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Monday, July 25, 2011

Power, Coercion and Acceptance

In yet another paradox, the first half of Step One - the admittance that we are alcoholic - is perhaps the easiest one to take, yet admitting (and acting like one has admitted) that our lives "have become unmanageable" - the second half of Step One - is perhaps the most difficult of all. After all, from our earliest years on, we have been taught by our society and culture that life needs to be managed, and managed well - or else!

The great analogy of the alcoholic as "the actor" who insists on running all of the show, including, lights, scenery, ballet etc., is startlingly apt when we consider it deeply and see that it addresses the second half of Step One explicitly and directly.
"Most people try to live by self-propulsion," we read on page 60 of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. "Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show, is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If only his arrangements would stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous, even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, be may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.

"What," we are asked, "Usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well. He begins to think that life doesn't treat him will. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit hum. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not a self-seeker even when trying to be kind. Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this life if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all that they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?

"Our actor is self-centered - ego-centric, as people like to call it today." (Emphasis added.)
Bluntly, or perhaps very, very, subtly, almost everyone of us - alcoholic addict and non-alcoholic addict alike -  try in our own ways to manipulate and shape life in order to satisfy our instinctive drives, staunch our fears, and/or quench our fundamentally unquenchable desires. We in A.A. (or any of its many sister organizations) are very fortunate, indeed, in that we learn that life is inherently unmanageable, it is already organized under a far Higher Power that we often cannot or do not see, and that our task is to accept and adapt ourselves to life, rather than trying to bend it to our own narrow self-interests.

That our futile grabs for power to control the fundamentally unmanageable is all-pervasive, and ultimately futile and frustrating is illustrated in the following passages written by the late, great Sufi teacher, Idries Shah:
"Almost all human organizations," Shah notes, "are power organizations."

"Since the receipt and and exercising of power is imagined to be connected with forceful behaviour," he observes, "people cannot any longer identify a power organization. Consequently they do not understand what they are doing and what is happening to them."

"As an example," he points out, "force and influence are contained in the 'emotional blackmail' situation to exactly the same extent as in one where anger or fothrightness are expressed."

"When people in authority have the reputation for being kind and soft-hearted, others assume (quite wrongly) that the pressure exerted by such people is not pressure at all. If someone says: 'You must do this because I would be disappointed if you did not,' he is saying exactly the same as 'Do this because I demand that you do it.'"

"To say that this fact has been observed already is of no importance whatever, because something which has been said or observed and not acted upon is as good as non-existent as a lesson."

"People try to exercise power upon those 'below' them," he notes. "But people upon whom power is supposed to being exercised are, in fact, by frustrating the effect of that power, themselves exercising power."
"Power situations can only exist," Shah observes, "where there is a contract arrived at violently or otherwise, in which people will do things or else things can be made uncomfortable for them. 'Do this or I will make you uncomfortable' is the formula for both types of power: the power exerted by people above on those below, and the power exerted from the people below upon those above."

"Where there is no such contract," he notes, "where one party can do without the other, NO POWER SITUATION CAN EXIST. Neither can it be deemed to exist. But, faced with a situation in which there is no power ingredient, people CONTINUE TO BEHAVE AS IF THEY CAN COERCE OR BE COERCED."

"In doing this," Shah points out, (people) give themselves away. To any observer who is aware of the power phenomenon, they clearly show that they belong to the power structure and want to operate it. They generally become furiously angry when this is pointed out to them.

[Idries Shah,"Knowing How to Know," pp. 79-80.]

At Step Three, we make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him. Yet, how often when we are in a situation where there is no effective power that we can personally exert ("a situation in which there is no power ingredient," to use Shah's terminology) do we act as if there is some personal power we can exert to change things? How many of us lean on the horn to let out our frustrations when stuck in slow traffic? How many seethe inwardly or act rudely when forced to wait at the checkout counter as a clerk checks the price of some item or another? How many of us are judgmental and inwardly self-righteous when they see people doing things that they assure themselves they would never do? Almost all of us, I am sure.

Having nominally accepted our personal powerlessness to manage life, and having done (we assure ourselves) our best to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a Power greater than ourselves, we continue to forget our personal inability to manage life and, in accordance with Khan's analysis, we continue to behave as is we can coerce others to bend to our will, or we ourselves continue to be coerced to bend to the will of others.

Accepting the inherent unmanageability of life, and turning our will and our lives over to the care of the God of our understanding - and leaving it there - are ideals that take both great insight and years of practice to even approach.

1 comment:

  1. name is 55 ..i've been coming here for just a very short while..i dont remember exactly how i was directed to your blog(s) going on 4 years of sobriety this time around..other attempts were much less in duration but this time 'feels' different..most likely from an intense spiritual christian only in the sense that i believe Jesus of Nazareth is The Messiah/Christ of a voracious reader and practice meditation daily(3 years i read your posts im in Awe of the depth of insight and clarity you demonstrate not only into alcoholism but into the spiritual realm as well..i would not be the least bit suprised to learn that you are an Author of some notoriety..reading your postings are near similar to eating a good meal thus i very much appreciate your time and efforts so THANK YOU!