October 23, 2014

Imagine a steady stream of people wandering blindfolded over the edge of a cliff. Now imagine that the blindfolds somehow fall off of two guys just before they go over. They stop walking. They take a look around. People keep walking past them and over the edge of the cliff by the dozen. They decide they had better try and help some folks if they can.

The first guy starts shouting at the crowd: “Take off your blindfolds! Don’t walk off the cliff!” but nobody listens to him. They think he’s crazy. So he steps in front of people and shouts in their faces: “Hey, knuckle head! Take your blind fold off and look around!” But the people still don’t listen. “What are you talking about?” they say. “What cliff? I don’t see one! Out of my way!”

The second guy walks around introducing himself to people, saying hello and being friendly, and when he gets a chance to, he tells folks about his own experience: “My blindfold fell off and I noticed I was walking toward a cliff.” Then he says, “If you feel like you might be in a similar situation, I’d be happy to show you what I did to get out.” But people just chuckle and say, “Good for you, bud, but I don’t have the same troubles you did. So long.”

The first guy gets more and more frustrated, and more and more aggressive with each new wave of cliff walkers. The second guy keeps on with an easy-going attitude, and continues to tell his story to anyone interested. Soon, the first guy notices what the second is doing, and becomes irritated. “How can you be so passive?” he asks. “Don’t you care about these people? They’re going to die!”

The second guy says: “You’ve been stressing yourself to no purpose. When you and I were walking, we would never have stopped if we hadn’t been fortunate enough to have our blindfolds drop off. No one could have said anything to change our minds. Neither of us is having too much luck in helping these folks. My hope is that some won’t die after they go over the edge. Maybe they’ll remember what we’ve said to them, and they’ll come back up to ask us for help.”

Sure enough, from the cliff’s ledge comes a slow trickle of climbers, bruised, battered, and broken. “We need your help,” they say. “Tell us again about these blindfolds.”

So the two friends talk to the blindfolded at the cliff’s edge. They speak to those who climb back to hear them, and to the new arrivals. The newcomers, of course, continue to ignore their warnings and walk off the cliff. Surprisingly, the climbers don’t fare much better. They sit still for a while, nursing their wounds and listening to the talk of one man or the other, sometimes nodding, other times posing simple arguments like, “If I can’t see the blindfold, how do I know it’s really there?” Eventually, they get restless with all the talk. One by one, they get up again, still blindfolded, and say “Excuse me, but I feel a need to stretch my legs.”

The first man grows increasingly frustrated with this situation. He returns to being loud and demanding of newcomers and cliff-climbers alike. The second man continues to work in his own way, being friendly, telling his story, and offering to tell people exactly how they can remove their blindfolds if they like. Here and there, once in a while, for no apparent reason, someone’s blindfold falls off. These few join the friends in their efforts to help others.

Over many years, the first man grows tired. He becomes bitter from long days spent focused on those who do not listen and on those who walk over the cliff but do not return. The second man ages a little better, keeping his peace of mind and helpful spirit, for he had spends his years in gratitude for his vision and the vision of those few who have listened.

One day the first man approaches the second. “What’s the point?” he says. “They don’t listen to me. I almost envy them the comfort of closed eyes.”

“There is no difference between them and us,” says the second.

“What do you mean?” says the first. “We can see.”

“I don’t know about you,” says the second, “but I don’t really trust myself. I could just as easily put my blindfold back on and start walking.”

“That’s crazy,” says the first under his breath as he walks away. But he has already started wearing his old blindfold at night. “To help me sleep,” he tells himself.

3rd Step Exegesis

August 17, 2010

I like to think about the 3rd step as a contract we sign with God. If you really want to get into the business of living this way of life, you’ve got to sign on the dotted line. And that involves agreeing to some rather hard terms and conditions. In the bit that follows, I’m going to describe these terms and conditions as plainly as possible.

I guess there are a lot of people who rush through step 3 and turn out alright anyway. They figure all you’ve got to do is repeat a few words out of the book and get on with the program. I’m sure this approach has worked fine for many alcoholics and addicts, all of whom get into the fine print of this thing later on. After all, you can’t stay sober too long without running into some trouble, and running into trouble means you got something more to learn about the terms of your contract with God.

I guess I’m the type who likes to know what he’s getting into on the front end.

Here’s the text of the 3rd step prayer as it appears in the Big Book:

God, I offer myself to thee
to build with me and do with me as thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.
Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of thy power, thy love, and thy way of life.
May I do thy will always.

