sharp knives, blunt objects

November 16, 2014

My great-grandsponsor, Don, used to say that his job was to sharpen his knife so well that it wouldn’t hurt when he stabbed you. Don did some prison time, but to my knowledge he never actually stabbed anyone. The knife and the stabbings here are metaphorical. In fact, they are exactly the same metaphor that Howard Walter used in the classic Oxford Group handbook, Soul Surgery. Walter suggested that religious personal workers were like surgeons removing spiritual sickness from their converts. Don’s stabbing metaphor means the same thing. Sponsees are spiritually sick and must have their sickness removed, so a sponsor’s job will always require a bit of cutting.

Performing soul surgery on alcoholics is no easy task. It means saying things to your sponsees that you know they won’t like to hear. The truth is often painful. It can be embarrassing to have someone point out your personal failings, especially if you are one of these ultrasensitive creatures called an alcoholic. And we alcoholics are not just extremely sensitive, we are also extremely dishonest and stubborn and resentful. If our sponsors are not careful in the way they deliver the truth to us, we can easily become irrationally resistant.

It’s a bit like the Hasbro game “Operation.” In that game, you’re supposed to extract a plastic object from a plastic patient with a set of tweezers. The object is in clear view, but if you twitch even a little while trying to pull it out, the tweezers will touch the side of the opening, the patient’s nose will glow bright red, and he’ll make an awful buzzing sound. Sponsoring an alcoholic is exactly like that. You can see what is wrong, and you’d like to remove it. But if your tone or manner are even a little off the mark, the drunk will glow bright red and make an awful buzzing sound.

Once an alcoholic becomes resistant to the truth, there is very little productive work that can be done. Instead of seeing their failings and becoming motivated to surrender, resistant alcoholics become overly hurt and resentful, and may even decide they’d rather drink than tolerate any more of of this awful truth-telling. Occasionally, this initial resistance will soften, and the alcoholic will return to thank the sponsor for what he or she said. More often than not, however, once the nose is glowing and the buzzer is buzzing, your turn is over. You’ll have to wait for the sponsee to return, broken and remorseful from yet another relapse, before your words can get through.

So how do you stab alcoholics without hurting them?

I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for this question. As far as I know, Don didn’t give clear rules about how to insert metaphorical knives into sponsees while avoiding all their nerve endings. His metaphor was all the guidance he gave us, and it may be all the guidance we really need. He believed that his job was to name painful truths for people. And he believed that he shouldn’t hurt anyone. These are both good beliefs, even if they are hard to reconcile. Together they guide us toward the mean between two extremes. On one extreme, you have sponsors who will do no harm, even if that means failing to tell the truth. On the other extreme, you have sponsors who will name painful truths, even if that means doing more harm than good.

Neither of these extremes offers effective soul surgery. Both have the potential to cause real harm. The “do no harm” sponsors risk failing to name painful truths. If sponsees don’t ever hear the truth, they never get a chance to act on it, and so they are robbed of the opportunity to surrender and change. The “always tell the truth” sponsors risk missing their mark in one of two ways: they might be wrong in their assumptions about the sponsee (and so the “truth” they are telling won’t be true at all) or they may give the sponsee the impression that he or she is being judged. Sponsees who feel judged are not able to identify with us or to trust us, and so they become resistant. To return to the “Operation” analogy: the “do no harm” sponsor is the kid who decides not to play the game at all rather than face the red light and the buzzer. The “always tell the truth” sponsor is the kid trying to dig pieces out of the game board with a screwdriver.

I fall into the “do no harm” category. Most of my mistakes have been failing to name a truth for a sponsee even when I knew he needed to hear it. I have watched sponsees follow bad ideas into relapse without offering so much as a word of warning. I’ve pulled my punches. I’ve held my tongue and hoped for the best. My motives were not even as noble as “do no harm.” While it’s true that I did not want to hurt my sponsees, the fact is that I was less afraid of actually harming them than I was of being wrong and embarrassed, or of hurting their feelings and having them not like me anymore. The idea that I might say the wrong thing, piss off a sponsee, and have them leave with a bad opinion of me was unthinkable. The fear that this might happen often drove me to give up on my sponsees instead of confronting them with the truth.

