Moving from an Intellectual to Gut Understanding in Recovery

Halloween display on St. Charles Ave & State St., New Orleans.

 

 

First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts

Overeaters Anonymous 12 & 12 pp. 6-7

A substantive shift in how I have come to see addiction over the years is the move from an intellectual to a gut understanding.  When I first got sober, I spent a significant amount of time going through library card catalogs and journals in those pre-Google days searching out articles on the genetic predisposition to alcoholism, including twin studies, relapse treatment, and so forth.  One of my favorite books was the hot-of-the-press in 1984, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism.  Fast forward to 2018, that information is pretty meaningless to me today and has little to do with my recovery.  Rather my understanding has moved from my head to my gut. My recovery has moved from a false self ego that refused to deal with life on life’s terms to one where I strive to move toward my True Self.

As I reflect often in this blog, my experience with an understanding of God similarly moved from the intellectual to the gut.  As a precocious youth, by the time I hit the sixth grade I proclaimed myself an agnostic, and by the eighth grade, an atheist based on my inability to accept a physical heaven, hell, old man with a white beard sitting in judgement, and so forth.  My approach to the spiritual realm has certainly moved from the intellectual to the gut today.

Now that cancer has come along, my intellectual understanding of the disease is of little importance to me beyond how I take care of myself with diet, exercise, maintaining my immune system and so forth.  My oncologist, who always refers to me as Professor Connolly, acknowledging my PhD and profession, is learning that my academic credentials do not reflect my ability to understand the biology of the latest immunotherapy treatments.  In fact, my comprehension level reminds me of being erroneously asked to judge chemistry student projects at Research Fairs on campus.  I could only smile politely, not having a clue at what the students were talking about.

As with alcoholism, I am coming to a gut-level understanding and acceptance of my cancer diagnosis.  I am not really interested in trying to figure out whether my monthly x-geva injections, increased calcium intake, exercise, diet, daily affirmations, weekly centering prayer group and book discussion, service at the Open Table feeding ministry, or any other factor is the primary reason the cancer in my bones is not spreading as rapidly as expected or that I remain reasonably pain free.  Rather, I see it all as a package deal.  I am comfortable leaving the hard science questions to the medical personnel who have proven themselves truly exceptional on those issues.  I am grateful for their expertise and will continue to focus my energies on that path begun many years ago toward true self.

 

Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!

Evolving Perspectives on Cancer and Recovery

In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.  I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic.  I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.  This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.  – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196

Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.

Why me? vs. Why me?

I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984.  Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks.   In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life.  When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment.  I began to ask “Why me?” again.  But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed.  Why was I so fortunate?  I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors.  Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.

I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today

I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours.  However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today.  In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment.  I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night.  I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable.  Life was good.  And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life.  I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised.  I came to accept living life on life’s terms.  The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.

I am going to die vs. I am alive today

I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis.  The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk.  Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens.  I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal.  As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth.  The sky is incredibly blue today.    I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world.  I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.

I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs.  Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life.  Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.

2018 and a New Perspective in Cancer & Recovery

I write this on December 31st, after a day of tying up loose ends, relaxation, and reflection.  The tying up loose ends primarily involved preparing for the hard freeze over the next couple of days.  I harvested our winter crops of lemons, grapefruit, bok choy, spinach, annual herbs, and brought in our new fruit trees we have yet to plant.  Relaxation included New Year’s Eve dinner with Emma, watching a movie, and reading.

Reflection occupied a good bit of the day. I had several health challenges in 2017 – an increase in my chronic back pain, a serious bike wreck, and a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  As posted on this blog, I spent a good bit of time coming to terms with these new realities.

I commented often how my three decades as a recovering alcoholic prepared me well for dealing with the health challenges, particularly the cancer diagnosis.  I have new lessons on living with an attitude of gratitude, one-day-at-a-time, and into the solution and not dwelling in the problem.

