Courage: the ability to do something that you know is right or good, even though it is dangerous, frightening, or very difficult.
American popular culture tends to associate courage with kicking ass. Most of our movie heroes don’t need to overcome fear because they don’t feel any. All we see from them is the anger and righteousness to smash the bad guys. This invulnerable version of courage is reflected in Dictionary.com’s definition, as that which “permits one to face extreme dangers and difficulties without fear.”
But what if fear is essential to courage? That is, what if courage involves not just outward action, but the inner struggle to overcome all that holds us back – confusion, doubts… and fear? In that case, courage means acceptance of our vulnerability, even our weakness, as well as the faith to move beyond it.
What’s this got to do with alcoholism? People outside the rooms often assume recovery is about the ego’s type of courage: we’re sober because we’ve kicked addiction’s ass. We conquered that mofo by being strong, disciplined, and – my favorite – taking control! But there’s a lil’ problem with that. Where drinking’s concerned, I can pull off none of those things. I drink myself shitfaced. That’s just what happens. No matter how angry or righteous I may feel toward addiction, it’s the only one doing the ass-kickin’.
On the other hand, what I witness and learn in the rooms of AA is another form of courage – the courage to surrender. Those two words don’t match up in most people’s minds, but for those of us in recovery, they have to. When we tell ourselves, “I’m gonna beat this thing!” we seem to end up drunk. But if instead we surrender, something inside us begins to shift, and we develop courage through the three essentials of recovery: Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness.
Nobody wants to be an alcoholic. But even more, nobody who’s known only that way of life can imagine surviving without alcohol – a terrifying prospect. I don’t know a single person who came to their first AA meeting without half a mind to bolt out the door. What keeps us there is loyalty to certain moments of clarity – also known as honesty – when we either recognized death on our not-so-distant horizon or, in subtler cases, realized we could no longer endure the mental contortions necessary to sustain denial. To hang onto that insight despite all the disclaimers our disease flings at us requires courage.
What’s more, every instinct cries out against admitting to a room full of strangers, “I cannot stop drinking and I don’t know how to live.” Such words may not be voiced at our first meeting, and for some they never are. But alcoholics committed to recovery find the courage to speak these truths, no matter how difficult or painful. Hearing them still brings tears to my eyes, even after almost 20 years.
Alcoholics tend to abhor the idea of groups. We like to see ourselves as fiercely independent and temperamentally unique, so we’re repulsed by anything that smacks of conformity. We also can’t stand the prospect of talking to others without a few drinks in us. The last place we ever thought we’d spill our guts is a goddam cult, which is what we’ve been calling AA, between swigs, for years. Who wants to crawl in and, stone cold sober, ask for help from a group they’ve talked nothing but shit about to anyone who’d listen? Nobody! But we do it anyway, strange and frightening as it is.
Neither do I know a single newcomer who read the Twelve Steps on the wall and thought, “Oh, boy! That’ll help!” The steps seem useless and irrelevant – some ‘hokey-pokey’ dance involving a magic Easter Bunny that has NOTHING to do with our very huge and real problems. When alcoholics move ahead with these steps despite the certainty that they’ll never work, they’re stepping out on pure faith, reaching for the possibility of other ways to experience life. The disease continues to offer them “Fuck Everything Free!” cards, but they decline to take one. To turn away from everything familiar toward something unknown and intangible just because it feels “good or right” takes – you got it! – courage.
The road to recovery is lengthy and, in places, steep. We hear early on, “There’s only one thing you need to change – and that’s everything!” Not only does that sound creepy, but “change” here is a verb – meaning we have to make it happen. To find and work with a sponsor, write and read inventory, show up and listen at meetings, make amends, and eventually to sponsor and be of service to others – all these efforts require a willingness we’ve formerly lacked. Our degree of willingness may wax and wane over the years, but if we steer by what we “know is right or good, even though it is… difficult,” we gradually come to call it by a different name: maybe god’s guidance, or maybe loving-kindness.
Whether in terms of the battlefield or bottle, surrender means accepting as reality that which we’ve been fighting to deny. But while a soldier surrenders only once, for the alcoholic, surrendering to one aspect of reality just moves us to a new perspective where we have to repeat the process. Once we accept that our lives are unmanageable, we have to look at our relationships, which points us to our selfishness, which alerts us to our fear, which signals us to look at our connection to god and what it truly means to us. The greatest paradox is that courage gradually leads us to our spiritual source, and yet it was that source (aka god/HP/ loving-kindness), once we opened the channel, that granted us the courage to change.