“I wish I had a stone for the knife,” the old man said after he had checked the lashing on the oar butt. “I should have brought a stone.” You should have many things, he thought. But you did not bring them, old man. Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what you do have.
Ernest Hemingway THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA
Hemingway’s story of the old Cuban fisherman, Santiago, pits an old man’s grit and determination against the wiles of an 18 foot marlin which he has hooked. It details the battle each wages to survive. The trophy fish is finally defeated and slain by the weathered old fisherman, but the pride of victory is short-lived as sharks, drawn by the marlin’s blood, soon attack the carcass strapped to the side of Santiago’s skiff. By the time fisherman and boat reach home shores, the skeleton and head are all that remain of his capture. Not only has he lost his prize, he also seems to regret that a creature of grace and beauty which he greatly admired has been destroyed. Santiago ultimately validates his action as a “kill or be killed” battle with the great fish. But, in reality he simply could have cut the line thus releasing the catch. But, in his world, that sign of weakness, that compromise allowing man and fish to live for another day, is not an option.
I sometimes believe that I live in Santiago’s world. My identity, my worth is too often dependent on being the victor incapable of compromise. Just as the wizened old man in his skiff on the deep waters, in the desperate moments of life I often wish for that which I don’t have forgetting to appreciate and utilize that which I do have.
Most of us had created in the previous life as drunkards our own private drama clubs naming ourselves as President, Vice-President and every other club officer necessary to carry on our business of drama. Additionally, we were the most vocal subscribing member. The meetings were exhausting with inner dialogs that covered every aspect of anger, resentment, disappointment, and insecurity simmering in vehement self-righteousness. Only our hangovers from drinking were more devastating and debilitating.
Are you still a member of your club today? Am I? How often do we spend our sober days reeling with “brain fog” as a result of a dalliance in our drama club? It’s easy to do, but fortunately we now have the tools to immediately withdraw from participation if so desired. And that’s the key, although sometimes we prefer to wallow in whatever satisfaction is derived from being overly dramatic and engaged in club activity.
“When a drunk has a terrific hangover because he drank heavily yesterday, he can not live well today. But there is another kind of hangover which we all experience whether we are drinking or not. That is the emotional hangover, the direct result of yesterday’s and sometimes today’s excesses of negative emotion – anger, fear, jealousy, and the like.” Bill Wilson, AS BILL SEES IT, pg 48
Using our crutches in these times of emotional discord is not a weakness. With a physical impairment such as a broken leg, crutches are meant to provide stability as we walk. That uncomfortable cast keeps the leg aligned properly as it heals. It’s the same in recovery from alcoholism. The prayers, verses and sayings are meant to give us emotional support as we ambulate through the difficult times healing from the brokenness of our lives.
Sometimes the crutch we dismiss most is the fellow alcoholic whose phone number we have but don’t want to call. Maybe it’s our sponsor who feels honored to have you as a “pigeon”, but we don’t want to be a bother or we don’t want to admit that we are hurting and needy of help. Whatever the reasons are, the end result is a day spent miserably, or worse, a relapse into drinking.
For us, those forays into unnecessary drama can be a matter of life or death. It need not happen. We must gird ourselves with the tools of our program, surround ourselves with sober people, and meditate within our private space.
“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” STEP 11, ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
“Oh, I can’t do that,” we said, “I don’t know how to meditate.”
Being the alcoholic that I am, I researched meditation and determined I would do meditation perfectly. My first attempt at sitting on the floor cross-legged in lotus position promptly reminded me that my body did not understand the reason for such discomfort, much less did my brain associate this pain with a practice to discover inner awareness.
Just as I found my path to meditative discovery, others have also. I have learned that there are no rules or proper positions. It is the ongoing practice of feeling connected to a Universal source, learning who we are in that realm, and finding peace within the Higher Power of our understanding that we are seeking in meditation. When we are able to allow and then dismiss passing thoughts, positive or negative, and return to contemplation and inner searching, we are accomplishing a serenity that was impossible during our drama club days.
“Admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”
When I first inserted this graphic, I said to myself, “I can’t use it because it is too blurred.”