I did a lot of growing up, learning, introspection, and prioritizing in 2017.  Besides family and friends, I benefited from the insights of my faith community at Rayne Memorial UMC and the School for Contemplative Living.  A fellow contemplative noted the synchronicity of the gifts of community coming at the precise time I faced new life directions.

Today I note a subtle but substantive shift in my perspective as we enter 2018.  The best way I can articulate the shift is to compare the past six months as a time of intensive study and growth akin to my experiences during graduate school.  Upon completing my formal academic coursework, I did not stop the lifelong process of being a student and learning.  But upon graduation, I did make a shift where I began to apply in the real world what I learned in my formal training.

In 2018, I want to move from understanding my cancer diagnosis to fully applying and living into the solution.  In so doing, there is a subtle but substantive shift in perspective.  Instead of thinking, “I plan to do X but have contingency plans if I start chemo, etc. etc.” I will shift to “It is reasonable for me to commit to doing X.”  This latter perspective holds true whether I live for another 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years, or longer.  In fact, no one, whether a 21-year-old or a 65-year-old has a guarantee of living one minute longer than I.

I am blessed to have the lived as a recovering alcoholic for the past three decades and to have a wonderful group of contemplatives to explore life with today.  I am committed to a 2018 that will be a time of continuing meaning and fulfillment.

Being Alive for Christmas, 2017

As I walked to church yesterday I recalled this past August when I first received my cancer diagnosis.  A doctor said I could be dead by Christmas.  An oncologist advised that I have a back-up if I planned to teach my scheduled graduate seminar this past fall semester.  Fast forward to today, I taught the seminar, turned in the final grades, and now, on Christmas Day, I am still very much alive.

In my last post I wrote about my Early Christmas Gift – a prognosis considerably more optimistic than back in August.  The past five months have been a journey of discovery.  Here is an affirmation that sums up much of my thinking today:

I tell this cancer these things.  Thank you for teaching me to stop and listen.  Thank you for reminding me what is truly important.  You can go now.  I know that I have things to do, gifts to give, purposes to accomplish.  I require a healthy working body for this.  – Belleruth Naparstek, Health Journey Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer

Toward that understanding, over these past five months:

  • I am considerably more mindful and intentional of how I spend my time.  I do not rush through process, but savor and enjoy each experience more and more.
  • To resolve my overextended existence, I say “No” more often and no longer chase after folks unwilling to respect our mutual time.
  • Today, quality time with my wife takes priority in all things.
  • My standard line that “I am saving that for good” is meaningless as today is as good as it will get.
  • The “forgivability of the error” has never been more pressing when it comes to taking care of myself physically, mentally, spiritually.
  • The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the basis of my sobriety, are as relevant and applicable to my life today as in 1984 when I walked into a detox center.  I share my experience, strength, and hope with others.

As well, over the past five months my attitude of gratitude has deepened:

  • to my wife, Emma, who has been my best friend and mate for nearly 20 years.
  • to my church community at Rayne Memorial UMC where I am spiritually fed every week.
  • to my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living with whom I explore and experience the wisdom of the mystics of the past and present.
  • to my colleagues, students, and friends from across the world who have shared their support, prayers, greeting cards, or visited me here in New Orleans.
  • and I am most grateful for the opportunity to walk this earth for the past 65 years along a road toward true self.

So, I am very much alive today.  I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, either in terms of cancer or a myriad of other ways to test my mortality.  But I do know the affirmation I quoted in a previous blog post:

I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

is where the action is at for me today.  I look forward to planting and then harvesting the satsuma and lime trees Emma and I gave each other to celebrate our recent wedding anniversary, and all the other experiences that are part of my joy in living today.

Joy and Suffering in Recovery

I still carry this in my wallet, after all those years!

Discovering more joy does not, I am sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu

p. 12 The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

My Wednesday morning meeting of the School for Contemplative Living is reading the Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  The above quote from Archbishop Tutu caused me a good bit of reflection of late.  With my cancer diagnosis, I am finding a sense of peace and contentment unlike anything I experienced before.

