If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all. By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.” No, no, no! That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.
Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.
By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged. I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.
Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises! Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them. I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.
For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back. Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.
Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.
And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you. You’re an annoyance to everyone. Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.” Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in. Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.
Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year. This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.
And yet… and yet… addiction was with me. I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually. But my knee did not. One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin. “Take it!” said my addict. “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!” I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain! It’s right there – no more pain! Much-needed sleep! Just take it!”
Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by. I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016. He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.
Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith. That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.
I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!
Category Archives: living sober
Going to work the other day, I got what I call a god-burst. I was riding my bike, coasting down my street on a sunny spring morning. The cherry trees were in bloom, big puffy dusters of sweet color, and the breeze was scattering their blossoms like confetti. For some reason, I could see god’s love in the way that every distinct petal danced through the air. Each was looping, twirling this way and that in the sunlight, and I got to glide through them.
I felt, Thank you, thank you, thank you! And I sensed a joy answering from god — god’s joy that I was joyful. I felt with god in my love of living, in my delight at the happening of each instant.
As I rode further, along the treesy waterside bike trail, I looked into the faces of each pedestrian I passed. What did I see? Scowls. Sour petulance. Shock that someone had dared smile at them and even greet them with “Good morning!” But every now and then someone would meet my eyes – their face transforming like a flower blooming. “Hey!” they might say back.
They had love to offer.
Have you ever worked hard to create a celebration for a kid you love? Made them a fancy cake? Set up a treasure hunt? Given a gift you made yourself or at least picked out with care and wrapped up with bows and ribbons? How would you feel if the child responded with scowls? With petulance? What if they unfolded the first clue of their treasure hunt and wailed, “What? I have to go look for something big and red? And then all I get is another stupid clue? I want my TREASURE!!! NOW!!”
Or what if they opened your gift and wailed, “I want a bigger one!”
That’s pretty much how god must feel, I think.
Some people are possessed by greed. I recently talked with a young man who “lived
outside” — as he described his homelessness — about his pity for billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk: “It’s never enough. They need more, more, always more — it eats away at them. You’ve gotta wonder what happened to them in childhood that they have this addiction that drives their whole life. They’re no different from the homeless friends I see wrecking their progress over and over with drug addiction or self-sabotage — just the other extreme of the spectrum.”
This young man, by contrast, seemed more content than most “homed people,” as he called us. In his small, tidy pack he carried a mini-laptop. He explained that he’d found part-time work at a local stadium that paid for his food and clothes — just not enough for rent. He was clean; he knew where to get showers and do laundry. As we talked, he was enjoying a latte at a table neighboring mine. But the main things I noticed about him were his easy laugh and his sincere compassion for those suffering from what he termed “more addiction.”
Greed stalks us all, to an extent.
Have you ever watched the documentary Happy? Guess who’s one of the happiest people interviewed in that film? A rickshaw driver in Calcutta whose home is mostly tarps. Sure, he doesn’t like it when passengers spit on him as he hauls them through the busy streets, but that rarely happens. Part of his joy undoubtedly stems from the fact that he’s never perused an issue of Vogue or Esquire. He’s filled with gratitude to god that he can provide for his healthy children.
Filled with gratitude.
The sour-faced people I passed on my bike that day appeared starving for gratitude. I can’t know what’s going on in their lives, but I can theorize.
Their god is either absent or an asshole. They don’t even see the countless gifts showered on them in this brief carnival of life. They’re taking for granted all the cake and presents, griping at the effort of the treasure hunt steps. To be happy requires, among other things, that we stop comparing, that we actively set aside the ridiculous and relentless marketing culture that pervades our every societal experience. From TV & movies to magazines & billboards and by practically everything we view online, we are told that we lack.
Many alcoholics, I think, drink to escape this constant more addiction, with its flip side, Not Enoughness. Though it’s been 24 years since my last drink, I remember what used to happen when I’d enter a bar. The more I drank, the more okay everything got. My barstool became a perfectly okay place to be. Wherever I was in life — whatever I’d done or not done — became okay. I could stop all the striving, comparing, and self-critiquing. I could just be.