Really? Doesn’t that describe who and what we were in our addictions? A big blur. And the word POWERLESS is clear and distinct. Yes, sometimes the words and pictures unplanned in what we write say more than 1000 words could say.
For some of us the transition from “me in charge” to God in charge was immediate, but for many it was a slow process which had to be renewed every morning, every hour of the day. One, two, three every day for an extended period of time finally got us to the point where “admitting, believing, and turning it over” were as instinctive as breathing or pumping blood. How often did we think, “My life wasn’t really that unmanageable?” or, “Maybe I could just drink socially like my buddies do? ” or, “I’ll decide what I turn over to my Higher Power?”
Cunning, baffling, and powerful! Such is the nature of our disease which will not be satisfied until we are insane or dead. Our fellowship friends who decided to test the waters of drinking again sometimes returned to reassure us that nothing had changed “out there”. They were the fortunate ones. Many never returned.
A recovery is a Godsend. It is God’s grace giving us a chance to live sober lives. We should never, ever, assume that we will have more than one opportunity to be victorious over alcohol. It is not guaranteed. Not because God is unwilling, but because we are fallible, broken men and women who are powerless over alcohol.
“We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to spiritual progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, pg 60
Affectionately known as THE BIG BOOK, the handbook for Alcoholics Anonymous refutes the belief that life has to be perfect, especially the spiritual life. Most normal people learn this as an aspect of maturation, but, for those of us who are not normal and have spent a great deal of time doing field research chasing the many dead ends of substance addictions, this can be a most difficult thing to accept about ourselves.
Upon achieving a few days or weeks or months of sober-living, we wanted to do everything perfectly. It’s as if we were trying to catch up on time lost doing what came most naturally to us, drinking and drugging. We tried to immediately resume our positions within the family and community. We strived to be our employer’s best employee. We wanted to grasp with utmost urgency the faith which had always eluded us before. That’s who we were in early sobriety and can still be today. “I want it and I want it now.”
“We are not saints,” sponsors would remind us when the brokenness we had created for ourselves overshadowed our attempts to be perfect. We launched into days of despair and depression over our shortcomings forgetting the wisdom, “We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.”
It’s not easy to practice “EASY DOES IT” as the signs on meeting room walls advise. It’s not easy to live “ONE DAY AT A TIME”. When we are told to “LET GO AND LET GOD” our natural instinct is to give God only that which causes us turmoil rather than every moment of every day. It is not easy becoming a spiritual instrument which our Higher Power can use to serve the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and then, progressively, greater humanity outside the rooms of AA.
This devotion to sober-living becomes our spiritual calling in life leading to an acceptance that we will never graduate to receive a diploma or attain sainthood. We can only aspire and in that aspiration turn our will over every day to the One who saves the wretched and covers with grace their imperfection. That is the spiritual awakening promised by following the steps of recovery programs such as AA and CR.
There are times when a person reflects upon things he or she has written or said and with a querying mind asks, “How can I ever justify what I aspire to achieve spiritually when my thoughts, words, and actions are so undeniably human?”
Actually, that ‘querying’ mind is often self-condemning, is it not? In these times of internal conflict we must remember that the spiritual progress promised in recovery programs, the Way of Jesus, and the Path of the Buddha are exactly what they claim to be, a course of progressive growth. They are the trek each person must take to become vessels of wisdom and compassion within the power of the Divine Essence. Undertaking this trek is not done with any expectation of perfection. Progress is the goal. Often the trail we walk slides off into a ravine of selfishness and unkind behavior, but pulling back onto the way forward is always awaiting.
The fellowships of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and CR (Celebrate Recovery) both recognize humanness and brokenness as elements of addictions. Their step programs offer, not a miracle cure, but rather a way of living which enables members to rise above this inherent human condition of self-absorption. Joining hands with like-minded men and women intent on becoming more than empty vessels tossed mercilessly on the seas of alcoholism, drug abuse, behavior addictions and emotional stress, these adventurers want not a perfect life, but a better life, a life of freedom from the prisons of self and ego.
