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.
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