“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
——————————————— Polonius – ass-kisser & schemer (Shakespeare)
“The paradox of self-honesty is that I need the help of others to achieve it.”
———————————————(Courage to Change, 296)
Inscribed on many AA coins is the wisdom byte, “To thine own self be true,” which was probably already time-worn when Shakespeare put it in Polonius’ advice speech in Hamlet. Whoever Shakespeare was, I’m sure he was crafting irony by doing so: Polonius is false to everyone, including himself. Shakespeare’s message, as I see it, is that being true to oneself is far more easily said than done. In fact, striving for personal authenticity is the work of a lifetime.
Many of us believe we’re being true to ourselves when we regurgitate whatever the dominant culture – or our faction thereof – has inculcated in us. Oprah said it. Parenting magazine. Dad and the NRA. For that matter, individualism itself is an ideal of Western culture. Because we’re all an amalgamation of the belief systems we’ve been raised with, spouting what these systems maintain in the face of other systems feels like authenticity, even if it doesn’t come from our spirit.
As James Fowler outlines in his book, Stages of Faith*, the search for deeper levels of meaning requires an ability to stand back from our beliefs and evaluate them critically, changing what no longer rings true – even if it requires a break from our past or our clan. Otherwise, our faith remains childlike. He identifies Stage 1 faith, for example, in a Catholic woman he interviewed who, interpreting every symbol of her religion literally, staked an almost monetary worth in telling her beads (points “in the bank”) and worried about pissing off various saints by neglecting to pray to them. At the other end of the spectrum, Fowler places visionaries like Gandhi or King who staked their lives on a faith in love beyond the norms of their society, valuing good for humanity over good for self.
It’s the difference between obedient adherence to mere form versus courageous application of import. The more we develop toward the latter, Fowler says, the deeper our faith, and the more meaningful our lives.
When I came to AA, my belief system was a mess of contradictions. Most of what I’d cobbled together to live by had to be straight up chucked in favor of love & respect for people from all walks of life and an ethic of usefulness – values that proved their worth as they lifted me from despair to vitality. AA sponsors, friends, and sometimes strangers who spoke in meetings – these people taught me how to live. It’s a process that continues to this day. Listening, I’m transported outside my own experience into the perspectives of women and men who differ from me in countless ways, yet share my diseased alcoholic mind. My fellows in AA and Al-Anon have become a sounding board for my tentative thoughts as I navigate the unknowns of today. Their feedback pushes me beyond what I want to see, pressing me to be ever more honest with myself.
Even so, I need to examine AA meetings with some critical distance, as well. AA is amorphous, because meetings are only as constructive as the alcoholics attending them. A group of sick people makes a sick meeting.
Dry Drunk** Meetings, for example, have cast aside the Big Book in favor of some kind of open-season group therapy. Shares focus solely on “checking in,” usually venting frustrations or confessing destructive behavior, all of which is swept aside with the phrase, “but at least I didn’t drink!” Here plug-in-the-jug abstinence is touted as an asset, even if I’m still an asshole tortured by the fear and self-loathing I once treated with alcohol. I myself spent the first two years of my sobriety in such meetings, which brought on a debilitating depression.
At the opposite extreme are Competitive Sobriety Meetings, which feature the same schtick over and over: My life sucked, but now I work the 12 Steps constantly, and everything is wonderful! Yes, dammit, wonderful, because I have 7 sponsees, 5 service positions, 3 home groups, write a 10th step every fucking night and read 86-88 every morning, etc. – so my sobriety is way better than yours! Here the search for authenticity has been abandoned. In fear of relapse, I cling to the RIGHT ANSWER. The second two years of my sobriety were spent developing resentments in such meetings. The solution was there – yes – a solution that saved my life. Still, much like Fowler’s Stage 1 woman with her virtual Ken and Barbie saint collection, such meetings tend to make a golden calf of the AA program and its history.
Where is balance to be found? What rings true? That’s up to… thine own self, baby! Today, I have a home group that feels like home. For me, the most important growth guide is based, not in set rules or standards, but rather in my ways of being, my modes of consciousness – in my awareness of my awareness. To what degree am I willing to be vulnerable and loving, to admit that I don’t know, but to keep trying regardless? At a dry drunk meeting, can I offer the solution to those who want it, without judging those who don’t? In competitive sobriety meetings, do I have the courage to speak of my continuing human struggles?
J.K. Rowling may seem a questionable sage, but as I’ve been reading Harry Potter to my son, I’ve noticed how frequently she has Dumbledore preface statements with “I think…” Unlike Polonius, Dumbledore understands that he is fallible, mourns past mistakes, and acknowledges that he cannot trust himself with power. His wisdom shows itself as recurring acknowledgement that he may be wrong.
In sum, we’re always trying, never done. Sobriety and spiritual growth are, like life itself, forever touch and go, a muscle that begins to atrophy as soon as we rest it, a puzzle we work on daily even as pieces constantly vanish and reappear.