How ironic is it that my higher power now gives me all I once tried to suck from alcohol — but as spiritual food instead of poison? When I thank god for every funky little detail of my endlessly convoluted circumstances right now, I am living as an extension, an expression of god — and in that sense I am perfect. God has slowly, slowly weaned me from a mindset of constant neediness and taught me to go in whole hog for the delight of little things.
The straight-up joy I experienced riding my bike the other day was ten times anything I ever got from booze or coke or some whoopee party. It germinates from understanding that I GET to be here on earth. Taking shit for granted is both seed and symptom of the atheist’s blindness to god. If you truly thought about the miracle of your body, of your cat’s body, of our cycling oceans or friggin’ photosynthesis, you’d be rejoicing all day long.
God is good. Good is god.
And if god could say just one thing to you right now, it would be this: Choose joy.
My addiction memoir tells how I went from a bright, healthy teen (okay, with a teeny hypersexual disorder) to a lonely, depressed, obsessive, codependent, underachieving, and increasingly reckless drunk who disdained Alcoholics Anonymous as a doom just short of suicide. Why so reluctant? The God thing. The book’s second half describes my ungraceful but dogged ascent from that pit of misery toward the healthy, friend-filled sober life I get to live today.
Much as I’ve love for everyone to read the book, I can give you a major spoiler here: I didn’t do it.
The words that opened the door to faith in something that might help me were shared by a woman in large pastel stretch pants sitting against the wall at my third or so AA meeting: “If you can’t deal with the word ‘God,’ that’s fine! Just think ‘Good Orderly Direction.'”
I perked up. Certainly I could not deal with the word, “God.” That religion-based concept seemed to me a preposterous character created by humans to explain what rudimentary science couldn’t. Such a deity was not going to advise me on whether I should stuff the tip jar at work or continue stalking the guy I was obsessed with.
But Good Orderly Direction — that was something to be sensed in my inmost heart. That I could look for, because I remembered going against it when I was busy screwing up my life. For me, Step 3 was essentially a resolution to start listening for it and going with it. Who knew the source of G.O.D. would turn out to be my higher power? And who knew that following its guidance would migrate me from the self-generated heartless world that had defeated me toward the sweet experience that’s now my normal?
Goodness as True North
As an active alcoholic, the only compass I ever consulted was ego. I was a popularity materialist — never enough! — as are many in our “individualistic” culture (thanks to marketing). I longed to be seen as cool (see also Coolness) and liked by designated cool people. I was convinced that the more I could make that happen, the better I’d feel about myself. And even though this model had failed to bring me anything but discontent for 34 years, I kept thinking the problem lay in my performance, not the model itself.
Good Orderly Direction, however, does not hinge on what others think. It’s a compass deep within, with Goodness as its true north. The first half is sensing it — what is the good and right thing to do here? The second is acting on it without hesitation.
I remember a conversation I had a few years back with my relapsed alcoholic boyfriend. As a rationale for getting drunk, he asked me, “Don’tcha sometimes just wanna say ‘fuck it’?” As it turned out, he had indeed been saying “fuck it” for some while, carrying on a second relationship behind my back. Sober, he’d been a man with integrity and compassion.
By contrast, my father drank alcoholically while retaining integrity and compassion — toward everyone but himself. Alcoholism wheedled him into deferring day after day the ultimate reckoning: “Why do I drink so much every night?” He resisted looking inward to all the clamors he muted with booze, saying, in his own academic way, “fuck it.”
But Good Orderly Direction is more than the antithesis of fuck it; it’s the antithesis of ego. It is a form of caring, of knowing that your choices matter and seeking those that will feel right in the long run. You may have trouble at first distinguishing Goodness from ego’s “best for me”; you may also mistake it for what other people tell you to do, whether they’re in your family or your AA group. But gradually, as you become more attuned to seeking, the voice gets louder, so you gain a clearer sense of whether you’re tuned into it.
As the choices people make based on the north star of Good Orderly Direction begin to alter the course of their lives, as even cynical or bottomed-out addicts begin to heal and build self-esteem by doing esteemable acts, a lot of us begin to realize — “Hey, this isn’t coming from me!”
