse they have; it gives them some kind of order and safety in their lives.
Then they become adolescents and adults. They can’t figure out why others tell them they are “too analytical.” They find themselves observing again as they did when they were children. But the observation mode begins to implode when a friend breaks down after his girlfriend tells him the relationship is over.
The first instinct of the grand observer is to look around for the nearest exit. The other instinct is to click into the detached mode and calculate all the possible solutions for the friend. “Have you thought about an online dating service?” “Why don’t you go on a trip, get away?” “I’ve got a single friend; I think you guys would really hit it off.” Continue reading
Diversity of Spiritual Journeys in AA
Some of us in twelve-step recovery programs have never belonged to a religious institution. Some once belonged but have left. Some are still emotionally connected to their religious heritages, even though they do not practice their religions.
There are a minority in recovery programs who have chosen Buddhism, a non-theistic sect. If they are practicing Buddhists they participate in daily rituals: chanting; silent, sitting meditation; or walking meditation.
Others in twelve-step programs have developed a very eclectic collage of practices, values, and beliefs they have gleaned from Pema Chödrön, Osho, Krishnamurti, Andrew Cohen, Deepak Chopra, Gurdjieff, among others
There is a vast number in recovery programs who remain attached to their Judeo-Christian heritages and continue to practice their faiths of choice.
Family Screamers, Icy Silence, Sarcasm versus Saintly Calm
I grew up in a family of screamers, duckers, fighters, and scramblers. If that didn’t work, my family withdrew into icy silence.
If that didn’t work, we could always go to plan B: smart-ass sarcasm.
At the same time I was watching the pro-active survival skills of my siblings, I was being taught in Catholic elementary school that saints suffered quietly
They accepted their lots in life with passive surrender. And many quietly walked the gauntlet of martyrdom with angelic resignation, assured of a first-class room in the heavenly kingdom.
In my little elementary school mind, Christ was the icon of emotional stability. He may have thrown the gambling rabble out of the synagogue in a fit of rage, but his life seemed more about waiting his turn in the queue of acceptance and surrender. He was the gentle fisherman, the quiet shepherd. Not the raging truck driver or the sweaty faced hockey player, fists thrashing the air.
In my childhood, adolescence, and throughout my adulthood, I constantly pursued the “key” to sanctity. At one time, I thought all I had to do was go to mass, receive holy communion, confess my sins, and read spiritual books. The world, over time, I thought, would adapt to all the higher spiritual goals I had set out for myself. Or, on my journey to sainthood, I would be above it all.
The Ancient Chinese Concept of Wu
I continue to be mesmerized by the ancient Chinese notion of Wu, which, in the Dao De Ching (Tao Te Ching), is referred to as “nothingness, emptiness, non-existence.”
In Verse 11, Lao Tsu gives us examples of how “emptiness” has an importance:
- The hole at the center of a wheel hub “allows the wheel to spin”
- The space within a clay cup “allows the cup to hold water”
- A doorway enables us to walk through to another room
So, my friends, the Dao is telling us that a doorway and the hollowed-out space of a cup may appear, at first glance, to have no value. But we all know that a cup is made to “contain” liquid, that a doorway makes it possible for someone to pass through it. Continue reading
What does it mean to be free?
Freedom From Prison
I often think of my friend, Sam, an ex-Attica inmate, whom I met at an AA meeting many years ago. Freedom, for Sam, was very identifiable. When released from prison, institutional confinement was history for him. He could now do whatever he wanted.
He was free.
On the other hand, at 52, he entered a kind of free-fall world with no job skills and lost time, which he could have used to build some seniority and benefits in a manufacturing job.
Nevertheless, technically, he was still free. Continue reading
- The guy sleeping in a small entrance cove of a store, at two in the morning, with a near-empty wine bottle tucked inside his stained trench coat.
- The guy, with blood-shot eyes, standing in front of a seven-eleven, asking me for loose change so he can “buy a piece of pizza.”
- The guy, with hands trembling, sitting on the steps of an urban church, stopping passers-by telling them he needs gas money to visit his mother in hospice.
- The barroom story-tellers spinning out their lazy-tongued tales of resentments against a boss, an ex-girlfriend, or all the corrupt Washington politicians in bed with Wall Street.
I recently was told that I don’t have to return for another colonoscopy for ten years.
Sounds like good news, right?
Well, my friends, human nature, being what it is, we can always find some chip in a dining room table, some flaw in otherwise perfect facial skin.
My immediate thought was simply, “Jesus, I’ve got ten years to sweat this thing out. Anything can happen in those ten years. I could get cancer. Then what? I’ll have to get chemo. All my hair is going to fall out. I’ll have to make out a living will. How will I be able to shit? What kinds of foods am I going to be forced to eat? Who’s going to take care of me?” Continue reading
“God” is mentioned a little over one hundred and thirty times in the AA Twelve-and-Twelve book, a book that lays out all the steps with in-depth commentary about the meaning of those steps.
There can be little doubt that the co-founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, were deeply steeped in the 1930s orthodox Christian notion of that God.
In all of the AA literature, God is always male. And “He” is portrayed as an intervener, a grace-giver, a miracle-worker, a creator, and a caring, non-judgmental patriarch. Hell and Heaven may be absent from the literature, but an activist, intervening divinity is vividly present as a kind of divine co-partner and activist healer of the recovering alcoholic and addict. Continue reading
In my city, there’s a cadre of AAers who treat the program as a ritualized boot camp and see the steps as a military-like list of prescribed mandates, rather than “guides to progress.” Within this model, sponsors tend to see themselves as drill sergeants commanding the uninitiated through the twelve steps.
The Twelve-Steps Sequence, a Natural Order or a Human Construct?
There are also many who believe the sequence of the steps reflects a kind of natural order of events for recovering alcoholics and addicts in the program. Each step is seen as an inevitable awakening-like process, even though the order of the steps reflects a strong theological bias, particularly in the second and third steps—the “came-to-believe-in-a-power-greater-than-myself” steps I call them.
Those specific steps are placed early in the program suggesting that nothing in the program can be accomplished without some kind of “higher power” guiding those in recovery through the process of the program. According to this more traditional view, some recoverers call this higher power “God,” with grace-giving abilities capable of transforming behavior and attitudes. Continue reading