Similarly, Jesus and the Buddha, holding all of creation in reverence, offered a lifestyle of service and compassion as the way to a personal heaven and a path to enlightenment. Their disciples were ordinary examples of humanity who became extraordinary trekkers. None of them were perfect. Insecurity, anger, ego plagued their journeys through earthly temptations. Yet, they understood that even though heaven or enlightenment was the desired outcome, a perfect life was not the path. Humans must endure growth through the vagaries of humanness in order to become the spiritual beings which a Creator has intended.
Those who follow the life of Jesus Christ as their example must remember that, along with his obvious love and compassion for his Father’s creation, he also endured the human life fraught with temptation, desire, insecurity and anger. According to the writings of the ancients, his public ministry lasted a scant 3 or 4 years before the crucifixion. Where was he before the ministry, what was he doing? Believing that Jesus traversed the same road of searching that every earthly human walks gives a great insight into the purpose of his life. Those who portray Jesus as perfect at birth from a virgin’s womb seem to be missing the entire reason for his story. Anybody can be perfect when born perfect. Only a totally human experience of failure and disappointment combined with joy and ecstasy provides the sojourner with the necessary tools to crawl from the depths of hell to a life of peace and contentment.
“It is greedy desire and wrath, born of passion, the great evil, the sum of destruction: this is the enemy of the soul. All is clouded by desire: as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust, as an unborn babe by its covering. Wisdom is clouded by desire, the ever-present enemy of the wise, desire in its innumerable forms, which like a fire cannot find satisfaction. Desire has found a place in man’s senses and mind and reason. Through these it blinds the soul, after having overclouded wisdom.” Krishna, BHAGAVAD GITA
With the beginning words in this excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna laments the soul’s destruction through greedy desire and the wrath of passion. This deadly duo of greed and anger are reproved in Hindu writings. Greedy longing and craving coupled with extreme anger born of obsession and yearning are the sum of destruction. With ageless wisdom, the most ancient of wisdom’s revealers, Krishna, says that soul is perishable.
Buddha attributed suffering to desire. Humanity is not content with what it has and thereby desires what it does not have. When health, wealth, fame, fortune, peace, excitement, popularity, solitude, possessions, become the objects of man’s unfulfilled desires, suffering is the result.
Can we agree that much of mankind’s suffering in this life can be attributed to man’s covetousness, the desire for something not owned or controlled? The fathers of Judaism made this one of the commandments of the Decalogue as a means of preserving social order in the desert. “Thou shalt not covet.”
In today’s jargon, “Don’t covet your neighbor’s ass or his wife or his house or his servants or any of his stuff.” Pretty simple, right?
Desire for acceptance and social status drives most of contemporary society to keep up with the Joneses, working a second job to the detriment of family obligations in order to facilitate buying things not truly necessary to impress neighbors not necessarily neighborly. Desire for prestige drives many to sometimes boast, maybe lie, and possibly commit fraud to cover failings and inadequacies. That tangled web of desire, deceit, corruption and anger is indeed a soul-killer.
Just a glimpse – How’s your good heart today? Namaste!
Consider the moments when all is just as it should be, when the world seems to be perfect, when a cup of tea is enjoyed quietly empty-headed, when life’s beauty lies peacefully ahead in it’s absolute perfection. What if those moments are chosen as reality and all else is seen as illusion, a deception, a prelude to pain and suffering?
Removing the demands of self from the center of its personal universe is when eyes can be opened to a Divine Presence. Hearts swell in communal joys. Together, when joyful souls engage by pools of cool waters, in fields of green grass and lilies, with blessings of a life lived quietly, there the path of eternity is realized.
Although those moments of peace are sometimes fleeting, they become deeply etched and worthy of devotional pursuit. Then the pleasures and pains of earthly illusions will pale when compared to a life lived in awe of soulful excursions into truth’s reality.
Just a glimpse – of the joy and peace which a magnanimous Creator has intended to be enjoyed always in every moment, every word, every thought.
“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!” MOBY DICK, Herman Melville
Melville likened the depths of a man’s soul to Tahiti, a dot of island in the Pacific Ocean. He used the adjective “insular” to describe Tahiti. Uncivilized, provincial, backwards, remote. But the island was “full of peace and joy” even though it was surrounded by an ocean of horrors. It was primitive, untouched by modern complexities.