God Ain’t Religion
As people who follow this blog know, I got to cheat. The spirit world operates all around us all the time, but we’re as deaf to it as the barriers we maintain against love are thick. For me, having had a Near Death Experience followed by paranormal after-effects even as I fought to maintain my atheism, the presence that had spoken to me on the other side began interceding in my thoughts as soon as I started seeking Good, until I had no choice but to fold and acknowledge, not religion’s God, but my god.
Religion is a bit like agriculture, while the spirit world is nature itself. Religion quantifies something omnipresent yet inexplicable — the power of the life force — by reducing it to the equivalent of rows and crops and acreage. To be atheist because we reject religion is like saying because there is no Great Farmer, nothing grows — all the while discounting the fact that we and all living things around us are exquisite expression of nature, of the life force.
No one can give you god-awareness. You have to develop your own, based on your own experiences both inner and external. The most direct route to get there is by seeking Good Orderly Direction. Eventually, seeking will become part of you, as it has for me: No one at Fred Meyer saw me miss self-checking a bag of avocados yesterday, but when I discovered them in my reusable shopping bag, I handed them to the attendant on my way out simply because I had not paid for them — end of story. I know not only that Karma is a real phenomenon, but that guilt is a real feeling, even when we pretend not to feel it. Both carry a price tag far exceeding that of four avocados.
Ask for guidance. Look deeper. Listen harder. Within you, something magnificent will sprout.
When I drank, my life was always dramatic — at least to me. Everything was a big deal. Drinking both fueled and helped defuse that. If someone was mad at me, if I’d behaved inappropriately, if some asshole had robbed me of a goal or privilege rightly mine, my emotions would rollercoaster up and down huge swells of anger and careen around curves of righteousness before finally winding down to the self-pity platform to which all things led: poor me.
But in those days, I had a best buddy, wine, along an array of other pals — beer, the gin & vodka twins, and all those whiskey relatives. We’d hang out and they’d fix everything. Actually, they’d fix my brain; everything else stayed exactly as it had been. But by muting my amygdala so the fear subsided and by impairing my frontal lobe so that all thoughts simply led back to me, drunkenness let me feel brokenly triumphant. Fuck them. Fuck everything.
In those days, everything I had going for me was external — or so I believed. What mattered was out there, so I was constantly keeping score: first it was grades and teachers, then published stories, then impressing my students, and eventually, as my life spiraled downward and I quit teaching to focus on drinking — I mean, writing! — it became impressing all the “cool” cats at the tiny espresso shop where I worked.
Mind you, everything that went on in that espresso shop was colossally big news! Who was getting together with whom, new policies about whether you could eat behind the counter, hirings and firings. In the end my main drama centered on the fact that my life partner had read my journal, caught me cheating emotionally, and promptly left, so now I couldn’t pay the mortgage with my joke of a job, even if my shifts hadn’t been cut for coming in stoned.
Drinking enough to make that no big deal nearly killed me.
When I got sober, my focus gradually shifted to who I was within and whatever linked that spirit to a higher power — to goodness in the world. At first, of course, I had no idea the 12 steps were effecting that change. I just went through them with a sponsor and discovered harmful patterns in my thinking and behaviors, asking my higher power to help me outgrow them. And as I began to lay aside increasingly subtle versions of these once precious “coping skills” — deception, manipulation, knowing best (pride), envy, and my favorite, self-pity — the ride of living smoothed out. A lot.
Today, I have no crises. I don’t wish I were somebody else. Sobriety’s granted me huge gifts: I’m performing in two ballet recitals this spring and climbing three glaciated mountains this summer, so my life is full. My home, health, work, son, and friendships are all good.
But smooth sailing can be frickin’ difficult for an alcoholic!! Without that clamoring, overflowing bucket of piddly-shit drama to seize my attention day after day, my gaze drifts to the horizon and I wonder, what am I doing? What’s my life for?
I’m getting older. I haven’t made any big splash lately. My son has grown up, my dog is old, I have no partner. What stands out with increasing clarity is that I will disappear from this planet in a number of years. How many is unknown, but every day I’m closer. What will my life have meant?
Here’s where near-death experience comes in. I am so blessed that the inexplicable paranormal phenomena stacking up in my life finally led me to the Seattle branch of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and that I hold a service position there of interviewing near-death experiencers and writing up their stories for our newsletter (snailmailed only at this point, sorry). Every other month, I get to Skype with someone who has, like me, died and come back with wisdom to share.