I don’t want to give the impression that I failed to be honest with every sponsee. If that were the case, I’d be drunk. I managed to be mostly honest most of the time, and in the majority of cases, the situation never came up in which I knew I had to say something extra painful. Most sponsees went through the process of working steps without any need of additional intervention. They read through the book with me, took a third step, started writing inventory and reached a point of crisis on their own. They came face-to-face with the truth in themselves and either finished their 4th step anyhow, or walked away. In these situations, there was no need of confrontation from me. My job was simply to make the terms clear: you can keep getting honest and catch a recovery, or you can leave the work and fall back into into your pain. Those who were willing to endure the truth kept writing. Those who weren’t disappeared. The program does an impressive job of sorting these things out.

It was only every now and then that a sponsee popped up who was in need of correction. Normally this was someone who was going through the motions of being in the program without doing any actual work. I’ve had sponsees who wanted to call me their sponsor without ever talking to me. I’ve had sponsees who wanted to hang out without reading the Big Book or taking any steps. And I’ve also had sponsees who got some way into the work and tried to ignore the crisis it created in their lives. Instead of either pushing through or walking away, they stopped moving forward and tried to survive on whatever small progress they had made so far. They hoped, I guess, to stay sober by merit of meaning to do the work without ever actually doing anything.

For example, I once sponsored a guy I’ll call Howard. Howard was a funny guy, pleasant to be around. He came to me after dumping another sponsor who he thought was too strict. Howard had already made it up to his 8th step, and was writing regular 10th step inventory and reading it to me. We went over his amends list together, and he made a plan to start checking off names. Each week, I picked him up on Sunday morning to go to an 11th step group, and each week, I asked him if he’d made any amends. Howard’s answer was alway some very funny and disarming way of saying “No.” So I’d tell him to get into action, and I’d leave it at that. Next week, it would be exactly the same. No, he hadn’t made amends, but he could make me laugh about it. So I’d tell him to get working. He would agree and then change the subject.

This went on for weeks and weeks before my conscience started talking to me. I wasn’t doing this guy any good by letting him think that he was in recovery when he wasn’t making any amends. I didn’t want to upset him. I enjoyed joking around with him, going to meditation together, and hearing his ongoing inventory. I didn’t want to risk giving up our friendship by telling him off. But the weeks went on, and he never made amends.

Finally, my conscience won out. I called Howard up and told him: “If you don’t make an amends this week, you aren’t working a program.” I was right. It pissed him off. It pissed him off so much that he biked all the way across town to make an amends to a former employer. Just to show me. The amends went so well that he caught a bug for it and started cranking through his list. His program grew some legs and started walking again. And we got along just fine.

With Howard, I overcame my fear of angering him and spoke the truth. The result was good. The knife was sharp, and it did its work. But I haven’t always been willing to strike. There have been times when a sponsee was floating along without doing the work, and I didn’t dig into them the way that I should have.

The example that stands out is a guy I’ll call Jack. Jack was fresh from prison, living in a recovery house. He was desperate to get his many kids out of their various foster care situations and back into his life. He was also sunk deep in a life of crime. Jack’s plan was to continue to work in “collections” while driving a stolen car. He intended to visit his children in their foster homes whether the foster families wanted him there or not. He honestly thought this plan would allow him to get ahead financially and get his family back together as quickly as possible.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have asked God for the right words to make it clear to Jack that he could choose to follow his own plan, or he could work steps: the two were not compatible. At the time, I didn’t confront him on anything. I had him take a third step, and gave him 4th step instructions, trusting that, if his third step were real, his life would get sorted out one-piece-at-a-time through inventory. Better not to expect too much at once from a guy like this, I told myself. And anyway, who knows what he might be able to get away with while he was getting started on the program. First things first, and all that.

Here’s the problem: he didn’t write. We met weekly, and when we did, I’d ask Jack how his writing was going. He’d dismiss the question and tell me how frustrated he was that the many foster parents were giving him grief. He tell me how worried he was that the people running the recovery home would find out about the stolen car or would start to wonder how he was making so much money so quickly without a job. His stress and frustration grew each week. His moral inventory did not. I did encourage him to set aside time to write. I did tell him that the writing was the most important thing in his life and would solve all his problems if he would just sit down and do it. I did not tell him that his efforts to put his family back together were self-destructive, that participating in criminal behavior was the kind of dishonesty that is incompatible with recovery, or that his whole plan signaled a lack of surrender and a failure to admit that his life was unmanageable.

