Literalism in Recovery

jeepcloseLiteralism is the lowest level of meaning.

Richard Rohr, p. 70 Immortal Diamond

In recovery, literalism is both a blessing and curse.  The blessing end comes in keeping me centered on the proven necessities for recovery.  For example, a very literal admission that I was “powerless over alcohol” and that my life had become “unmanageable” were key to beginning a recovery path.

But literalism can be a very limiting factor as well.  If I were to take the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as literal and dogma, I would binge on sugar, be opposed to having a sponsor, reject the 90 meetings in 90 days advice I received when I was discharged after 30 days of detox, and so forth – based on what the Big Book does or does not contain.  In not taking a literal and dogmatic approach, over the years I learned that contrary to the advice in the Big Book, sugar is just another alcoholic food for me, having a “sponsor” of some sort is critical to my staying on a good recovery path, and all of those post Big Book publication clichés of advice like 90 in 90 allow me a solid foundation on which to grow my recovery.

So, here is my heresy in 12-Step recovery – over the 30 plus years I have been sober from alcohol and drugs, and then later tobacco and now dealing with my eating disorder, I have at times gone at least several years, and maybe as many as 5 years without attending a 12-Step meeting.  About 10 years ago I got into a 2-3 meeting per week routine for nearly a decade.  Most recently my attendance is more sporadic.

However, since walking into a detox unit in 1984, every day I have been mindful and reflective that I am an alcoholic in recovery.  How that mindfulness is manifest has evolved considerably over the years.  For example, now in my less frantic pace of retirement, my morning practice includes a prayer to remain sober and aligned with my True Self for the day, writing my morning page reflection, posting a gratitude list, writing and mailing a thank you note to someone, reading a daily reflection, and in the evening writing a couple of paragraphs about some aspect of one of the 12 steps.

My bottom line is that today it works for me.  Tomorrow, maybe not.  I am fond of saying that I have no problem today that is not of my making.  I am grateful I accumulated a plethora of tools over the year from which I can pick and apply to a specific situation.  I am grateful too that over the past three decades I have always chosen one of those tools, or added a new one, to keep traveling down the recovery road.

Here is the interesting thing I have found – by not taking a rote and literal approach to recovery for the past three decades, my day-to-day existence aligns more closely with the 12-Steps today than in the past. For that, I am grateful.

Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.


Asking the Why Question, Part 3


My late buddy, Buddy.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.Step 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous

When I got sober a bunch of years ago, the “God thing” was an obstacle to overcome, but I was willing and committed to addressing the issue head-on.  Over the years, I jettisoned the God of my youth for a spiritual path aligned to the basic approach of the 12 steps.  I have not opted for the secular sobriety route of God as a coffee cup, good orderly direction, or similar notions.  I strive for the conscious contact of “God as we understood Him” found in both the Third and Eleventh Steps.  While watching a video featuring Adam Hamilton, a pastor of The United Methodist Church, I was completely blown away to recognize that we each start our day in exactly the same way – simply praying to the “God as we understood” that God to direct our life toward his/her/its will for that day.

So here is where this “Why” question raises itself again for me.  I am not an intercessory prayer kind of guy and I really take this prayer business pretty seriously.  I see prayer as very much a commitment to action on my part and not simply some magical God thing.  Prayer is a commitment that I am going to do something about it and be in community with a True Self and get out of my ego-driven False Self.  I see no logic in praying to get a good grade on a test without studying for the test.  That would be just God magic.  Same thing if I prayed to remain sober but took no actions to accomplish same.

My intercessory prayers generally require action on my part.  The night I got sober, I was so wracked with spiritual, emotional, and physical chaos, I distinctly remember looking upward and saying something like “please remove the insanity in my head and the addiction in my body.” Then, as I was raised a Roman Catholic, I decided being on my knees might work better, so I dropped the tool I had in my hand – I didn’t want to be too obvious – knelt down to pick it up and repeated my prayer.  But sobriety has required me to take action and responsibility for recovery.

I don’t mean this all as some self-congratulatory reflection on my spiritual existence.  I still come back to the Why Me? and consider myself incredibly blessed in all aspects of my life.

But then . . . there was the time with intercessory prayer, I was in rural Peru, and got an email that said my favorite dog ever who had grown old was going down hill fast and had not stood up in two days.  I would not be back home for another 2 weeks.  I laid in my sleeping bag that night and asked for Buddy just to hold on until I got home.  The next day he was running around outside again, and lived for another six months.


Walking with an Attitude of Gratitude

cdmMy wife tells me that I am truly a creature of habit.  One habit I have gotten into is walking to church on Sunday morning.  At a leisurely pace, the trip takes about 15 minutes.  This past Sunday the sky was overcast and rain seemed likely.  I could have driven but I made arrangements instead to get a ride back home if a typical New Orleans deluge hit.

Despite the rain, I wanted to walk because I have come to value the entire church going process as a big part of my weekly recovery – an opportunity to escape my false self/persona for a bit and explore and live into my true self.

As I walked this Sunday I reflected how I traveled these same streets some 40 years ago as a practicing alcoholic.  Then my frame of mind was on how life sucked, everyone was out to get me, etc. etc. and if you had to deal with all that, you would drink too.  I compared that past with my standard line today – I have not a problem in the world that is not of my own making.  This Sunday, I felt an exceptional rush of gratitude that in retirement I am able to have a second shot at living in my favorite city in North America.  I had the same sense of well-being when I went to the French Quarter last night in the rain for some coffee and beignets, assured the Cafe Du Monde would be reasonably empty of the tourist crowd.  I thought about how my wife and I came to New Orleans on our first trip together, later spent our honeymoon here, and now have been able to return.

And I realize too that all of this only comes through continued recovery and it all goes away if I choose to drink, drug, or live into my addictions today.

For all that, I am truly grateful.