On the other side, when they are pure spirit, many know their life’s purpose. There’s a role we’re each here to play, and they’re shown theirs. Yet when they come back, they remember knowing, but they can’t remember what! This “forgetting” seems to be the price of embodiment. Enclosed in bodies, we lose 99% of our conscious connection to the expanding web of creation that is god. With little to go on but our hearts and the gossamer strands of love that link us to other hearts, we’re something of a lost boat, a tiny shard trying to work out its place in a 13.8-billion-year unfolding.
When one NDEr was given the choice to stay in the spirit realm or return to her body, she asked what would become of all her half-done life’s work if she died. “None of that matters,” she was told. “What matters is connections. If your work helps someone to strengthen their relationships with others or even to know themselves better, it has value. The important thing is the wake you leave behind you in the waters of life. Do you leave a wake of love… or of indifference?”
That’s our job — to love others and love god by generating gratitude for this spectacular pageant of life on Earth. My life is not about what accolades go up on my mental mantlepiece. It’s about the people (and other beings) I love and the ripple effect of loving them, which touches countless lives of people I will never meet.
Humility is also key. In 1995, when I was about 100 days sober, I visited the site of the first Olympic Games — alone. Wandering from the ruins, which date from 776 BC, I took a nap under a gnarled tree. And when I woke, looking out at the meadow where a sign indicated the Greek athletes’ housing had once stood (6), used centuries later as Roman soldiers’ quarters before god knows what in the Dark Ages, I had a sort of vision. I saw with time-elapse speed hundreds of trees germinating, growing large, and dying; buildings going up and falling to ruin; people slaughtering each other and making love — all in this very same meadow while its grass sprouted green and then dried to yellow over and over, 2,771 times.
The years, I saw, cycled through just like waves on a beach. So did human lives. I was no less transient than a blade of grass — but one with a plentitude of choices.
Ultimately, the purpose of my life has to be turned over to god every day as a part of Step Three. In my own version of the famous Merton prayer, I tell god, “I can’t see what I’m doing, but I love you. Please lead me wherever I can do your will, and lend me the courage and grace to do my best there.”
Life is no more and no less that that. And that is enough!
‘Tis the season when the spiked eggnog, hard cider, and hot buttered rum are flowing. At office parties everywhere, coworkers will be pushing drinks, unwittingly or wittingly, on their recovering alcoholic colleagues. To offer some strategies for getting out of a party with your sobriety intact, I wrote Holiday Parties a few years back.
But that’s not the real bane of Christmas.
There’s also that obligatory holiday spirit crap attacking your serenity. You’re supposed to feel a certain way. Something’s wrong with you if those Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole clichés piped into practically every public space don’t incite in you fond recollections of some Rockwellian ideal you’ve never really lived — the chestnuts not roasting on your open fire, that cheery ring-a-ling of sleigh bells you’ve never even remotely heard, and, of course, your deep reverence for the virgin birth that fuels smiles at… uh… bustling shoppers. Not so much.
Even if you enjoy it, there’s no denying that, particularly in the US, Christmas amounts to a ridiculous spectacle of compulsory consumerism. It’s an orgy of buying, an onslaught of marketing, with the omnipresent need to fill wrapped packages under a mandatory tree. And it’s never quite enough. Every year, tens of millions of us overspend in an effort to conform — which adds up to financial stress.
Wasn’t it just a few months ago that you packed away those lights, ornaments, and various kitchy nutcrackers, etc., back into their faded, half-torn boxes? Now you’re supposed to not only get them all out again but feel excited and seasonally schmoozy while doing so.
Please, dear god — why??
Alcoholics need to place their serenity foremost. This means we recognize the pressures that disturb us, triggering feelings of frustration, not-enoughness, not-a part-of, or just plain loneliness. For many, the holidays trigger all of the above. But more than parties or overspending or obligatory cheer in the darkest part of the year, what most threatens our serenity amid the holidays are the stresses of…
Rarely does the stork drop off a lone alcoholic-addict in an otherwise functional, mindful, emotionally honest and loving family — if any such families exist.