One night Jack called me with real desperation in his voice. One of the foster dads had pushed him too far, and Jack was losing his cool. He didn’t know what to do. He talked for a good forty minutes about all the people that were getting under his skin and how unfair it was that he was in this predicament. He was a man with family values, he said, and the world was unkind to him. I felt my conscience pulling on me to say something. But what? I could see what was wrong. I could tell that he was on the edge of the cliff with one leg dangling over. But what to say? How to say it? What words could possibly talk him off the ledge? He was too far gone now, I told myself. It was no use making things harder on him.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m sorry things are so hard for you right now.” And that was all.

I could feel myself giving up on him, and I could feel him slipping away. It was a cold and horrible feeling.

“Thanks,” he said. And that was it. He was gone.

Next thing I heard, Jack was back in prison for threatening that foster dad with a deadly weapon. I guess he had a stolen gun in his stolen car. Because of his record, Jack was looking at a lot of time. His kids would be already grown when he got out again.

To be clear: it is not my fault that Jack was an addict and a criminal. It’s not my fault that he got crazy and went back to prison. It’s not my fault that he put his kids ahead of his recovery, or that he was convinced that he could manage his life, or that he failed to write inventory. I won’t even fault myself for saying very little to him about his poor planning and life choices. I was convinced at the time (and still am) that he could be all kinds of crazy and still get well if he had enough willingness to get honest.

But I will fault myself for not speaking when my conscious told me to. He was at the point of crisis, and a simple stab at the truth could have made a real difference. He might have made bad choices anyway. He probably would have. But at least I would have given him an opportunity to surrender. The surgical moment came and passed. I had the knife in my hand, and I didn’t strike.

I can’t speak from personal experience about the kinds of mistakes made by the other camp, the “always tell the truth” sponsors. But I have seen those folks in action. When “always tell the truth” sponsorship goes well, it looks like being a no-bullshit, straight talking kind of person who doesn’t let his or her sponsees off the hook for their bad ideas. When it goes poorly, it looks like some poor shmuck trying to do surgery by punching people in the face. Some of their words may be true, but none of them are helpful. Sponsors like that need to be told to stop hurting people, or maybe even to stop being sponsors until they’ve got their own house in order. Sponsors like me need to be told to stab a dude, even if the knife isn’t as sharp as we’d like.

So what does a balanced approach look like? What is it like to be in the middle ground between saying too little and causing harm? These are not easy questions to answer. I suspect that a balanced approach can look quite different depending on the sponsor, the sponsee, their relationship, and whatever circumstances they are in. What might be too blunt for one sponsee will surely be too soft for another, so there aren’t many rules we can make that will hold true in all situations. I would suggest, however, three things: 1) Good soul surgery is both unflinchingly honest and perfectly loving. 2) The only words that can have both of those qualities in any given situation must come to us from God in prayer. 3) Inspired words always land just right. The more deeply we can rely on God’s guidance in tricky situations, the more clearly and painlessly will we be able to deliver the truth.

I’ll tell one more story, and then I’ll shut up. This is a story Don used to tell, one that I think does a good job of demonstrating what effective soul surgery looks like.

One night Don was woken up by the sound of his phone at 4 am. When he picked up the receiver, he recognized the voice of a sponsee, who said in a cold, gravely voice, “I’m outside the bitch’s house, and I’m gonna burn it down.”

Don prayed before he answered, which proved wise because what came out of his mouth was not something he would have thought of on his own.

“You dummy,” he said warmly. “You woke me up at four in the morning to tell me something I could have read in the papers in the morning?”

The sponsee, who had been in a murderous mood a moment ago, was suddenly embarrassed. He apologized to Don, and came to his home the next day to make amends to his wife and children for disturbing their sleep. The local papers carried no stories of arson that day.