Let’s take it a line at a time:

God, I offer myself to thee

The first line names the parties involved and establishes the relationship between the two. There is a God. And there is us. The relationship proposed is one of unconditional surrender of the second party to the first. We are to give ourselves over completely to God without hesitation or reservation.

There’s some fine print here, too: if we turn our selves over, then, by extension, we also turn over all the claims those selves make on the world. Anything and everything attached to the self we surrender becomes the property of God. All our time, relationships, money, possessions, health, habits, ambitions, choices, work, authority, intelligence, autonomy, freedom, creativity, free time, and anything else we got—all of it gets handed over.

God gets everything. We keep nothing.

to build with me and do with me as thou wilt.

This line extends the rights and powers granted to God. The first line gives God everything; this line gives God freedom to do whatever the hell he wants with what we turn over. More specifically, we agree to let God build with us, changing our attitudes, personalities, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; and do with us, changing our behaviors, relationships, and routines. If you are fond of a particular idea of yourself, better give up on it now. Once you sign on to this way of life, everything will change.

Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.

This one describes what we get out of the deal: If we give God everything we’ve got, let God turn us into new people, and do whatever God wants us to do, then we will be freed from ourselves so that we can do an even better job of giving God everything, letting God change us, and doing whatever God wants.

Maybe this sounds like a tricky way of saying that we don’t get anything at all, but consider this: Either you really are trapped in yourself, in which case you will want the freedom of doing God’s will, or you really are not trapped, in which case you won’t.

Those of us who are trapped in ourselves know it because following our own will always leads to pain and loss and misery but we’re stuck following it anyway. So for us, it is a relief to know that we can surrender to God’s will and get a different result. Even if it does mean we’re going to change dramatically in ways we can’t predict or control.

Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of thy power, thy love, and thy way of life.

Many an alcoholic reading this prayer has heard and sincerely felt only four words: “Take away my difficulties.” By which they mean: “God, get me out of this one!” But the 3rd step is not a simple cry for help.

The “difficulties” here are not our broken families, our absent friends, our poverty, our legal problems, our health problems, and so on. Nor are these “difficulties” our drinking and drugging and lying and stealing and screwing around and whatever else we were up to. All these are only symptoms of a deeper problem. We really ought to read this line like so:

“Take away my self-will and selfishness, so I can show people that you have enough power and love to change their lives too.”

In this contract, we agree to let God fix us. And he’s going to do it by changing us so we aren’t ourselves anymore. And he’s going to do that so we can enjoy spending the rest of our lives inviting other people to experience the same change.

May I do thy will always.

This last line repeats our request for all of the above and adds one new twist: always. This contract is not a temporary arrangement, designed to help us get back on our feet. It is binding for the duration of our natural lives, and probably on beyond that if there is such a thing.

And so, the plain language disclosure version of the 3rd step ought to read something like this:

God, you can have me and you can have everything I’ve got.
You can change my life inside and out in anyway you want.
Please take my selfishness and self-will away, so that I can show people how powerful and loving you are, and how good your way of life is.
Help me stay surrendered to your will and active in the work of helping others for the rest of my life.

If you can say all that and mean it, you’re on the program. If you can’t, you ain’t. Simple as that.

Dry booze

December 27, 2008

Most of us don’t get sober right away. We get dry first, which means we trade wet for dry booze, and drink it just as hard. We gulp down sex and food and work and romance and whatever else comes our way. When we can’t get our hands on anything solid, we start drinking our own emotional turmoil. Worry, anger, lust, and self-pity are the rotgut of dry drinkers. You can go blind on an emotional bender. And you’re guaranteed one big bastard of a hangover.

Some folks call this condition “switching addictions,” because we’re trying to treat our alcoholic drinking by abusing new substances and behaviors. Others call it “untreated alcoholism,” because we aren’t doing anything to treat the underlying causes of our disease.

Early AA in New York had adopted a welcoming attitude toward the dry drunk. I remember hearing an old-timer talk about coming into the program in ’41. The New York guys started selling him on the “God-stuff,” and he said “No thanks.”

“Well,” they said, “stick around anyhow. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

He did stick around for a while, but he didn’t learn much. Two years later he was drunk—wet drunk—and only by the grace of God did he manage, many years after, to crawl back into AA.

