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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Gratitude . . . A Selfless Attitude of Grace.

I was brought up in my early sobriety with the Four Absolutes - Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love - concepts that my first sponsor, his sponsor, and their friends were exposed to in visiting meetings in the Cleveland area.  My first sponsor had been a "serial offender" when it came to relapses. On one of his last drnks, he had gone out just for "a couple of beers" and ended up shooting speed with a dirty needle. He died of AIDS, uncomplainingly, with seven-and-a-half years of continuous and contented sobriety.

Paul took me on a number of 12 Step calls in early sobriety, and I was always very "busy" helping others, active in the Fellowship, working full-time, raising a family and attending university part-time. He and his wife had planned his funeral in minute detail, as there was no magic "cocktail" of drugs at that time to treat AIDS. The Four Absolutes were displayed in a large floral wreath above his coffin. He had asked his wife to give me the silk ribbon from the wreath that said "Unselfishness," while "Honesty, Purity and Love" were assigned to others of his family and circle of friends.

I've heard it said time and time again that "Gratitude is an action word." While this statement is true in one respect - "Faith without works is (indeed) dead" - it misses the mark in another. Since alcoholism and addiction "centers in the mind," there is an all-important mental aspect to gratitude, which if unrealized negates all the benefits that mere action alone brings.

My first sponsor once cautioned me that I was "a human doing, rather than a human being," but the meaning of that escaped me. Wasn't I doing all these things for others without thought of reward? Was that not "gratitude" for my sobriety? Was I not living up to the ideal of Absolute Unselfishness? Well, no . . . as it turns out.

Gratitude is really an "attitude of Grace," an "attitude" being our "habitual or usual mode or way of thinking." Therefore, while I was acting "unselfishly" in the ordinary, external sense of the word,  mentally I was still as consumed and driven by "self" - the individual ego that Bill W. described as a "punishing inner dialogue" - as ever.

Propelled by self-will, a chemically, but not spiritually, sober alcoholic can hit great heights, which I did. But the fall from those heights, when it almost invariably comes, brings great suffering to all affected and too-often proves fatal to the unrecovered, dry alcoholic addict. It was nearly so in my case.

I had no initial or lingering reservations that I was powerless over drugs and booze, but I had never admitted that life does not need my constant mental management and attention. Further, on my first day with my new sponsor, (who I had worked alongside while I was still "performing) he told me that I needed to look at the Second Step - that a power greater than my "self" could restore me to sanity.

I had thought that my boozing and drugging was the "insanity," and instead of asking him what "self" meant, I asked him what "God" meant. Of course, this is largely an unanswerable question, so he told me "good orderly direction," no doubt becasue he could sense the prejudice and contempt I had for "conventional" notions of a "Higher Power."

". . . relieve me of the bondage of self. . . "
For the next 15 years I spent virtually all my time confined in "the bondage of self," mentally managing life while reassuring myself - and, so I thought,  demonstrating to everyone else - that I had "good orderly direction" in my thinking. Two university degrees (and a change of occupation from factory worker to high-flying corporate lawyer) later, "self" reliance finally failed me and I spiralled down, ending my fall as a very close to fatal suicide. Then, and only then, was I ready to be shown what Grace truly is, and how to effect a "conscious" contact with "a Power greater than my "self."

I had experienced Grace - a brief "moment of clarity" or "Providence" - the night that my career of drinking and drugging ended. Yet it was only after complete defeat in trying to manage life the way I had been shown by parents, schools and culture, and after I had been shown how and where to establish contact with a power greater than my "self," that I was once again able to experience that freedom from my "punishing inner dialogue," and so effect a conscious contact with God.

Step 11 . . . through prayer and meditation
The all-important page 55 of the Big Book says that the early AA's "found that Great Reality deep down within" their being, and that "(i)n the last analysis, it is only there it can be found." For more than 15 years I had looked everywhere else, all to no avail. I had explored all the avenues I could think of to effect a happy and contented life for myself and my family, without any lasting success. Yet when, I was shown where this Higher Power was to be found by one old-timer, and how to effect a conscious contact with that Power in meditation by another old-timer, did I find the true purpose of sobriety, and the true purpose of life itself.