Most of us grew up in homes where one or both parents drank, where the truth remained veiled and no one modeled emotional availability or loved us unconditionally as our authentic, vulnerable selves. Rather, we and our siblings learned to jump through life’s countless hoops using fabulous springboards like selfishness, self-seeking manipulation, and dishonesty, playing a role nonstop in an effort to wrestle from life what we thought we needed to survive — a battle we drank to escape.
In other words, families were the very hotbeds where we generated all our character defects, all that we’ve since dredged up in our 4th and 5th steps so we could open them to god in the 6th and 7th, asking to be relieved of an approach to life that no longer served us. Every day and in every meeting, we strive for more rigorous honesty to further our spiritual progress.
But then along come the holidays, and we have to head back to that swampy hotbed where, often, no one else has changed. Siblings, parents, and other relatives continue to follow whatever works for them — frequently a continuous pursuit of short-term feel-good. Some will still be chasing feel-good, as we used to, through alcohol and drugs. But there’s a myriad of other ways to chase it: being smarter than everyone else, or more successful or hip, or politically goading others. Egos will be crowding the house, overreaching one another, whether in loud, competitive conversation or exchanges of subtle smirks.
So… here we stand on the banks of this oh-so-familiar swamp, the old emotional reflexes itching to kick in, the family calling to us, “Jump on in! The slime is great! Play your damn role!”
What do we do, alcoholics?! Do we chameleon our former selves? Do we judge with spiritual superiority? Or do we dig deep and practice…
Up until 2013, I’d have told you here that “all you need is love.” I’d have claimed that if you didn’t enjoy yourself around family, the problem lay in your holding on to resentments or self-pity. But today I call bullshit on that view.
Sick people hurt others. Toxic people spread poison. To every wild creature, god has given means of self-defense or escape. And to sober people dealing with alcoholism-affected family, god has given boundaries.
How do we practice boundaries? There are two basic steps:
- Know who you are and that you’re okay, flaws and all. In other words, carry with you a sense of what matters to you, how you respect and treat others, and how you require others to respect and treat you. Claim your space. But… temper this with a sense of humor and awareness that the flaws we notice most in others tend to mirror our own. For example, if I’m annoyed that my cousin is hogging the dinner table’s attention, it’s probably because I want to do it! Humor and humility let me replace that annoyance with compassion.
- Know when someone is infringing on your dignity/space. If someone keeps running over your foot with a lawnmower, it’s up to you to move your foot. If you’ve previously asked the person not to run over your foot, and yet you see them heading down a line that’s gonna intersect with it again, then withdraw your damn foot! For me, this means I no longer attend functions at which the lawnmowing person will be present. For you, it may mean leaving before a certain person gets drunk.
Love and tolerance is our code – now and always. But that love must include ourselves, and that tolerance an admission that some vulnerabilities and triggers persist despite all our work. Just walking into a house where trauma occurred can be exhausting.
So, as with any dicy situation, have a plan in place before you go. Bring your own Martinelli’s — lots of it. If alone, text sober friends ahead of time that you may be calling. If with a partner, have a “safe phrase” that means “I need to get the hell out of here.” Then smile, say your goodbyes, and get the hell out!
If you find yourself out of sorts, get your ass to a meeting. Most Alano Clubs and big meetings host all-hours alcathons throughout the holidays. Go. Sit down. Be initially disappointed that the group appears small and motley, or huge and you don’t know many. But just sit there, just listen, and let the feeling of sober sanity and spiritual guidance seep in through your skin.
Reach out to someone with kindness. We all struggle with this holiday stuff. You are never alone. ❤
We can’t control the people or events in our lives, but we can ask god to help us change the ways we react to them. When we respond from a place of judgment, knowing best, and general superiority, we usually have no idea we’re doing so. I certainly don’t. It just seems to me I’m right!
One contrary event or difficult person is no big deal, but if I live daily from this vantage point of superior insight and right-of-way, pretty soon I’m going to feel like the world’s turned against me. But guess what? It’s really I who’ve turned against the world. I’m butting my head into mountain cliffs that need to fucking move, swimming up Niagara which is hella stressful, “burning up energy foolishly… trying to arrange life to suit [myself].”