These days, the 12 step fellowships are full of people “sticking around anyhow.” Our halls buzz with the nervous activity of untreated alcoholism. Sit in the back of any sizable meeting and you’ll see them milling around, cracking lewd jokes and smoking, hitting on each other and picking fights. Their attention flitters about, desperately seeking the next dry shot. None of them pay any attention to the person sharing, yet each takes a turn at the podium to bitch about their lives.

As someone who wasted many years on dry drinking, I can tell you it’s a wretched life, just as painful and purposeless as the life of a wet booze drinker. And just as hard to shake.

Try to tell a dry drinker that life is better without the secondary addictions and emotional benders, and see what happens. The poor sot will exercise a sudden passion in defense of his “program.” You might as well be telling a wet drunk he should give up his bottle. No drinker—wet or dry—will ever give an inch.

Dry boozing AAs are tough nuts to crack. Griping their new bottle, knuckles white, they eye you with suspicion. Many of these people have been in AA longer than you. Some quote the Big Book better than you can. A few even have an entourage of sponsees at their command, all of them dry as dust.

These folks can sometimes pose a problem for the recovered drunk hoping to carry a spiritual message to newcomers. “God talk” is not always welcome in meetings dominated by dry drinkers, and recovered drunks can find themselves the subject of a heated controversy after doing nothing more provocative than relating their experience of the 12 steps.

I once sat in as a group debated before the vote for a new chairperson. One of the regular members was passionately arguing against the election of the candidate who had worked steps. This man claimed that he felt “unsafe” in his “own homegroup” when the stepworker was around. The message the stepworker carried “jeopardized” his “program,” he said.

I don’t think that he was lying. That man probably did feel unsafe. If a recovered drunk was running his homegroup, his program would be jeopardized. Every time he showed up at that meeting, he would hear a message that contradicted everything he was doing in AA. Over and over again, he would be challenged to put down the dry bottle and find God.

How do drunks feel when you take away their drink? They feel like their world has come undone. And the same is true of dry drinkers. Start suggesting that real recovery is be possible, and they see you as a threat. Dry drinkers already have their own ideas about recovery, and the suggestion that they are doing it wrong is, to them, both offensive and dangerous.

So how do you help a people like that? How do you carry a message to AA members who’ve got AA ass-backwards and are losing their minds on a dry jag?

For a full answer to that question, it’s worth reading over “Working With Others” with dry drunks in mind. The advice in that chapter is just as good for one drinker as it is for the other. In fact, the whole book can (and should) be read with untreated alcoholism in mind. Give it a try sometime. I’m sure you’ll find it opens up a new dimension of the message.

For now, let me just point out a couple of things from chapter 7:

If he does not want to stop drinking, don’t waste time trying to persuade him. You may spoil a later opportunity. This advice is given for his family also. They should be patient, realizing they are dealing with a sick person. (pg 90)

How do you carry a message to a guy who feels threatened when you elect a recovered drunk to chair his homegroup? You don’t. Leave the poor guy alone. Do what the old timers in New York did and let him hang around undisturbed. Don’t carry a message to someone who doesn’t want to hear it. Don’t be an “evangelist” or a “reformer.” Just look for the folks you can actually help, and spend your time with them.

The book also suggests that, before talking to a (dry) drunk, we:

Wait for the end of the spree, or at least for a lucid interval. (pg 90)

That “lucid interval” is sometimes called “rock bottom” in AA. Lucid intervals are the moments when life on the bottle becomes so painful that we suddenly see our powerlessness with clarity. In those moments, the lies we’ve been telling ourselves just don’t work. It’s only then that there’s any chance for a recovery to get started, and those moments rarely come unless we’re in a great deal of pain.

Dry drinking has its “lucid intervals” too. All alcoholic behavior has consequences, and sooner or later, every dry drunk gets in so much pain from their untreated alcoholism that they will either kill themselves or get wet again. Those dry drunks, the ones in unbearable psychic pain, are the ones to talk to. They’re the only ones ready to hear the message.

One last quote:

See your man alone if possible. At first engage in general conversation. After a while, turn the talk to some phase of drinking. Tell him enough about your drinking habits, symptoms, and experiences to encourage him to speak of himself. If he wishes to talk, let him do so. You will thus get a better idea of how you ought to proceed. If he is not communicative, give him a sketch of your drinking career up to the time you quit. But say nothing, for the moment, of how that was accomplished. If he is in a serious mood dwell on the troubles liquor has caused you, being careful not to moralize or lecture. If his mood is light, tell him humorous stories of your escapades. Get him to tell some of his. (pg 91)

This is what Bill called “identifying”—the recovered alcoholic talks to the newcomer about his drinking so that the newcomer will know (a) that he is not alone, and (b) that there is hope. This same approach works wonders with the dry drunk, though it does require an extra dose of humility; identifying around dry drinking requires that you be candid about your own intimate struggles and personal failings. You have to talk, not just about alcohol and your wet drinking, but about all the substances, emotions, and behaviors that, for you, are dry booze.

