Saturday, December 13, 2008

No matter how far down the scale -- part I

My friends who go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have for years talked about "The Promises" of the program, which are found in their eponymous 'Big Book':

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not.

They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

Alcoholics Anonymous pp. 83-84.

Over the years of speaking with people struggling with addictions (or the family consequences thereof), I've seen the truth of those words as I've shared about my own experience, strength, and hope concerning sobriety. At first, almost 30 years ago now, when my friends who would go to those meetings would share their wisdom about recovery with me, I figured that what the 'promise' that reads, "No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others" means is that the lowest of the low-bottom drunks *really* know what's what.

The implication (in my own broken brain, of course) that followed on the heels of that notion was that a high-bottom drunk like myself could never have anything significant to contribute to a conversation about recovery. After all, I'd not lost a job, or a family, or wrecked a car, or awakened with my head in the refrigerator, or "come to" in a foreign country married to someone I did not recognize (true stories I've heard people tell).

(At least, not yet, as I've since learned. That could all happen, easily. It just hasn't happened yet.)

*Those people* with the bizarre and exciting stories were the people to listen to, who had something important to share, my brain tried to tell me. What good would my, rather vanilla, experience be to someone else? After all, I just drank, passed out, and threw up (in that order). Certainly not as 'glamourous' as having a spectacular slip on alcohol, cocaine, and crystal meth in the hotel room next door to the Secret Service contingent assigned to the President of the United States as he was on a re-election campaign swing in the midwest a few years back (another true story I heard)!

So for years as I hung out with recovering alcoholics and addicts and their hostages (I mean, families), I felt like something of a fraud. Less than. Not quite good enough. "Doesn't quite fit in, poor thing."

The 'tyranny of what others might think' -- which had plagued me all of my life up to the point of getting clean and sober -- followed me into sobriety and lurked in the darkest reaches of my psyche for years afterward.

A wonderful recovery tag-team married couple, Gil and Dorothy (he: sober; she: Al-Anon), took me under their wing in 1979 shortly after I stopped drinking and using, and they shared their recovery experience, strength, and hope with me as best they could. Given that I was then the poster-child for egomania-with-an-inferiority-complex, it's definitely not their fault that I made such slow progress!

Gil died 30 years sober more than a decade ago now, but Dorothy still goes to Al-Anon meetings and is into her fifth decade of recovery. What a great lady!

Anyway, it wasn't until quite a number of years into my own sobriety that I had a spiritual awakening about the whole no-matter-how-far-down-the-scale thing. I'd been hearing my sober friends who go to meetings talk about those 'promises' for so long that one day I realized that "no matter how far down" meant that even "high-bottom" drunks have experience that can benefit others! Wow.

For years I'd been comparing my insides to other people's outsides.

That's a recipe for spiritual disaster, I've learned. Just having a wild drinking story (or Al-Anon story, like the woman who (before Al-Anon) guided her once-again-for-the-eleventy-seventh-time-drunk husband into the bathtub, filled it with water, beat him senseless with a board, and then was holding his head under the water when she had a spiritual awakening of sorts along the lines of, "who's really the sick one here?" -- and later, when he finally came to the next morning, commiserated with him that he'd been in yet another bar fight he couldn't remember -- absolutely true story) is not the measure of recovery.

Once I stopped *comparing* the externals of my story to others' and began *identifying with* the feelings they were sharing (or at least, identified with *more than* I compared), I began to feel more a part of, less less-than, and much less a fraud.

Truely, no matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will come to see how our experience can benefit others.

That's how the spiritual life works. Not surprisingly, in AA's "Big Book," just before the passage I quoted at the beginning of this post are two sentences, one in italics, which read, "The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it."

When I'm living the spiritual life, I'm connected to others who are trudging the same road of Happy Destiny. Whatever our religious backgrounds (or none), we can have a spirituality which unites us in the sunlight of the spirit. These days I like to say that spirituality is "an acceptance of powerlessness, shared in gratitude, resulting in joyful service."

That definition works well in my own particular religious tradition (as a Christian, as some of you know, I have a God who, in Jesus, knows powerlessness first-hand, and so, in addition to being a Higher Power, is also a Higher Powerlessness), and it seems to fit with the traditions of other religions as well. It also works for those who are without religion at the moment.


Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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1 comment:

pollicino said...

Un grande saluto dall'Italia,Eugenio

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