Written for the second edition of the Big Book, when there were about 150,000 recovered AA's, the Spiritual Experience appendix says that, "(w)ith few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently come to identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves." It was exactly so for me, albeit it took me over 15 years and a face-to-face confrontation with death, to find that "unsuspected inner resource."

Now I know that it is only when I am acting from and with this state of higher consciousness, free from the inner voice of the ego and for the benefit of others, that I am truly demonstrating "gratitude," or an "attitude of Grace." The rest of the time, supposedly unselfish actions on my part, are merely instances of the alcoholic mind's self-trickery and "ego-feeding propositions."

Gratitude is not just "an action word," but works done with an "attitude of Grace." It is only when I take action with a truly open mind, free from "old ideas" and from egoic thinking that I demonstrate "gratitude" and the "Absolute Unselfishness" that is envisioned in the Four Absolutes - the principles that my first sponsor amply demonstrated with the state of his being in the last years of his life, but to which I was blinded by my continual self-centered, ego-centricity. The rest of the time, my actions "miss the mark" and fall short of that degree of perfection that is possible, but that I fall short of.

Steps One and Three: Honesty and Humility

We often do not talk about humility until we get to Step 7 - "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.) Yet,  I have learned through hard fought experience that humility, just as much as honesty, is an essential element to practice Step 1 to the best of my ability.

We often hear that, "The First Step is the only step you can do 100 percent." Well, yes and no. In his essay on Step 6 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill writes that the only step we can practice one hundred percent is Step One, and we do that by "not taking that first drink." Note, however, that here he makes no reference to the second part of the First Step, the admission that our lives have become unmanageable. The continuous realization of this unmanageability is an exercise in humility that few, if any, can manifest one hundred percent of the time.

One of the first lessons I grasped coming into the AA fellowship was that, "Being honest means you don't have to remember your stories." I was rife with stories and explanations of just who I was, what I had done, and what I could do, all in a vain attempt to fit myself comfortably in with my fellow beings. I quickly learned that I was accepted and welcomed for who I am, and that the stories I spun were unnecessary fo fit in with my sponsor and my newfound friends. I quickly integrated that honesty into the other relationships in my life, those at work, at home and in the community.

It was quite a few years, however, before I realized for myself that, "Humility means I do not have to remember who to be." The analogy of the alcoholic addict as an "actor" is, at least for me, a metaphor that strikes home. I used to present one persona to my friends, another persona to my family, a third persona to my wife and kids, a fourth persona at work etc., always pretending to be some version of the "me" that would fit in with others, and so soothe what Bill identified as those horrible feelings of "anxious apartness." Replacing anxiety with frivolity and a sense of well being, and replacing that sense of apartness with a sense of unity and comeradery with my fellow partiers was, of course, one of the principal drivers of my addiction. The problem of the alcoholic truly centers in the mind.

In the first section of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA's primary text, a.k.a., the "Big Book"), there is discussion of three illusions and/or delusions (things which we really think are or may be true, but which aren't; i.e., lies which we tell ourselves and which we then believe) . Dispelling these delusions is essential for long-term recovery and and contentment in life. The first two of these illusions/delusions are found in the first two paragraphs of the chapter, "More About Alcoholism," while the last delusion is found at the end of the "alcoholic as actor" discussion in the "How It Works" chapter.

Bill Wilson was an old-school writer. When asked what the difference was between a "defect of character" and a "shortcoming," he said there was no difference at all, he just didn't like to end two sentences in a row with the same word. Another "old-school" composition guideline you will notice he sticks too in his writing is the basic rule of, "one thought, one paragraph."

Thus, when he writes in the first paragraph of "More About Alcoholism" that the suffer must get over "the great illusion" of every alcoholic addict, that one day he will again "be able to control and enjoy his drinking," that is exactly one idea. There is no other path to sobriety but through abstinence, for when one crosses the line into alcoholic addiction, there is no going back to the "controlled" drinking of prior years. Getting rid of this "great illusion" requires an honest admission (and acceptance) of a truth: You might think you can 'control' your drinking, but you surely won't enjoy it. Or, you might 'enjoy' some more 'uncontrollable' drinking, but not for long. Either way, such attempts lead almost invariably to one of three places - jails, mental institutions or death. This is, in essence, the sum of the first illusion/delusion Bill sets out in the Big Book. It requires inner honesty of the fact you are an alcoholic addict to shatter this first illusion

Bill Wilson, A.A. Co-Founder
New paragraph; new idea. In the second paragraph of "More About Alcoholism," Bill writes that alcoholics must "smash the delusion that we are like other people, or one day will be." The reason? Not because of alcohol, which has been renounced, but due the overly obsessive nature of a "self-centered" mind honed by years of addictive behaviour.