An atmosphere of real honesty—absolute honesty as they used to say—is the only place dry booze drinkers are ever going to realize that there is hope for everything that ails them.

Those of us who have experienced release from dry drinking are called to offer active dry drinkers a place where they can hear that kind of honesty. We need meetings where members share freely about their most recent dry surrenders, their most recent scrapes with booze of every kind.

Unfortunately, AA is not always receptive to this level of honesty. The fellowship, remember, is chock-full of dry drunks who get angry when you try to take their sauce away. Many meeting halls will kick you out on your ass if you so much as mention any difficulty other than alcohol. Even those meetings less defensive of their dryness will inevitably focus on wet drinking; it’s AA’s “primary purpose” after all. If we didn’t focus on wet drinking, we wouldn’t be able to reach the active alcoholic.

It’s true that we need a place where people can identify around wet drinking. But we need more than that. We need an answer for all the misery that comes after we stop drinking, too. Most of us can’t even stay dry very long if we don’t get the whole message.

There are still some meeting halls where the truth can be heard, but they are, in my experience, few and far between. Most of AA has been handed over to the restless, shiftless masses of untreated alcoholics. AA today is like a bus shelter; it’s a place to stay dry awhile, maybe strike up a conversation with the guy beside you on the bench.

I’m not advocating for reform. AA is exactly what it should be. But some of those dry drunks are reaching the breaking point. They desperately need a place where they can hear the whole message, and it’s our job to make sure they hear it.

If we want to reach dry boozing AAs, we have to create meetings where its acceptable to talk about both kinds of booze.

God is not what you think

November 15, 2008

The via negativa is the “negative way” of getting to know God. It is the way of letting go.

The basic assumption of this method is that God is much greater than anything we can imagine. As human beings of limited intelligence, we have a tendency to get attached to ideas of God that are far inferior to the reality of God.

Once we have an idea that works for us, we get lazy. We hang onto our idea, fixing it in place, and we start taking God for granted. We assume that our idea is good enough for practical purposes and do not bother to look any deeper into the truth.

Fixed ideas of God are like tranquilizers to the spiritual life—they slow everything down to a crawl and inhibit normal functioning. As soon as we think we know what something is, we stop paying attention to it. It is the same with our relationship to God.

Via negativa suggests that we be proactive and dump our intellectual baggage as soon as possible. Think of it as a third step for your concept of God.

Surrender to God all your ideas about God.
Once the mind is clear, we can experience God directly. No more big ideas getting in the way.

In via negativa, also called the apophatic tradition, people often create “definitions” of God that are simply a list of things that God is not. In these lists, the authors place ideas that the members of their faith tradition hold dear. The idea is to shake things up by poking at those ideas that are the most fixed in our minds.

What follows is an attempt to phrase an apophatic definition of God for Big Book folk. It’s short, and stands to be expanded, but it probably contains enough to get you started on the negative way.

Take a deep breath.

Get centered.

Read out loud, if only in a whisper.

Read s-l-o-w-l-y.

If you find yourself wanting to defend a fixed idea, give it up.

Via Negativa for Big Book Folk

God is not a Higher Power.
God is not a psychic change.
God is not love, superhuman strength, and direction.
God is not the Great Reality deep down within us.
God is not Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind, or Spirit of Nature.
God is not Creator, nor is God Maker.
God is not Director, nor Principal, nor Father.

God is not a power that pulls chronic alcoholics back from the gates of death.

God is not everything, nor is God nothing.
God is not God as we understand him.

God is not freedom from mental obsession.
God is not a spiritual experience.

God is not a miracle of healing.
God is not the Presence of Infinite Power and Love.
God is not a Fellowship of the Spirit.
God is not the Road of Happy Destiny.

God is not a defense against the first drink.


October 12, 2008

…as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results… (Big Book, p. 46)

What Bill is saying here is that you don’t have to believe in God in order to work steps. You can get a spiritual program without believing anything at all. You just have to have willingness, which is an entirely different thing.