Tiebout turns it over

November 8, 2014

My grand-sponsor, Jerry, once told me that you can never force someone to take a 3rd step. “If you do that,” he said, “You will rob them of the opportunity to surrender.” Surrender is something that one must come to willingly, and so a 3rd step done simply to comply with someone else’s demands isn’t really a 3rd step at all. It’s just an empty gesture. The Big Book says more or less the same thing in Working With Others. In its advice on how to bring a newcomer to surrender, it suggests that the newcomer “should not be pushed or prodded by you, his wife, or his friends. If he is to find God, the desire must come from within” (95).

Bill Wilson and Jerry both knew how stubborn and resistant we alcoholics can be. Even when I’m offered something obviously good for me—even if it’s the only thing that can save my life—if you try to force it on me, I’ll buck. It is not good or even rational to be this stubborn. But it’s how I am, especially when I’m newly sober. And so, alcoholics like me need to be approached carefully with the idea of surrender. With folks this resistant, the more you push, the more they’ll fight you. Therefore, the best practice is to provide alcoholics with the opportunity to surrender, and let them make up their own minds.

Jerry’s comment has an interesting further implication: force will not only increase alcoholic resistance but will also prevent alcoholics from being able to surrender, even if you are successful in getting them to agree with your demands.

Consider the following scenario: You have a sponsee that’s ready to take a 3rd step and has come to terms with the God stuff. You happen to know that she is in a deeply sick relationship with another alcoholic, who is actively drinking. Your sponsee isn’t really willing to give up on this relationship. You make clear that a 3rd step means total surrender, including surrender of all relationships, especially codependent ones like the one she is having with this other alcoholic. The relationship has to be given to God along with everything else in her life. Your sponsee understands, and says she will think about what you’ve said. So far, so good.

But let’s say that for some reason you’re not content to just let her make an unpressured decision. Maybe you know how much pain her family is in, or maybe you’re having a bad day, or maybe you’re just that kind of sponsor. Whatever the reason, you lay it on thick: you say she needs to get out of her relationship, and she needs to do it fast. You say she will never get well if she doesn’t. She’ll relapse for sure. You say that if she can’t break it off, then she can’t make a full surrender, and if she can’t make a full surrender, then there’s no point in you working with her any more. You tell her she has to choose between her relationship and her recovery. It’s clear from your tone and your presentation that you disapprove of her attachment to the relationship. She can tell that if she decides not to break it off, you will not be happy with her choice.

You’ve now put as much pressure on her decision as you possibly can. You’ve given a direct order for her to leave her sick relationship, and you’ve threatened to remove yourself from her life if she does not comply with your demand. You’ve also made a sort of “frothy emotional appeal” in effectively scolding her for even thinking about staying in the relationship. If you wanted to up the stakes any further, you’d have to rope her family and friends into a group bullying session. Or else resort to making threats.

Let’s imagine that your pressure works. She agrees to break up with the active alcoholic. She says she hopes you’ll keep working with her as her sponsor and that she’d like to take a 3rd step. To all appearances, this is the positive result of a successful act of sponsorship. You intervened in a potentially bad situation. Without your advice, your sponsee might have stayed in the sick relationship and relapsed, but instead she made a healthy decision and is going to keep working steps. Did you force her to make a surrender? Not exactly, you say. After all, she could have made a different decision. Did you push and prod like the Big Book says not to? Well yes, you say, but it all worked out for the best. The pushing and prodding and pressure paid off.


Well, no. Not according to Bill and Jerry, at least. According to them, in all your pushing and prodding you actually stole something from this woman. You took away her opportunity to surrender and replaced it with something else, something that may have actually made it more difficult for her to turn her life over to God. And Bill and Jerry are not alone in thinking so. Harry Tiebout, the psychiatrist who treated Bill Wilson for his depression in the 1940s, wrote a number of papers about surrender and its value to the treatment of alcoholism, and he speaks specifically about the difference between surrender and this “something else,” which he calls by two names: “submission” and “compliance.”