How is your “Tahiti” today? Feeling encompassed and threatened? Relax! Many centuries ago a psalmist wrote, “Be still and know.” Be still! Relax and then know God. But first, be still. Stop striving with the world and be still. Find that quiet space and be still for it is there in stillness that the guiding light of truth will create an island of peace and joy illuminating the dark, ominous corners of life.
Even so, the worldly oceans, as in Melville’s day, remain deep and ominous filled with treacheries that cannot be fully understood by mankind. Contemporary life is frightening for those who do not have an island of tranquility offering safety and comfort. It is equally frightening for the ones who have discovered their Tahiti and yet observe from afar the continuing pummeling of winds and waves upon its shores.
“God keep thee!” Therein lies our truth, does it not? God will keep thee and me. The greater power to which we turn during our earthly struggles confessing our worldly fears will be the victorious captain in the storms of our lives. That power provides shelter from the assaults of society’s insanity while instilling a peace and understanding which transcends our physical world. The violence surrounding the soul’s island cannot penetrate when we vigilantly live this life honoring our truth. Creatures of the deep darkness are powerless when bound in chains by the dominating brilliance of our Tahiti.
We dare not abandon our island when threatening skies loom on the horizon. Instead, we take refuge within the learned words and verses of sacred writings, we turn our eyes toward the clear blue skies where hope lies, and we acknowledge with reverence that power which has always kept us and always will keep us from spiritual harm. Our ultimate truth is that we are spirits dwelling in physical forms. Physical bodies shall die but spirit is eternal. Protect and cherish the indwelling Tahiti. Never leave it!
A blogging friend wrote a wonderful post concerning the approach of age 60. As someone who is several years her senior, I can joke now about the trepidation some feel about that milestone. It is true that as young whippersnappers we thought age 40 was ancient and then as we approached 40 we pushed that arbitrary beginning of the end back to 50 and, for me, 60 became the final celebration of birthdays. There would be no more birthdays. Well, lo and behold, I had to reset at age 70.
Ten years ago I thought 70 was going to be a horrible milestone. Thoughts of physical limitations, decreased family interaction, fleeing mental capacities all came crashing down on me on August 3, 2007. It became a difficult time in my life. Young people at the grocery store called me “sir”. Pretty young ladies opened doors for me. Young men called my favorite classic rock music “geezer” music. Little children whispered to mom or dad, “How old is that man?” I no longer looked buff in swimwear. Age spots appeared overnight on my head. Wild, wiry, black hairs grew abundantly from my nose and ears. Where never in my life did I have worthy eyebrows, I raised a farm of wires.
I thought the final chapter of my book was in progress. I thought the time had come to nail down all those final resolutions, to pre-pay my burial expenses, to be sure those end-of-life papers are in proper order. And these preparations are a good thing for those of us who no longer receive AARP membership invitations. It is not merely a kindness, it is a duty to our loved ones who would be overwhelmed with the details if we did not give written directions. That DNR and those health care directives say to our spouse or our children, “I love you enough to make these life and death decisions now so that you don’t have to choose later.”
Though it is true there are probably many more years behind me than ahead, I now accept that perhaps age 100 is attainable and it is not a feat to be taken lightly nor a fear to shutter me behind closed doors. My life should have been a short-lived one, but thanks to a gracious God who saved me from the wretchedness of alcoholism I survived all these years to talk again and again and again about that miracle called recovery.
Truly, I cannot dig ditches nor build houses anymore but something inside me says, “We are not yet done.” And with that driving inner voice I anticipate years of continued blessings from a merciful and kind God. This God of my understanding has always provided answers, necessary resources, and a way to move through the good times as well as the bad. Each new day is a spectacular revelation which invites me to enjoy anew the continuing story of sobriety. The heartbreak of sober friends who needed to go back out and do some more drinking research, the joy of discovering inner strengths previously hidden, the unrelenting truth of a life lived soberly have all written chapters into my recovery book. And all I can hear from that inner voice is, “We’re not done yet.”
More importantly perhaps, that voice is telling me there are things left undone. There are amends to make and reconciliations to pursue. There are character defects to correct and offers of forgiveness to extend. There are neighbors and strangers who may need my kind words or shared food. I don’t know all that is left undone but I clearly hear that voice telling me, “We’re not done yet.”