For example, I can, as a habit, be willing to eat whatever my wife makes for dinner, even meat loaf, which I don’t particularly enjoy. Even if she never serves meat loaf, I’m still willing to eat it, and that is all that is required for me to have a pleasant evening with my wife.

And so, I can be willing to believe in God, or even become a Bible-beating Christian, if that’s what’s required. But if that meat loaf never gets served—if my experience of the program never forces the issue—I won’t have to eat it. And I can still stay sober, and develop a healthy spiritual life.

Belief is not required.

But willingness is. And oftentimes willingness is harder to come by.

For example, there are many nights when I come home all grumpy, and I’m not willing to eat meat loaf. If I happen to think I smell beef baking in the oven, I’m liable to throw a fit. Then the evening is ruined, even if she was cooking something else.

In the same way, if I come into this program unwilling to taste anything spiritual, I’m going to go hungry. In fact, I have come into the program many, many times with exactly that attitude, and every time, my lack of willingness took me back out.

I had to be in a lot of pain before I was willing to sit down with someone and have him explain the program to me. What he said was that all my arguments against God were beside the point.

You don’t have to believe in God, he said, but you do have to be willing to experience the power of God.

It was a strange statement, not at all what I expected. It was reassuring, because it meant that he wasn’t going to cram the Bible down my throat, but it was also scary. It meant I was going to have to take this God stuff seriously, more seriously than most church folk do.

It’s one thing to believe in God. That’s easy. You just go along with the crowd and agree to whatever the guy up front is preaching. But to willing to meet God face-to-face, even if God doesn’t exist—that’s a tall order. You have to put everything on the line—your whole life hangs on this thing—and you don’t even know if it’s going to work.

What if its a hoax? What if you get willing to meet God, to surrender everything, and God never shows up? You’ll be left in the same mess you were already in, dying in your addiction, but with egg on your face.

Or, even worse, what if it’s true? What if there really is a God, and it changes your life? Then what? Judging from most of the religious people we know, the results are probably not going to be good. We might end up wearing white ties and selling Bibles door-to-door. Or worse.

We might become anything God wants us to be. We don’t get to control or predict what going to happen to us. We don’t get to peek into the future before we make our decision. We just have to hold our noses and jump in.

All we know is that we’re going to change. It’s sort of like dying and being replaced by a pod-person. You won’t be you anymore. You’ll be some other person, some spiritual person who has the same name and features, but doesn’t think or act or talk or feel at all the same as you did before.

If it works, that is.

If it works people might think you’re not cool anymore. You might never get laid again. You might have to get on your knees to pray and hold hands with people and sing and talk about how God is such a great guy.

Or it might be a joke, and you’ll be dead.

With this sort of thinking, many of us decide we’d be better off drunk than taking a chance on God.

But, if we’re lucky enough to have a decent group around us—if the people who are talking about willingness are also living in willingness—then we’ll have some actual evidence to consider.

In the eyes of every person who is living this program, we will see peace and contentment. These people are not crawling around in their skin the way we are. They are not fighting off the urge to drink. They’ve found something that works.

Oddly enough, they all talk a little differently about that “something that works.” In fact, no two of them quite agree on exactly what God is, or how it does what it does. And yet this thing is working for each of them, regardless of their respective beliefs.

If we pay attention to these people, rather than to our self-pity and fear, we’ll find we have good reason to take a chance on God.

God works, even if he doesn’t exist.

Someone to help today

October 4, 2008

Early on in my recovery, a prayer was suggested to me that has proved to be quite effective. Like any good prayer, it is simple and direct.

God, please send me someone to help today.

When I first said this prayer, I was six months sober and had just finished making my amends.

I lived in a small town at the time, and so I walked to work that morning. About halfway to the office, I heard a little jingling sound in the distance. I looked up the street and saw a very happy dog trotting my way. He was dragging his leash behind him.

I normally didn’t get along all that well with dogs—we just weren’t interested in the same things. But this dog ran right up to me and sat down at my feet.

If you had been passing by, you would have thought me the owner of a surprisingly obedient pup.

Time passed in silence between us. I stared down at the dog. It stared right back up at me, panting and pacified. He seemed like a very friendly little guy to me.

Then a new sound in the distance. I looked up the street again to see a man running breathlessly around the corner in our direction.

It took me a minute to put two and two together. This did not seem like the kind of dog that would just up and run away, but the circumstantial evidence was stacked against him. I reached down and held onto his collar, which he let me do without a fuss.