Surrender, for Tiebout, begins with “a moment of accepting reality” that leads to “a state in which there is a persisting capacity to accept reality.” In other words, surrender is the opposite of the alcoholic’s natural way of being. We alcoholics normally exist in what Tiebout would call a “negative relationship with reality.” We have an inner restlessness that is born of a basic discontentment with the world. We resist everything, or, as the Big Book says, we make “heavy going of life.” Surrender completely reverses our normal attitude: we say yes to life no matter what our present circumstances, and we suddenly become willing to live life on it’s own terms. Acceptance replaces resistance, and the alcoholic is set free into a new way of living that Tiebout describes as “positive and creative” since the alcoholic can now “work in [reality] and with it.”

Compliance (or submission), is different from surrender in that when an alcoholic complies (or submits), he or she superficially accepts reality while internally, or even unconsciously, continues to resist. Here’s how Tiebout describes it: “In submission, an individual accepts reality consciously, but not unconsciously. He or she accepts as a practical fact that he or she cannot at that moment lick reality, but lurking in the unconscious is the feeling, there’ll come a day.” In other words, submission/compliance happens when I tell you “Yes,” but inside I am saying “No.” Tiebout suggests that this inner “no” can be completely repressed into the unconscious, so that even I do not know that I am not in full acceptance.

For example, when my family told me that I couldn’t live at home anymore, but that they would pay for me to go to treatment if I liked, I was faced with the proposition of being homeless or going to rehab. I didn’t want to stop drinking and getting high, but I didn’t really want to be on the streets, either. So I went to treatment. I said “yes” to my family, but inside I was thinking “When I get out of here, they’ll give me some money, and then I can get high again.” At this point, my inner resistance was conscious. Once I got to treatment, however, I realized that I did have a problem with drugs and that I should probably stop using them. I did not, at this point, fully surrender to reality, but I did (except for that one time when I sort of wandered off the rehab campus for a bit) fully comply with treatment. As far as I knew, I was fully saying “Yes,” but my resistance had only been temporarily repressed. I followed the rules and played along with what people expected of me for a while. And then a day came when there weren’t so many rules, and people weren’t checking on me quite so much. I could do whatever I wanted. And I drank.

Tiebout says that compliance is a “halfway but never total surrender” and that, because compliance temporarily quiets an alcoholic’s resistance, it “deceives both the individual and the onlooker, neither of whom is able to detect the unconscious compliance in the reaction of apparent yielding.” Because the alcoholic has temporarily stopped drinking and arguing and making a mess of things, compliance fools everyone, even the alcoholic. I might think I’m fully surrendered, and you might agree with me, when actually I’m just unconsciously waiting for an opportunity to reassert my self-will. Because compliance can fool everybody involved, Tiebout says it “blocks the capacity for true acceptance.” Compliance acts as a “dog in the manger,” preventing the complying person from realizing that they have a need to surrender. The alcoholic goes about the business of agreeing with everyone else’s wishes for her until all eyes and pressure are off, and then, left to her own devices, she returns to her old ways.

Let’s return to the scenario in which I was pretending that you were putting a lot of pressure on a sponsee of yours (not very nice of you). She agreed to dump her lover and to keep you as a sponsor because you ordered her to so and told her that if she didn’t she would relapse. She didn’t arrive at that decision on her own in a context of surrender to God. She arrived at it in a context of your demands. And so, though it is at least possible that she made a real surrender in spite of your conversations with her, it is most likely that her compliance with your wishes has prevented her from taking an authentic 3rd step. What looked like a successful moment of sponsorship was actually a huge mistake. In effect, your sponsee turned her will and her life over to you and your direction instead of giving herself to God. She’ll do what you ask her to do, at least until it gets really hard, and then she’ll go back to doing exactly what she was doing before. All that good advice accomplished nothing. Worse, it is now harder for her to make a real surrender. She has been completely mislead about what surrender means.

The suggestion in Working With Others that we not push or prod our sponsees and Jerry’s insight that you cannot force an alcoholic to take a 3rd step both reflect an understanding of the danger of compliance. By giving alcoholics space to make an unpressured decision about whether or not they’d like to turn their lives over to God, we can avoid soliciting a compliance response. Our sponsees will not always surrender when given the chance, but at least they will have a genuine opportunity to seek God’s will instead of feeling pressured to submit to ours.


