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Friday, April 1, 2011

The "Still Suffering" Alcoholic

I did not attend meetings or belong to A.A. for nearly five years during my "recovery." Hence I picked up a five-year medallion and a fifteen-year medallion, but no ten-year medallion. The results were enormous suffering for my wife, my children, my extended family, employer and friends, and me.

An influential man from my early sobriety ended this "spiritual drought" by reaching out to me and taking me to my first meeting in nearly five years. Synchronisticly, the meeting was in my old home town and I knew the speaker. However, she was not from that town, nor had I known her when I had been attending meetings regularly. She was the sponsor of one of my then wife's remaining AA friends, and I had met her twice during my prolonged dry spell through this mutual friend.

"Sandy" got up to the podium to speak, but could not. I never did find out what the trouble was that she was going through that evening, but she could not begin her talk. She could only cry. After about five minutes, and after being given the opportunity to pass on giving the evening talk, she finally got it together enough to begin. I will never forget what she said.

Sparingly, and through muffled pain, she said, "When the newcomer comes through these doors, I am responsible and I want the hand of AA to be there. For that I'm responsible. But you can be three months, or three years . . . or thirty years sober and still suffer. And when that happens I want, I need the hand of A.A. to be there."

An electric jolt literally went up my spine. It was a phenomenon I cannot explain, but her words touched me in a way that was unique. Like her, like the newcomer, I was in the grips of very deep and very grave suffering. But, I have learned since then that at any point in time I am either recovering or relapsing, I am either growing spiritually or suffering. And today, I know the choice is mine. Carlos Castenada's spiritual teacher, the nagual Don Juan, told him, "We either make ourselves strong, or we  make ourselves miserable. The amount of effort is the same."

Over the next three-and-a-half years, I worked with an old-timer who took me back through the Big Book and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and together we walked a long way along our spiritual paths. The old-timer was slowly dieing, however, and I watched as his one leg was amputated, and then amputated a second time above the knee. And I was at his bedside all through his final battle with lung cancer. And all through our spiritual journey, he would tell me over and over, "For us, the process of gaining a new perspective (is) unbelievably painful."

The words are from Step Seven of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (at page 72), but my friend was not talking about the physical pain. He was talking to the unbelievable pain that comes from first facing and then facing down our egos, and the fears, shame, regret and remorse that our egoic self-consciousness brings up time after time.

I can still hear the deep Scottish brogue coming from the withered little, one-legged Scotsman. "Unbelievably painful," he would say, "not mildly painful, not irritating . . . unbelievably painful!"

Step Seven in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions has a lot to say about the "still suffering" alcoholic in sobriety.
"For us," it reads, "the process of gaining a new perspective was unbelievably painful. It was only by repeated humiliations that we were forced to learn something about humility. It was only at the end of a long road, marked by successive defeats and humiliations, and the final crushing of self-sufficiency, that we began to feel humility as something more than a condition of grovelling despair."
Humility is, in fact as well as in word, the most natural state of simply being "human." The words are closely related and have the same Greek root, humus, meaning 'ground.' We are, it turns out, just small parts of the Ground of Being. And, "(w)here humility formerly stood for a forced feeding on humble pie, it now (begins) to mean" we read, "the nourishing ingredient which can give us serenity."

The definition of "humility" that Doctor Bob kept on a plaque on his desk reads:
Dr. Bob (1879 -1950)

Perpetual quietness of heart. It is to have no trouble, It is never to be fretted or vexed, irritable or sore; to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me.

It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised, it is to have a blessed home in myself where I can go in and shut the door and pray to my Father in secret and be at peace, as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and about is seeming trouble.
"This improved perception of humility starts another revolutionary change in our outlook," the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions tells us, at page 74. "Our eyes begin to open to the immense values which have come straight out of painful ego-puncturing."

Again, with the "painful" experience of facing and facing down our smaller "self," the human ego!

It wasn't until many months after we buried my friend, however, that the full import of his warning that dying to 'self' is "unbelievably painful" struck home. There, at the back of Bill's essay on Step Seven, he writes:
"We saw we needn't always be bludgeoned into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering. A great turning point in our lives came when we sought for humility as something we really wanted, rather than as something we must have. It marked the time when we could commence to see the full implication of Step Seven: Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings."
[Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 75. Emphasis added.]
Thus, we have a choice. We can either make our true "inner selves" strong by humbly facing down the  fears, worries and desires of the small 'self,' or we can hold onto our old, egoic attitude and it's old ideas and "make ourselves miserable." The amount of effort is the same.

When my acquaintance could not begin her talk, it was because she was going through the "unbelievably painful" process of letting go of the ego's story about whatever was "wrong" at that time. I wouldn't come to know for several years thereafter the true meaning and desirability of humility. Just as being honest means that I never have to remember "the story;" so the availability of true humility means I have the choice to pay attention to, or remember the ego, and its unbelievably painful "old ideas," or I can let "it" and "them" go. And, it is in this "letting go" of the ego and its stories, that God removes my defects of character and the "unremitting suffering" that accompany them. This. I believe, is the essence of the AA slogan, "Let Go and Let God."

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