At the same time, I accept that:

  • my back and neck pains will always be with me and likely increase through time.  Fatigue, nausea and all of those other cancer things are likely on the horizon too.
  • my doctor visits, medical tests, and medications of today will likely increase in the future.
  • and cancer or not, I cannot beat being mortal.

But I also accept that:

  • there is joy in watching my dog eat its food, sit on the back porch with me, or go into ecstasy at the sight (or sound) of me picking up her leash.
  • there is joy in walking to Casamento’s for half an oyster loaf for lunch.
  • there is joy in still easily biking 10 miles.
  • there is joy in seeing my winter crops of beets, spinach, and bok choy coming along.  We harvested our lemon tree just before the recent cold snap and the grapefruit made it through without freezing.
  • there is joy in coming up with an idea for a new ritual where we will be to buy a fruit tree each year to decorate as an indoor Christmas tree, and then plant in the yard after the first of the year.
  • there is joy in realizing I still do own a leather coat and wool cap that I could wear to keep warm when I walked to church yesterday morning.

I am joyful that the AA Promises (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 83-84) are in my life, today:

1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. 3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. 5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. 7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8. Self-seeking will slip away. 9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

I know I got the better end of the deal when years ago I traded in the bottle of my addictions to plant the seeds of the joys I can harvest today!

Having Enough in Sobriety

Here is a confession.  For much of my life, I struggled with having enough.  In my addictions to alcohol and food, one drink or doughnut was too many and one thousand were never enough.  Through the 12 Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, I address the physical aspects of those addictions.  I have continued to deal with the many other manifestations of having enough.

For example, an area of life I focused on extensively in sobriety was my career.  In early recovery, I went back to school and ultimately earned a PhD.  Over the course of my studies, I received grants and fellowships for maintaining a 4.0 GPA and completing my dissertation in near record time.  But, for a host of reasons, largely related to my insecurity, I did not believe I had really succeeded.

In reflecting on the last 20 plus years of my career, I can say with confidence, I always left the place better than I found it.  But that never seemed enough.  I have published widely in my field, chaired committees for national professional organizations, done all the right things and more, but that too has often left me wanting.

Only in the last 5 years have I come to feel really comfortable in my own skin, as it were – where I have begun to experience having enough.  I had a strong “aha” experience over this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  Here is some of what happened:

  • Our next door neighbors from Memphis, all of my stepchildren and their children were at our house for Thanksgiving Dinner – 18 total.  We never had so many family at our home for a holiday and I was grateful and appreciative.  I am comforted that I do not need anything else from family or friends to demonstrate our mutual commitment and love.
  • A dear friend drove from Austin, Texas to our home in New Orleans for Thanksgiving dinner.  We sat on the back porch after dinner and talked about how we met when she was a Team Leader for AmeriCorps NCCC, and how our relationship grew and continued over the years.  After our conversation, I do not need anything else to validate the value of my career.
  • On Saturday, I received a package from Suzanne Henley a good friend of my wife.  Inside was a creation and card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert.  The card described the prayer beads (above photo) that contain pieces from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  The prayer beads are now a very regular part of my guided imagery and centering prayer life.  After receiving these beads, I do not need any other material object to make my life complete.
  • On Friday evening, Emma and I strolled with our Memphis friends through the French Quarter.  Emma reminded me that such walks along Chartres St., through Jackson Square and beyond were how we spent our earliest days together as a couple.  After that walk, I do not need any more memories to know how wonderful my life has been.

The often quoted “page 449” of Alcoholics Anonymous statement on Acceptance is complimented well by Brene Brown’s understanding that:

Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.

Today, I have enough.  If I remain active in my recovery program, I am always rewarded with such profound understandings that enhance my life.  For this I am truly blessed, and grateful.