Having just finished Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps for the second time, I am suitably inspired. It is an insightful commentary on the wisdom of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their potential for a probing, expansive, and transformative spirituality.
The steps dovetail wonderfully with the best spirituality. They are a template suitable for the best diving – a way of life not just for addicts, but for everybody.
Thank God I am breathing so much easier these days. Thank God there is not the same anvil of dysfunction and dystopia crushing down upon my chest. Thank God that, with each passing day, it grows clearer how the addictive consciousness has robbed me of confidence and joy. And, thank God, in the clearer light of day, has come an emerging contentment, fragile but inextinguishable. It appears to be smiling at me.
As the days roll into weeks of years, the tick-tocking of time becomes more precious and, simultaneously, of vital importance. If fifty-four years can sneak past this easily, I had better stay awake to and aware of God’s presence and activity! I don’t want to miss a single thing.
One cannot help but attest to the wisdom in the pursuit of stability, constancy, simplicity, rootedness and, most of all, gratitude. The more rooted, awake and contented we are, the more supple, compliant, effective, and portable we become. We are learning to carry such attributes brought about in us through these values out into a world utterly gagging for them.
Ironically, the happier we are where we are the readier we become to uproot and transplant our grateful presence elsewhere. It is at once paradoxical and antithetical to how I have lived so much of life.
Unhappy? I look for it out there. Somewhere else.
Dissatisfied? I blame it on circumstances. Coworkers. Geography. The weather. Indigestion.
Unfulfilled? I blame my employer. My shitty decision-making skills, spiritual blindness. My job, so obviously unfit and small for one as grandiose and important as I!
Through all the blaming and escapism (the answer to which was drinking myself into oblivion), I never learned the deep contentment of gratitude, the satisfaction of awareness; the fulfillment of presence, all of which, ultimately, promise peace.
A book that has always been among my top fifty, the kind of book that needs to be reread every few years, is Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. Here, Lewis was not just the Oxford don, the professor, the intellectual, or famous author. He was instead, a fellow sojourner. An atheist become Jesus follower. A doubter become dreamer.
It is his most personal book. A spiritual memoir. A biographical retrospective. A conversion narrative. A soul mirror. In it he describes the imaginative, albeit escapist, means by which he endures the difficult challenges of family life as a young boy.
Lewis constructed a vast imaginary playground he called “Boxen.” There, he could hide from the soul-crushing realities beyond his ken. There, he found a measure of joy and a respite from all that troubled him. His pursuit of an elsewhere, a better place in which to abide, resonated with me in profound ways. But, in later years, while confronting his cognitive dissonance with the Christian faith enterprise, he found it wasn’t intellectual satisfaction that coming to faith brought.
It was a personal joy that most surprised him.
For me, as for C.S. Lewis, acquiescing to the wooing voice of God, has brought with it the simple voice of love, tucked in a story of grace. And, in spite of devils still shadow-boxing in the back rooms of my life, I am in a place of great contentment these days.
Sober. Settled. Satisfied.
All of it reeking of the transformative power of a God who loves to show off His/Her penchant for inundating lives in delirious grace.
In October, 2002, I quit drinking. But I’m only getting sober now. Let me explain.
Through a series of cataclysmic circumstances, I first came to sobriety while living and working in McMinnville, Oregon. It was a time characterized as much by chaos as it was possibility. I was in a personal Shangri-La on one level, experiencing life among kindred spirits, and hobnobbing with the Linfield College intelligentsia. I was making my mark in a town with an artistic spirit, positively electric to guys like me.
But, like many alcoholics before me, I stopped telling my story. Do that for any length of time and one grows smug. Over-confident. Or worse, blind. That most devious of all beliefs slithers into our thinking: “You know, I think I’m good, a drink or two would be just fine.”
To stop telling one’s story in the company of others, equally knowledgeable of your plight, is to let your story tell you. Stories are both descriptive and prescriptive. They narrate one’s past but shape one’s present, both of which promise a better future.
Dry drunks trade one addiction for another. Whatever “gets the job done.” Euphoria is still euphoria after all. It matters not from where it comes. Euphoric escape from reality into any available alternative is what we’re after. Booze isn’t the end. It’s the means to the end; for some, quite literally.
One of the most humbling undertakings of the recovering alcoholic is the more clear-headed journey back from foggy open seas to the shoreline, awash in all the stuff I threw overboard along the way. Regrets litter the beach of our lives. It is saying sorry to those I soaked in piss along the way.
The return to more stable footing reveals just how many lives were impacted by my jaunty revelry. And, life is friendships. Friendships are the wheat of life, bread in the making. To damage them, even under less fretful circumstances, should be immensely concerning. Returning to those who have supported and trusted you, believed in you, walked alongside you when you least deserved it, is the best and worst thing imaginable.
