Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Grateful for Mixed Blessings

On Thursday many of us will be sitting down to dinner with family or friends and gratitude will be mentioned as we offer a blessing on the meal. It’s appropriate to the day of course; we know the Pilgrim’s story of thankfulness for surviving their first difficult year in the New World.

At many of our tables there will be a nod to the formerly religious aspect of the day. Someone will suggest, “Let’s go around the table and everyone say what they’re grateful for.”

It’s easy at times like this to name good health, career success, and our kid’s accomplishments, but we often forget that some of our best gifts don’t come in pretty wrapping. I suggest that we put a new spin on this tradition. This year ask your guests: What are the mixed blessings in your life this year?

Here are some examples: There was the day you were running late and therefore missed the big accident or traffic jam; or the day you skipped church but when channel surfing heard a speaker or story that gave you a new outlook on life; Maybe it was the day you got lost in a new part of town but in your wandering found a store that sold exactly what you had been hunting for months. Get the idea?

Then try upping the ante a bit: How about when you got fired but at out-placement you found the work you really want to do? Or maybe the person you wanted to marry said “No”, and broke your heart, but months later you met the one you were supposed to make a life with. You get the idea, but let’s push it a bit farther. How about the serious illness that knocked you off your feet but having to stay in bed gave you time to recast your life? Or maybe the struggle to accept a more permanent disability made it plain who your friends really were or revealed a talent you didn’t know you had?

Okay, even harder now: What about the death of a loved one that devastated you but one day in the midst of grief you felt something other than pain and realized you were feeling joy like nothing you had ever felt and you knew that you were able to feel it because the grief had cracked you open. Similarly, you may have gotten a gift from someone else’s death when you saw just how short life is and you decided to quit with the worry/status/fear and get on with your life.

These mixed blessings are not easy to accept or admit, and sometimes it is just faith itself that is the gift. It can be in the midst of terrible things that we’re forced to develop trust, and then we find, when the crisis is over, that our new beliefs are ours to keep. Of course the graduate school level of this kind of gratitude is saying “Thank You” even before the good part comes. If you’ve had experience with mixed blessings you begin to know-- even while life is painful or unpleasant-- that there will be meaning in it. And so we say Thank You –purely on faith –even when we’re getting hit hard.

Yes, some of these blessings come in less than Hallmark moments. Maybe it was the painful feedback from a friend that clued you in on the truth about your personality flaws, or the DWI that was humiliating and expensive but it was also what made you look at your problem and change your life. Maybe it was an emotional breakdown that allowed you to put yourself back together in a new and stronger way.

As parents we coach our kids with, “What do you say?” when a gift or compliment is given. Can we learn to say that to ourselves when life hands us a package that isn’t very pretty?

So when, “What are you grateful for?” comes around at your Thanksgiving table this week don’t groan. Name the blessings that came from pain and grief or loss and trouble. When we can say Thanks for both the good and the bad, for easy and hard times, then, just like the Pilgrims, we’ll have a real Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Big Trip

“I am going to that country which all my life I have wished to see.”

William Blake, on his death bed.

Is this what is at the heart of travel and going to see new lands? Are we really always preparing for that big trip, the true terra incognita? The place that is so unimaginable?

Why do we spend money and time to see new places, to endure the rigors and inconveniences of travel, especially now that we can have so many nearly virtual experiences of other places on the planet? In the whole of a life why physically go to other countries? Why be hot or cold or tired or lost or bothered by airports, lines, discomforts and the protocols of travel? To learn, yes. To see, yes. But why?

What place is it that we are really craving or preparing for?

If you stay sober and in recovery for a long time you eventually have to deal with death. Over the course of one’s recovery it gets closer and closer. You know people who die in and out of the rooms. At first it may be the “but for the grace of God” variety: the former friends who didn’t stop drinking and we learn of the car accident or the illness directly attributable to drinking. Later it is other sober folks in the rooms who are older than us and we see them deal with cancer and heart attacks and consequences of serious medical conditions that are among the luck of the draw. Then it is a peer, someone our age or with our same number of years in recovery. And family members: parents, siblings. It comes closer.

It is a fact of long sobriety. If you stay sober people you love will die and you too will get sick and die. Contemplating our own death is still so unimaginable that I hear people say, “Well, if I was going to die…” If?

Perhaps this is why we need to remember that this is a spiritual program. That it is only about alcohol in the most indirect manner. Booze was the loss leader that got us into the practice of making a sober life and beginning this spiritual journey. At the heart of recovery we are preparing for the rest of the trip. That country which Blake longed for as only a poet who faces the emotional truth of life could long. And as only we can too, those of us who remind each other not to leave “before the miracle happens.”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Becoming Nobody

I'm Nobody! Who are you?Are you a Nobody Too?