More so than other so-called "normal" individuals, the overly obsessive nature of the alcoholic's ordinary 'stream of thought,' self-conscious narrative, or 'ego' - what Bill describes elsewhere as a "painful inner dialogue" - causes profound emotional disturbance. Such mental and emotional unrest, left unchecked,  can compel the alcoholic to act in any number of seemingly bizarre ways, the most bizarre (yet common) reaction being to pick up a drink of the alcohol that is slowly killing him or her.

"Other people" relieve the emotional turmoil caused by their ordinary egoic thinking in an endless variety of ways - overworking, vegetating in front of a television, losing themselves in exercise or their hobbies, perhaps in passing fits of anger and aggressive behaviour, perhaps in coaching kids' sports, or a perhaps in a mania for shopping - alcoholic addicts relieve such emotional excess by drinking and using drugs to shut down their thinking and the emotional turmoil it causes.

 Ordinary non-alcoholics, thus, have a variety of means, more or less healthy, to cope with their inability to manage their lives and the circumstances life presents while getting along in society. The alcoholic addict, on the other hand, deprived of his or her chemical sustenance, has no clear means of gaining comfort and fitting in with others. "Self-centered to the extreme," the alcoholic tries any number of behaviours, and adopts any number of personae, as a means of getting a seemingly existential pressure off him or herself; a pressure that is brought on by trying to manage the world and its inhabitants so that life brings him peace, comfort and what he or she thinks they need.

But life itself is inherently "unmanageable." Billions of years of evolution have brought humanity to the point where we think we should be able to manage life, and yet life still remains inherently unmanageable despite all our efforts. While non-alcoholic, "normal" people can (perhaps) afford to bang away at life, trying to bend it to their will with results that are more or less painful when such efforts inevitably fail,  the alcoholic addict cannot. Alcoholic addicts will almost invariably return to chemical addiction if they continue to bluff their way through life, adopting various tactics and roles in a vain effort to manage their world and, by extension, all of the people and things which constitute the world. "The delusion that we are like other people, or one day will be, must be smashed." Humility, and an admission that (a) that we are alcoholics and (b) that our lives are unmanageable - both before and after our active addiction, and despite all of our great exertions to do so - are thus essential to overcoming the first two of these delusionary barriers to sobriety.

Unlike "other people," an honest and humble admission and acceptance of personal powerlessness to manage life itself is necessary for continuous and contented sobriety. In that way, we will always differ from the ordinary human sufferer; therefore, we must seek a power greater than our ordinary "selves" - greater than our individual egoic thinking - to rely on in order to assist us through an unpredictable and unmanageable world. This is a humbling process that cannot be avoided, and resistance to it is very painful and potentially lethal.

This brings us to the third and last delusion that the alcoholic must give up: the delusion that he can (or needs to) manage life. Bill describes the alcoholic addict to "an actor" tearing through life, forever rearranging the lighting and forever rewriting the script, vacillating from kindness and pleasantrty to anger and brutality in order to get his way - certain that the results will be good for everone, even himself. Bill's actor metaphor quite clearly captures the alcoholic addict's greatest delusion: that he and he alone - through sheer determination, relentlessness and willpower - can sustain and keep his life both manageable and successfully integrated with the world around him.

"Is our actor," Bill writes, "not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this life if he only manages well?" One of the first lessons I was taught in AA, is that, "If you are honest you don't have to remember the story." A lesson it took me a long time to learn, typically taking a tough slog through suffering to do so, is that, "If you are humble, you don't have to remember who you are supposed to be, or what needs to be done next."

Life unfolds at its own pace and it is always on time. There is no emergency that requires me to try and wrest control of life from the forces, energy and cultural ideas that have evolved over billions of years. Humility keeps me from grabbing life's steering wheel, desperate that life's course run this way or that, and so that it will be good for everyone - even me. I have learned that it is far better to be myself and accept life on life's terms, than it is to try and be someone or thing I am not in a useless and painful attempt to bend life to my terms. Humility, as well as honesty, is required to do so.