The man came up to us, gasping for air. He thanked me as best he could, took the leash, and ran back off again with his dog.

Five minutes earlier, I’d asked God to send me someone to help.

I guess he’d decided to make my first time easy.

When I think back on that day, I see a miracle not so much in the fact that a dog and his owner were suddenly introduced into my morning, but in that I was actually paying attention. And I actually cared. Three months prior, I’d have just as soon kicked the dog as looked him in the eye, and I wouldn’t have had any time to wait around for some jerk who couldn’t hang on to the leash.

It’s amazing that my prayer was answered. It’s more amazing that I was able to say that prayer and mean it. God really worked me over in my first nine steps, and that morning provided my first piece of evidence that this program really worked.

Jimmy K., a founding member of Narcotics Anonymous, used to say a similar prayer: God, please send me someone who really wants this program, even just for a few hours.

And my great grand-sponsor used to have one like this: God, please let your love flow through me and into the lives of others.

Praying to be useful to others is solid 12th step stuff. In my experience, God always answers these prayers in the affirmative. If you ask God to send you someone to help, you’ll get what you pray for. You might not always like what you get—God might send you the exact person that you least wanted to help—but your prayer will be answered in full.

These days I’ve been blessed with an abundance of people to help. My wife is pregnant, expecting a girl in December. My son is five. I teach, so I’ve got students to assist. And I generally have a few sponsees. I no longer need God to redirect lost dogs my way in order to have someone to help. So I use that prayer less often.

These days, I pray for willingness and understanding.

Resentments. Selfishness.

September 28, 2008

In my experience with this thing, I’ve come to think of resentment as the “texture” of selfishness. Every object has a texture. Texture is what the object feels like. Smooth is what a slab of polished marble feels like. Soft is what flannel sheets feel like. Resentment is what selfishness feels like.

When I am selfish, I feel resentment.

This gives resentment some value, because all texture has value. If we could not feel that the knife was sharp, we would cut ourselves. If we could not feel that the fire was hot, we would burn. And if we didn’t have resentments, we might not ever know that we were selfish; our spiritual illness would progress unchecked.

A resentment is an opportunity. If we respond appropriately, the resentment will forward our spiritual growth; it will take us into a deeper level of relationship with God.

Of course, alcoholics are famous for responding inappropriately to things that cause them harm. The doctor tells us we’ll die if we drink, and we take that news to the bar. Quite appropriately, Bill calls this a “complete failure of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove.”

Our response to resentment is just as misguided as our response to booze. We get selfish, so we feel resentment. Then we blame someone else for the way we feel. In our blame, we act badly. We’re short-tempered, we’re rude, and we pick fights. Then our brains race at night, chewing over every aggravating detail of the day.

Underneath all our blame and bad behavior, our unacknowledged selfishness quietly scrapes against our better natures, irritating our conscience, and so we lie awake.

We burn our hands instead of taking them off the stove.

But we needn’t.

When we write Big Book inventory, we find out that behind each and every single one of our resentments lies our own selfishness as the root cause.

When we write Big Book inventory over a sustained period of time, we get to see that selfishness is always the cause of all our resentments.

As we work our 10th step diligently over the years, God graces us with a healthy suspicion of our anger. We get pissed off, and we think, “Maybe I feel like this because I’m being a jerk. Maybe it’s not this other guy’s fault at all.”

When this suspicion becomes habitual, we’re a little less prone to act badly when we’re mad. And we get mad less often.

Another thing we notice by a consistent application of the 10th step is the fact that we don’t get resentments unless something we want—something we’re selfishly attached to—is threatened.

We can pursue the next drink for a long time without consequences. Then one day someone we love tells us we should quit. Suddenly, our selfishness becomes palpable. We feel it for the first time, and it doesn’t feel good. Instead of recognizing this feeling as an opportunity to surrender, we become enraged.

We can also pursue wealth, sex, friendships, esteem, pride, power, or pleasure of any kind without ever knowing our true motives. It takes conflict before we can be made aware that we are spiritually sick and wrong-minded. Life has to intervene.

So this feeling we normally call “resentment” is really something of a wake up call, a sudden awareness of our own selfishness. We can suppress this awareness and become angry, or we can allow it to do it’s work, and be made holy.

These wake up calls are sharp, painful, humiliating. They always happen at exactly the wrong time, when they stand to embarrass us the most. Or, rather, they always happen on God’s time, right when they will do the most good. In these moments God’s hand reaches out through the circumstances of our lives and touches us in the very place where we need to surrender most; our selfishness recoils, and we are made aware.