You can read some of Tiebout’s papers at Here’s “Surrender Versus Compliance in Therapy with Special Reference to Alcoholism,” ( and here is “The Act of Surrender in the Therapeutic Process.” ( A more complete collection of his writings has been published by Hazelden.

No Advice, No Direction

October 31, 2014

My grand-sponsor is a guy named Jerry E., a banker out of Kansas. His sponsor was a guy named Don P., an ex-con from Colorado. The two of them met up when Jerry was on a business trip in Denver.

Jerry was an interesting type of alcoholic in that he came into the fellowship and, without ever working steps, stayed sober for 13 years. He just showed up at meetings, made coffee, befriended fellow drunks, and kept coming back. For 13 years. At some point along the way, Jerry became what we call a dry drunk. His disease got worse not better over time, and in sobriety that meant that he got progressively less sane in his thinking and less stable in his emotional life, so that by the time he arrived in Denver, 13 years later, his best thinking was to look around for the highest building, because he wanted to make sure the jump would kill him.

A friend of Jerry’s told him that he better come to a meeting they were having. Jerry reluctantly agreed, and it just so happened that Don was chairing that night. Don introduced himself as a guy “with a mind that doesn’t work right and a body that won’t die.” Jerry was sold. Something about the man’s presence spoke to a new level of recovery.

Jerry pulled Don aside after the meeting and asked Don if he would be his sponsor. Don said “You don’t need a sponsor, Jerry. You need an AA friend.” Jerry thought Don was putting him off, or pulling his leg. But Don seemed to be sincere about his reply, and he agreed to meet with Jerry to talk about the 12 steps.

When they first met as “AA friends,” Jerry was eager to start feeling better. He said to Don, “Okay, I’m ready. What do I have to do?”

Don just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”

Jerry was surprised and even a little offended by this response. He desperately needed whatever it was that this man had, this man who promised to befriend him, and now Don seemed to be refusing to help Jerry at all. Grasping for straws, Jerry said, “Well, Don, what did you do?”

“That,” said Don, “is an entirely different question. I don’t know what you need to do. I can’t manage my own life, so how am I going to manage yours? But if you want me to share my experience with you, I will do that gladly. My life is an open book to you.”

Jerry tells this story all the time because it perfectly illustrates the tone and spirit of sponsorship that Don handed down to him. Don didn’t give advice, and he didn’t give orders. He didn’t have a plan for your life, and he never pretended that he knew better than you did how you ought to handle your affairs. When Jerry had a problem and he wanted Don to give him answers, Don would simply open the Big Book with Jerry so they could read a relevant passage together. Then Don would ask him what he thought the book was trying to say. It was up to Jerry to have his own experience.

Don’s approach to sponsorship requires a great deal of humility and faith. Unfortunately, I’m not always on the ball in those departments when my sponsees come to me for help. Here comes a drunk full of trouble and worry, and I tell myself, “I have to fix this guy.” In my sick brain, the idea that it is my job to fix somebody quickly evolves into the even more misguided notion that I can. Pretty soon I’m telling myself, “I know how to fix people. In fact, I’m pretty good at it. This guy better listen to my advice if he wants to stay sober.” The ego kicks in. Humility is lost. I rely on myself instead of God to save my fellow addicts, so faith goes right out the window.

Don’s approach cuts out a lot of noise and misdirection from the ego, which shows how firmly grounded he was in the first step. He knew that he was powerless over his own drinking and that he was powerless over Jerry’s drinking. He knew that his own life was unmanageable, and that he couldn’t manage anyone else’s either. To sponsor from a place of powerless and unmanageability takes great humility. It means you have to say things like “I don’t know what you should do.” And you have to mean it.

Don also wanted to be careful not to allow Jerry to become dependent on him. He knew that drunks always prefer the easy way out, and the easy way out of surrender to God is to follow the orders of another drunk. “You tell me what to do,” says the newcomer, “that way I don’t have to worry about all this praying and meditating and seeking God’s direction.” Even good advice from a well-meaning sponsor can lead a newcomer down the path to sponsor-reliance. Don knew that he had better get out of the way as much as possible, so that Jerry could become God-reliant. He used to tell Jerry things like, “My job as a sponsor is to wean you off of me as quickly as possible.”