God grants me the power to change this entire landscape by accepting the things I cannot change. Not tolerating them with rolled eyes, not putting up with the stupidity of it all, but accepting that things are the way they are so I can respond constructively. The attitude I need to live this way comes as a reward of working the 12 steps: humility.
The Ultimate Selfishness Test: Driving in the City
When we drive cars, we mechanically take on the very “self-propulsion” described in the Big Book’s preamble to Step 3, so the temptation to assume Director status becomes huge. All the other drivers are pawns, and we’re rightfully a queen – or at least a bishop! We gots places to go and these others are obstacles, obstructions, assholes.
I once attended a stadium concert with a young woman who shares beautifully in AA meetings and seeks god daily. I treated and she drove. After the show, when we finally emerged from the parking lot, the line of cars to the freeway extended in front of us maybe a mile – an endless chain of tail lights. To my surprise, my friend veered into the empty oncoming lane where she zoomed on and on past everyone. I didn’t know what to say or do, but I felt tremendous relief when, at the freeway overpass, we encountered a traffic cop. Instead of letting us turn, he made us pull over and wait. Ten minutes of watching the line go by. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. My friend was beside herself with the cop’s “unfairness.” Finally, when all the cars had gone, the cop chirped his whistle and signaled us to go.
All selfishness stems from spiritual myopia. If my friend could meet the people from those cars individually, if a dimension were to open in which she could converse with each, see photos of their ancestors and childhood, hear the tragedies and delights that have shaped their experience, no way would she have acted as she did. But her driving “dimension” was just as unreal. Normally a kind person, she could see only her own importance, her own “right of way.”
Driving simply underscores the fact that we all live selfishly. To an extent, we have to. We’re each in charge of caring for ourselves, providing for our own needs so we can prosper – a responsibility that often feels overwhelming. But that’s our lower purpose. We also have a higher one.
For me, the analogy of cells in a body works well. Each cell is a distinct entity. It’s busy absorbing nutrients, sending off waste, sensing everything going on around it, and doing all the work of them four stages of mitosis (which, I learned when I underwent radiation for cancer, requires fancy footwork).
“I got shit to do before I can divide, man!” a cell might say. “I got hundreds of mitochondria to manage here, not to mention this long-ass chain of chromosomes to tidy up! Gimme a break!” Yet it’s only because each cell serves a higher purpose, doing its tiny, insignificant part among trillions, that I’m able to write this and you’re able to read it.
We all have shit to do – lots of it – to keep our lives going. But we also have a higher purpose – a collaborative one – “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.” Each of us with our tiny role to play animates humanity, and thus the world.
A little bit of god: Courage, Candor, Kindness
In every interaction, we can choose to contribute or withhold love from the world as a whole. Every time we hit that crossroad where we might utter words of kindness, and we muster the courage and candor to speak them, we introduce into the cosmos a tiny surge of god-energy. It takes effort sometimes. “You did that beautifully!” might sound dumb. We have to overcome self-consciousness and the dark suspicion that we’re just buttering people up.
I see it as my higher job to maximize goodwill around me. Politically, that means resisting the designs of those who advocate greed and phobia. On a day-to-day scale, it means seeking to leave each person a little better off than I found them. True, I can’t let others walk all over me because I need to care for myself enough to be able to show up in this role. But that’s my means, not my end. Every act of kindness is a positive. A tiny positive, but positive nonetheless.
When I live this way (even when I’m driving!) I feel uplifted. I’m happy. I carry a glowing sun in my heart that I can, I swear, physically feel more with each year of practice. And I can also sense when it’s eclipsed by selfish fear: I feel lonely, self-pitying, and overwhelmed. In essence, I’m dying. A cell cut off from the energy of its sisters will die – no way around it. Or in my case, it just might reach for a drink.
PS: My son’s Mothers Day gift to me:
Japanese kanji for mind-heart-logic meaning
“to think with consideration for others”
Late to a Seattle AA meeting 12 years ago, I was just backing into a parallel parking space when another driver zipped forward into the spot. I rolled back to make eye contact with the driver, whose stony stare flung back a challenge: “Are you really gonna make a stink about this? Cause it’ll get you nowhere.” But then we recognized each other! He was my friend from meetings! Grinning with contrition, he signaled that I could have the space. I waved back “no big deal” and drove off – though for years I gave him shit about it.