We cannot control this process, for it is the process of life itself. And life seems perfectly designed to eliminate our selfishness. Like rocks in a stream, we are worn smooth by a series of soft collisions. We can’t control it, but with the help of a little inventory, we can stop fighting the current.

Lost inventories

September 20, 2008

Twice I’ve had sponsees who lost their inventory before they took their 5th steps.

The first time it happened, my guy—let’s call him Fred—was in the Salvation Army. If you’ve never been inside a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC), then you probably don’t know how important rules are to their treatment philosophy.

Rules, work, and Jesus—that’s how you get sober at the ARC. And in that order, too.

Accordingly, they’ve got rules that govern every aspect of your waking life. If, for example, you were caught with two cups of milk at lunch instead of one, you would be subject to discipline. Such a contrast with the Big Book’s “suggestions only” approach.

Anyway, Fred was a meth addict entrusted to the Army’s care in lieu of a prison term. He wrote good inventory, filling a notebook with resentments, fears, and sexual misconduct (the latter is usually a big deal for methies).

I was rather exited about the prospect of getting this guy through his steps. He still had a few teeth left, you know. He might be put to good use helping others.

When we first started meeting, all Fred wanted to do was bitch about the rules. But as he progressed in his inventory, he laid off the bitching and started sharing a bit about himself. To my mind, that was good, solid progress. Most addicts can’t survive long in a culture of rules. Those that make it do so by breaking rules and/or bitching about them.

To be in the ARC and get over your resentments—even your resentment of the rules—is real spiritual progress. An addict humbly following the rules is…well…it just doesn’t happen that often, and I was starting to get the idea that maybe these Army guys were on to something. Having strict rules—thousands of them—forced the issue. Either you got over yourself or you got kicked out. There was no third option.

I showed up one Saturday, as planned, ready to hear Fred’s inventory.

He got in my car with a sour look on his face and told me he didn’t have his notebook.

Thinking he was trying to back out of his 5th step, I told him he’d better go and get it.

“Can’t,” he said. And then he told me what happened.

Fred had his inventory inside his Army-issued binder. Like all things in the ARC, binders were governed by a code of rules, strictly enforced. Most importantly, you could leave them in the main room only during the day and had to take them to your room at night.

Fred had forgotten his binder in the main room one night. His binder and the inventory it contained were subsequently confiscated.

I appealed to the proper authorities and had them search the storage rooms. I had Fred wade through the dumpsters out back. His inventory was no where to be found.

They had taken his stuff and had sent it through the shredder.

I wanted to burn the place down.

But, after a bit of prayer, I figured we’d better move along as best we could. Fred was graduating in two weeks. He didn’t have time to write his inventory again, at least not before he was turned out.

Not knowing how to do a 5th step without any inventory to read, I had Fred go back and write about the “big ones.” I asked him to try to remember his ten most significant resentments and fill out the columns on them.

He did so, halfheartedly. Then he read it to me, graduated, and was high for two weeks before he got pulled over and was hauled back to prison.

God bless them and their mission, but I don’t hang out with the Salvation Army anymore.

More recently, I was sponsoring a guy we’ll call Dave, who took his inventory to court. When he was called by the judge, he left his notebook in his seat, thinking he’d be back for it. The judge had the bailiff take Dave in, and he was held for a few hours. By the time he was released, Dave’s inventory was gone.

Dave was also in a rehab and was about to move from its “primary” phase to “job search.” There was pressure on him to take his 5th step ASAP because people who didn’t read inventory before they went looking for a work often found a bag of dope instead of a job.

So I prayed about it and had this idea that maybe we could take a page from the Oxford Group. I had Dave write up a classic Four Absolutes inventory and read that to me for his 5th. The idea was that he’d work to fill in the rest of the inventory later, as part of an ongoing 10th step.

Dave did okay for a while. He did a bunch of difficult amends without even blinking. He made amends to four stores and three family members in one day. Fearless.

But after that, he just petered out. Stopped writing inventory. Stopped saying his prayers. Got pissed off about small stuff and pretended he wasn’t mad. Didn’t call me so much as he used to.

He’s officially off the radar for two weeks now. Hopefully, he just moved on to another sponsor. One who’s making him write some good inventory.

I am wrong

September 14, 2008

I tried something new in my 11th step today.

Basil Pennington suggests asking God to help you chose a word or phrase from your morning reading to carry with you throughout the day.