Sponsors like Don step out of the way and let God do the work. Their operating assumption is that God is already working in everyone’s life, so their only real job is to keep redirecting their sponsees back to that still, small voice within. The message they carry is this: “I’m too screwed up to fix you, but God will do it if you let Him.” And that is faith.

Not everyone would agree with Don’s approach. There are plenty of folks who subscribe to the “tell ‘em what to do” school of sponsorship, where they give advice, directions, and orders, and they presume to manage their sponsees’ lives. They point to the length and/or quality of their own sobriety and suggest that this is proof enough that they are in a better position to run things than their barely-sober sponsees are. It would be irresponsible, in their view, not to call some shots. Their sponsees need the direction.

I don’t generally argue with “tell ‘em what to do” sponsors. I even halfway agree with the idea that there might be some newcomers who would do better under that kind of sponsorship. But the approach lacks humility and faith. It places the ego and word of the sponsor in the place of the presence and voice of God. Even if “tough love” sponsorship may be good for a few hard-headed alcoholics, it can’t be very good for their sponsors. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be very good for me. I don’t think I could continue to grow spiritually if I was that kind of sponsor. And I know I never would have gotten sober if my sponsor had treated me that way.

Case-in-point: When I was approaching the middle of my 4th step inventory, I met a girl, and she and I decided to hitch-hike from Maine to Wisconsin together. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the idea, and had even convinced myself that it was a good, spiritual thing to do. Now that I’d taken my 3rd step, you see, God would guide us across Route 2, making sure we got all the right rides from all the right people. We could even help them get to know God. We could do Big Book in the car! And she and I would get to know each other really, really well. As I was explaining all this to my sponsor, he got a surprised look on his face. I could tell what he was thinking, and he would have been perfectly accurate if he had said something like, “You dummy! Don’t do that! You’re going to relapse!”

I’m a sensitive, stubborn, grudge-holding drug addict and alcoholic. If my sponsor had spoken to me that way, I would have left and never come back. I may have even decided never to take steps again, telling myself that those Big Book people were all big jerks on a power trip. They pretended to be spiritual, but really they just wanted to boss you around.

But he didn’t speak harshly to me. He took a deep breath, calmed himself, and said “In my experience, people who walk away from this work don’t usually make it back. Whatever you decide, I’d encourage you to be honest with this girl.”

That’s an impressive response. He managed to share his experience with me without telling me what to do. He did offer a gentle suggestion (“be honest”), which was meant to help me avoid hurting the girl in question, but he left the decision entirely to me: go on the trip or call it off. It is possible that I could have shrugged my shoulders and gone to Wisconsin anyway. If I had, maybe he would have wondered if he ought to have been more forceful with me.

But I didn’t go. For some reason, I took his suggestion, and I told the girl about my intentions. I said to her: “My reasons for going on this trip with you are less than pure.” She looked at me like I had three heads. Then she said, “Well, I guess we better not go then.” And so I stayed, finished my inventory, and made amends. She was on my list. She told me I could make good with her by buying her a cup of coffee. We started dating. Now we’ve been married for twelve years and have two kids together. (That honesty thing works out better than you might think.)

Instead of bullying me into doing what he thought was right, my sponsor provided me an opportunity to be honest of my own free will. And that one opportunity was worth more than any amount of cheap advice. Had I been forced to do the right thing, or had I blindly followed sponsor’s orders, I would have missed the boat completely. Recovery comes only to those who choose it freely.

When I work with people now, I don’t tell anyone what to do. I don’t give advice. I don’t give directions. I don’t call shots. The people I work with often make bad choices and get into trouble. They leave the steps and do not come back. Many, many more relapse than become recovered. I have often wondered if I have hurt someone by not trying harder to stop them from doing something stupid. It’s a fleeting thought, but a troubling one. In the end, I return back as well as I can to the truth that I can’t fix anyone, that my visions of saving all the unwilling alcoholics in my life vastly overestimate my powers. I try to remember, too, that God is still hard at work in their lives, even if they are not paying too close attention, and that if I stay present and willing, sooner or later I’ll get a chance to witness another hopeless drunk make a decision to be honest, and catch hold of recovery.


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.