My friend was still toxic – only about a year sober after three decades of relying on booze, pot, and crack to limp through a dark and confused life. Just beneath his jovial exterior he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, a certainty that everyone and everything had fucked him over so badly he’d never be okay. That parking space was owed to him despite some rival bitch about to score it.
Over the years that followed, though, my friend underwent what I can only describe as a spiritual transformation. AA became his home and family as he attended meetings almost daily. When he finished the steps himself, he began to sponsor new guys, reading the Big Book with them and learning what it felt like to truly want good things for someone else. His heart grew. He became a man of great empathy and compassion.
And somehow through that process, he developed empathy for himself, an acceptance of his trying past, including all the suffering that had forced him to change and grow. The chip on his shoulder melted away. His shares in meetings emanated that elusive calm that evolves only from gratitude and humility. When he spoke, people listened.
Finally, as a result of all that he had become in recovery, he quit recovery entirely and became desperate and miserable again.
Wait — what did I just say? Why would someone do that? Don’t we all know alcoholism is a lifelong affliction? Doesn’t the Big Book plainly warn us not to ever let up on our spiritual program?
We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. (p.85)
My friend is far from alone in his abandonment of recovery. Many of us get a good job, meet a good partner, buy a house, maybe pop out a kid or two, and expect to live happily ever after – without AA. Some manage to, because they’ve found an alternate spiritual community: a congregation, sangha, even volunteer group. A few die. But the majority end up in either a tense, anxious day-to-day hell of frustrated ego, or a full-on relapse that promises relief but takes their job, house, family, dignity, happiness, and mental health instead.
So why do people like my friend, granted a beautiful life in AA, turn their backs on the simple regimen of meetings and service that saved them?
I’ll tell you why: we forget it was god who saved our lame, toxic, beat-to-shit asses. We decide that, really, we did it! Seriously – we just made a lot of bad choices back then, so amid the turbulence of all that wreckage, it seemed like the light of sanity came from god. But now that we’re “winning” at life, we can see the change really came from our own smarty-pants-ness. That’s right: we wised up, grew up, and climbed up. And now that life has gotten so full and busy, who has time to waste on meetings and sponsees or prayer & meditation and all that 12-step shit?
That’s exactly what happened to my friend of the stolen parking space, who met me for coffee a few weeks ago. But an unforeseen blow had upended his prosperity, so now he had this and that problem, but even worse, this other thing was about to happen, and then he’d really be in trouble! He was physically sick, his face was broken out, and I noticed his hands shaking.
I spoke up: “You need to go to meetings.” He responded as if I’d just suggested he take up embroidery, but, well aware I was an embroidery fanatic, he’d prepared a strong retort. He cited reason after reason that AA meetings could do nothing for him, even if he had time to get to them.
“Do you remember,” I interrupted, “when you first came to meetings and you could NOT STOP drinking, and you asked god to help you?” He held my eyes a few seconds with a distaste remarkably similar to that parking space stare of bitter defiance. “Vaguely,” he mumbled.
Nothing I could say seemed to get through: “You can’t find answers through isolation. God works through people. We need to be connected. Answers come when you ask.” I practically begged him to find a moment alone to offer the simple prayer, God, please help me. He all but winced at my triteness, promised nothing, and left.
So. Imagine my joy when a couple days ago that friend blew into my homegroup accompanied by two of his best AA buddies and took a seat at my table. We cracked jokes til the meeting started. A ways in, I caught the chair’s eye and signaled, so he called on “the gentleman sitting next to Louisa.” And do you know what my friend shared? That for years he’d kept relapsing because he refused to admit he was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and today he was just as stubborn about refusing to admit he was powerless over life. “The truth is, I need to be here,” he said, looking around the room. “I need you guys.”
For me, god is everywhere — in my home, in the wilderness, in every connection I make with another living creature. But so is my big fat ego, which wants to Edge God Out. I need meetings, now and forever, to remind me I’m still an alcoholic who, left to my own devices, will still try to fill that perennial empty spot with the wrong things. Because you wake me up to the divine unity that heals me, I will always need you guys.