These words from an Emily Dickinson poem keep going through my head. Suddenly this once silly-seeming poem, one that I always thought out of character for a poet as significant as Dickinson, is making sense.

She was a writer with ambition, yet she lived undiscovered. Her fame and importance came after death. How did she reconcile her writing, the desire to be read (an important part of the equation for any writer) and the failure of the universe to deliver publication and readers?

Did she finally decide to surrender to being nobody?

This week I am at this place. I think of it as Surrender to Nobody, or Embracing My Inner Nobody. The process has gone like this: I was asked to do some volunteer work editing a newsletter for a community organization. It's the kind of thing I can do but find no pleasure in, yet the possible pay off was being part of a committee of other businesswomen who have some stature of a sense in the community. It's been my bad habit in the past to say yes to this kind of project, hate every minute of it and then push thru with constant dread or resentment until the project is over, or sometimes quit halfway through and feel tons of guilt.

This time when I saw the email asking me to sign up I felt dread. I knew in every cell that I did not want to do this. But I did not immediately answer and say no. Why? I began to look below the surface and found this: I wanted to be part of the Cool Club. I thought that maybe there'd be some recognition, some cachet. But my second breath and the second beat asked me: cachet from what? And for what? Is it worth that many hours of my life and giving up even just precious time alone to get an Atta-boy from some folks I barely know and am not sure that I like?

So what was underneath this then? Recovery really is a process of deep mining, and the steps teach us, like archaeologists, to sift through layer after layer, to check our motives and look for patterns in our character. What I began to see was that under my hesitation to say a clear NO to something I clearly did not want to do was this sad little thought: This might be my only chance to have some recognition, to be somebody if only in a Chamber of Commerce kind of way. Ouch. Was--or is--my need for Somebody-ness that great? Apparently it is. Thoughts flowed faster then: How many times had I joined committees, Boards, attended events, paid for tickets to dinners or paid to have my name on a list to buy a tiny piece of Somebody-ness? The answer: many. And how many times did I take jobs because I wanted a certain title or to say I work for SO&SO, Inc. because it might impress or cause me to have some--some what? Some Somebody-ness.

What would it mean to give that up? The rewards were clear with the first question I posed to my inner self: My God, I could save time, money, committee meetings, eating bad food and endless smiling and shaking of hands. I could use that time and money to do things I liked: be alone, write what I like to write, read more, take classes for pure pleasure, and spend time with friends, people I genuinely like rather than people I wanted to have like me.

And the cost to get there? The price? The process of achieving that freedom? Emily Dickinson's words came to me: "I'm a Nobody! Who are you? Are you a Nobody too?"

Can I be Nobody? Can I aspire to Nobody-ness? Shall I surrender my craving for costly somebody-ness, to achieve the peace of nobody-ness? Dare I?
I'm hoping so.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

William James Plays A Part

I’m reading the new biography of William James by Robert Richardson. It’s a “think” book, a biography of James ideas. Those of us in AA a while learn that James, “Varieties of Religious Experience” was a formative text for Bill Wilson. He talks about that in the Big Book and references it again in the “Twelve and Twelve.” But where does it enter the story? And why is it so important in the history of AA?

Turns out that we have to give James some credit for AA. We all know that Bill W. was a salesman and a bit of a hustler. He tells some of those tales on himself in “Bill’s Story” in the front of the Big Book. There he is on his motorcycle with Lois codependently clinging to his back or riding in the sidecar. Off they go to investigate industries so Bill can sell the research back to his broker friends. There’s a joke I’ve heard told many different ways about Bill as a sales man first. It goes something like this: We are lucky that AA was founded by the team of Dr. Bob and Bill W. because if it was left just to Bill W AA would be a franchise today and would have a pyramid sales plan like Amway, but if it had been left to Bob, there’d still be just one meeting and that would be in Akron on Thursday nights.

So we back up again: begin at the kitchen table in Brooklyn. Bill is drinking and Ebby is glowing with the light of new found religion. Ebby is carrying the message of the Oxford Group that he received from Rowland H. who got the goods from Carl Jung. Bill sort of dimly understands what Ebby has experienced and why this might be important, he starts to grasp that he’s gotta have a transformation. So when he is next ready for another try at drying out he appeals to the famous Dr. Silkworth and in the beginning conversations Bill says to Silkworth: “Read this book”, handing him William James “Varieties”. Bill knows from Ebby and Rowland that he’s got to have a conversion experience and James text is a menu and a cookbook of conversion experiences. Bill takes an idea, an intellectual text and marries these in treatment with Silkworth.

What James has contributed to the mix is the idea of “ego deflation at depth”. As repugnant as that term sometimes seems it is at the heart of making change. And crucial to note, “Ego deflation” was not born in AA as we sometimes talk of it. It comes from William James rigor at taking apart how one has a spiritual (religious) experience.