So this morning, I hunted around in the Psalms for a while, trying to dig up something all by myself. When that didn’t work, I closed the book, asked for help, and opened to this phrase:

I am wrong.

God is a God of wisdom. That phrase came in handy all day long.

We took a trip to the beach, and as we were packing, my wife asked for my help carrying some things. My mood soured. I wanted to tell her to carry her own crap. Then, the phrase came and cleared my mind: I am wrong. Of course I could carry a few extra things.

At the beach, my son wanted me to stand with him while he played in the surf. I wanted to read my book. Why should I always have to do everything? Why didn’t my wife go and do it instead? I am wrong. He and I had a lot of fun running around together.

My wife started talking politics, and I wanted to bicker. I am wrong. We had a good conversation.

My son was shouting at the restaurant, and I wanted to be stern. I am wrong. I paid attention, and he lowered his voice.

I kept losing at cards. I am wrong. It was fun anyway.

It was a hassle getting all the sand off my son’s stuff.

A couple of drunks were acting up on the train.

I was all tired out and grumpy when we got home.

I am wrong. I am wrong. I am wrong.

I was wrong all day long.

God kept reminding me and putting things right again.

I remember hearing a story years ago in a meeting about a guy (let’s call him Ted) who put sticky notes all over his house. Each note carried the same message, so that every where he looked, he would read:

“You’re wrong, Ted.”

I’m on Ted’s side.

It’s better to know than to not know.

A resentment against my wife

September 12, 2008

In the spirit of “keeping current” without “dumping,” I offer the following:

Last week I got pissed off at my wife, so much so that I couldn’t hardly look at her as we ate lunch together.

The feeling between us was so bad that she eventually had to leave the house for a while, just to get some air.

See what happened was that she insulted my beef soup. She called it “stinky,” and as a self-respecting man, I just couldn’t allow that to pass unanswered.

If I had just let it go, she might get the idea that she could treat my food poorly without consequences. She’d walk all over my every meal. A man’s got to eat his lunch in peace. Right?

Well, if it sounds crazy now, it must have looked even crazier then, a grown man getting all steamed over something petty like that.

Of course, at the time I was convinced that my resentment was perfectly rational, the only sane response to her comment. I really believed that I was the innocent victim of an insensitive, uncaring wife.

And I held it against her.

She took off, and I spent a few hours alone. I did have enough sense to pray during that time. But I can’t say that I gained any willingness. Or insight. I stayed angry, just cooled down a little, and resolved to prove my point.

When we finally talked about the soup incident later in the day (and I insisted that we talk about it), I pressed her with questions suggesting that she was at fault. Didn’t she have anything to tell me? Wasn’t she sorry? Didn’t she think that I had behaved rationally? Wasn’t she really to blame?

Needless to say, that didn’t go over very well, and I left for my meeting with a big storm cloud brewin’ over my head.

That night something happened that always happens at a good meeting: someone told the truth about one of their resentments, and it shot my own resentment to shit. It feels like getting knocked off your feet, even though your still sitting in your chair.

The guy talked about how he had made himself out to be a victim and caused all this trouble, blaming everyone else, when the only real trouble was his own selfishness. He totally nailed me.

What the hell was I thinking?

My wife is five months pregnant. And she gets hungry at lunch time, desperately hungry. That day she had come into the kitchen with a biological imperative to get food to our unborn daughter.

But there I was, right in her way, cooking up some old, sloppy, left-over beef that smelled, to her heightened senses, like I’d scraped it off the bottom of the river.

Had I consulted with her before I started cooking? Did I stop and ask her what she wanted to eat? Did I make sure the baby got what it needed before taking care of myself?

No. I’d gone after my own needs, leaving my pregnant wife and daughter-to-be to fend for themselves.

I’d been selfish. And being selfish led me to be inconsiderate. Being inconsiderate led me to be insensitive. Being insensitive led me to be argumentative. Being argumentative led me to say things that were uncaring and unkind. Saying such things led to a conflict in which I behaved like an idiot. Persisting in my selfishness, I blamed the conflict and my behavior on their victim, my pregnant wife.

Once my head finally popped out of my ass, it was hard to understand why I wanted to stay buried up there for so long.

I thanked God for freeing me from my resentment, and when I got home, I made a much needed, rather belated amends.

With a bit of Grace and a little elbow grease, I can stay sane, sober and married. Short of that—on my own—I will resent myself back out into the cold. Happens every time.


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