Steps 8 and 9, respectively, of the A.A. program:
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Shame and guilt are bed buddies. They intertwine limbs and sinew in an indivisible mess of carnage, stealing everything, giving nothing. They are also highly deceptive, rendering up the law of diminishing returns. The more shame one feels, the worse one’s behaviour becomes, leading to deeper shame, leading to a life in checkmate.
It is paralyzing.
It is also ubiquitous – the gift that keeps on giving. Guilt hides in every corner, shame slips in among the shadows where we can’t see things clearly. It guides our thinking, further clouding a brain still seeking a reboot.
But, to the recovering alcoholic, dismissing shame in favour of courage is our lot. It is, by far, the hardest work. Refusing to hit rewind and play all the old tapes for the pleasure of being our own whipping boy will always be in our job description. Those we’ve hurt, willingly or not, are seldom interested in adding any more pain, guilt, or betrayal to that which they generally feel already.
Some will applaud the new life of sobriety, the face a little less shiny and red, eyes more clear. Others may simply feel duped and deceived and happily dump us on the curb. The same fearlessness, directness, and gentleness will be received in any number of ways. Kick a hornet’s nest and there are always consequences, most of them unpredictable, all of them deserved.
A long-winded way of saying to any and all unfortunate enough to be in my addictive pathway…forgive me?And, to my Higher Power, whom I call God…thanks for grace and the knowledge that you love prodigals.
Six miles of damp, spongy pavement pounded out this morning. Running – the healing constancy of deep, rhythmic breathing. So good in this environment. It’s little wonder that Portland, Oregon is America’s running capital. Every back road, trail, and alley is afoot with runners. It houses Nike corporation and its disciples, of which I am, apparently, one of the faithful. I’m a committed convert to the marriage of time, distance, and pain.
Baffling to non-runners, it is, in its own way, contemplative space. And, these days in particular, as I struggle once more on the longest road, the one leading toward daily sobriety, it becomes apt metaphor in the slow process of change.
Hanging like a shadow over it all are those who would pooh-pooh this whole sober-running enterprise, suggesting in my case that it is classic avoidance – the via negativa of the dry drunk. In this scenario, one merely transfers addiction from one thing to another, trading booze for the self-emasculation of hardcore running.
“Well, he may be running,” say they, “but it doesn’t mean he’s dealing with anything related to addiction.” To such self-righteous do-gooders who feign any real interest in me preferring, instead, bookish platitudes I offer the following retort(s):
Um, f*** off.
Okay, that was overkill. Thank you for your concern, but…
Do you think I am unaware of this?
Despite the built-in danger of avoidance, is this not much better than alcohol-induced madness?
Give me half a chance to work through this on my own terms, please.
I’m back in A.A., working the steps. I’ve got this. Well, my Higher Power’s got me. So, relax.
Phew, now that that’s off my chest, some brighter notes.
I’m awash in the effervescence of expectancy. The more I consider who God has made me to be, the passions that drive me, the skills that help me, the more I prayerfully consider my options. What doors and windows are availing themselves through which to move into bigger sky? What new field of dreams might await my conveyance?
More every year, I believe that so much of this is more our decision than the theologians lead us to believe. Jesus tells us that we gain our lives by giving them away. But to give something away is first to own it. We cannot give what we do not own. Otherwise, it’s just passing something down the pipeline that found its way into our hands. Once we own ourselves, there is real sacrifice, but greater reward, in relinquishing ourselves to love and serve our neighbour.
God has given all of us a vocation. It is for us to discover it. Then, it is largely up to us how to fulfill it. For me, that may be changing. Imperceptibly at first, baby steps toward cave openings through which new shards of light are reaching out, tempting me in. Sitting here in this place, dedicated as it is to the rigour and welcome of the spiritual life, its delightful chaos, there grows in me a light. It is yet dim and inconsistent. But it grows moment by moment.
In a time and place such as this one is gifted with a bird’s eye-view of the bigger narratives at work in one’s life. That has certainly been the case since getting re-sober and, specifically, at a nunnery where my overworked mouth must be silent.
I am further gifted with precious reading time. Double up the task of discerning the peaks and valleys of a life with a reading list and I find myself reading something I’ve not touched in years. Perhaps it is a page turner only to those like me, but I’d forgotten that fact about “the big book” as it is affectionately deemed by A.A. Equal parts childlike, level-headed zeal, and complete lack of pretension put it alongside other great spiritual works.
And that is exactly what Dr. Bill and Uncle Bob’s magnum opus is. In the simplest terms of the novice, it is akin to Augustine’s Confessions or C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. As honest and probing as any other memoir-retrospective-guidebook, they have no other agenda than telling their life-changing story in a way that draws others like moth to flame into a message of freedom and sobriety. And, they roll it out like excited grade-schoolers at a show ‘n tell.
But what a show ‘n tell!
I am so grateful to be, once again, sober. Well, on the arduous road of daily sobriety and the mindset required to fight the good fight of staying that way. I am equally grateful for the timeless stories of lives changed under the care of Someone higher and greater than we, Someone I call God.