Redemption, Resurrection, and the 12 Steps of AA

Recently my wife and I had dinner with two friends whose family was very active in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  I commented how much I enjoyed living in Jackson, Mississippi years ago because there was such a spirit toward racial reconciliation that is not present in many other locations I have lived.  Indeed, as our friend noted, the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is the only such institution sponsored, supported, and operated by an individual state in North America.  He then commented with something like the ‘Redemption is commensurate to the degree of the sin.’  In this way, Mississippi, and the rest of the U.S. in my opinion, sin(ned) greatly and are in need of substantive redemption and resurrection.  I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Richard Rohr:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I have long equated my sobriety as going to that depth of death with the opportunity for coming out the other side in resurrection.  Compare the general content of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with Rohr’s Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now:

 

Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now

1. Refuse to identify with negative, blaming, antagonistic, or fearful thoughts (you cannot stop “having” them).

2. Apologize when you hurt another person or situation.

3. Undo your mistakes by some positive action toward the offended person or situation.

4. Do not indulge or believe your False Self – that which is concocted by your mind and society’s expectations.

5. Choose your True Self – your radical union with God – as often as possible throughout the day.

6. Always seek to change yourself before trying to change others.

7. Choose as much as possible to serve rather than be served.

8. Whenever possible, seek the common good over your mere private good.

9. Give preference to those in pain, excluded, or disabled in any way.

10. Seek just systems and policies over mere charity.

11. Make sure your medium is the same as you message.

12. Never doubt that it is all about love in the end.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pp. 211-212, Josey-Bass

This past December I had the opportunity to hear Richard Rohr speak.  During a book signing session, I spoke to him briefly.  I commented how my experience as a recovering alcoholic paralleled so much of what he discussed in his presentations.  He noted that recovering alcoholics by virtue of their resurrection are folks who are often better able to understand the spiritual development toward true self.  I certainly agree and find that journey one of the true blessings of recovery for which I am grateful.

Alcoholism, Cancer & Living on Borrowed Time

A typical discussion that occurs with family or friends I have not seen in while is being asked about the status of my cancer diagnosis.  After reporting the latest on poking, prodding, and testing, I conclude with the same ambiguous prognosis that my oncologist gives me.

Recently I had this conversation with a couple of newer friends who were over for dinner.  Typically, in the same way I don’t want folks to feel uncomfortable drinking around me because I am a recovering alcoholic, I too don’t want folks feeling sorry for me because of my cancer diagnosis.  So, in the same way that we served wine for our dinner guests, when running down my cancer status, I said something like “I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this, but I feel that I have been on borrowed time for the past three decades and that I would have been dead long ago had I not quit drinking – so it is all good today.”  The husband responded that was the exact way he felt after being sent to Vietnam because he never expected to come back to the U.S. alive.  He considers his last nearly 50 years to also be a matter of living on borrowed time.  His comment hit me like a ton of bricks!  This was the first person I stated my truth to who responded with  basically ‘yeah, I get that.’

In fact, I suspect there are many variations to the type of life experiences that produce similar thoughts.  For me, these types of experiences bring to mind one of my favorite quotes:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I recollect some 25 years ago a fellow student, then in her 50s, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  As a nontraditional college student at the time myself, we became friends.  I socialized with her family and became a bit of a confidant around her disease diagnosis.  She commented to me that being diagnosed with MS was the first bad thing that had ever happened in her life.  To that point, everything in her life had been picture perfect.  She could not cope with her diagnosis, opting instead to only rely on every newfangled medical treatment that might return her to the idyllic existence she had known.

I had a few years of sobriety by that point, really believed in the 12 Step Process and suggested she consider a support group to help deal with her diagnosis.  Her response was that there was no way she would associate with “those people” who also had the disease.  I was reasonably shocked.  I watched over the months and short years as she turned into an embittered victim filled with self-pity and loathing.

I am grateful today for the opportunity to surrender to that which I am powerless, have an attitude of gratitude, live one-day-at-a-time, and benefit from the many other lessons of the 12 Step Recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I am very far from perfectly applying these lessons today, however, they are a constant source from which I can draw.  Cancer still sucks, but my 1984 resurrection in sobriety allowed me to begin an ascent from the depths of despair to which I had fallen.  I am truly blessed to apply these experiences in my life today.

Co-Creation in Recovery

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By and large, what human being want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process . . . When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power.

Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 146

 

In my professional life over the last 30 years I worked in the field of cultural heritage where I published a bunch of articles and some books.  A couple of years ago I noticed that the past half-dozen or so pieces I published had the word “co-creative” in the title.  I am rather evangelical about cultural heritage professionals co-creating with a community to meet the expressed need of that community.  When I see the word “co-create” in any context, I usually take note, such as the Richard Rohr quote above.

My sobriety and recovery in general is very much a co-creative affair.  My expressed need is sobriety/abstinence that is co-created with the support of other folks, organizations, or entities who can provide their experience, strength, and hope.  As in my professional world when working with communities, if I am not willing or interested in “co-creating” that recovery, it ain’t going to happen.

That is the obvious and simple part of lesson.

The more exciting part is the end product of co-creation.  In the museum world, when the process is truly co-creative and based in the community interests, and not what I perceive to be their interests, the end results are richer and more rewarding than anything I could dream up on my own.  In a similar way in sobriety, through living in the process over the years, and co-creating with the resources provided by so many others, and not just going on my own, I am amazed at the possibilities recovery has brought.  I so distinctly remember laying in that detox ward on August 4, 1984, wanting only to somehow function on a day-to-day basis in the real world.  The years have brought me so much more.

As the title of this blog clearly states, I too have learned that recovery is a process and not an event.  I remember an experience in my first year of sobriety.  I was desperately waiting for a situation to resolve itself.  At the time, I recalled that in the past I would have just gone out and drank over the issue.  But, I also thought that if I just stuck it out sober, I would learn from the experience and the next time would be easier to get through the same thing without drinking.  That insight in year one of sobriety proved so incredibly true, particularly in three decades of hindsight.

What I have learned over the years is that if I trust in the process, live into the process, not as an isolated being, but as part of a luminous web of interconnected co-creating humanity, I stay on the recovery road, with all of its blessings and responsibilities.

Centering Prayer & People & Recovery

Today I was sitting on a bench by the pond/lake up at Audubon Park in New Orleans.  There seemed a whole bunch more ducks than usual, making a lot of racket.  I was reading the Divine Dance by Richard Rohr for a book study with the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  I read a portion equating the Christian concept of the Trinity with the Indian concept of sat, chit, ananda.  I was struck by this is something to think about for a bit.  And I thought of the practice we do before the book study of centering prayer, which in my rather unsophisticated level, I equate to meditation of some sort.

So I set my cell phone alarm for 20 minutes, sat upright, eyes closed, and started with the inhale/exhale with the Indian words, and that was not quite working, so I reverted to the words I had used before our book study inhale/exhale – be/long – and that worked for a couple of minutes, and then I just focused on the birds and the ducks and swishing of water, and got into the zone, as it were, focusing on the squawks and the water swirling, and I came into the middle of it all with the sound completely surrounding me and the folks on walking/biking path maybe 20 feet behind me blended into an indistinct murmur and the it was all ducks and water coming from all sides – and then the cell phone alarm went off after the 20 minutes and brought me back. Bang.  I opened my eyes and adjusted to the light.

Sitting next to me now on the bench was a young African-American woman – early 20s.  I don’t know when she sat down in the 20-minute period.  It seemed odd.  There were lots of other benches along the pond that were empty.  She had on a pink biker’s helmet with her bike pulled along the side of the bench.  My bike was in front of me.  She was fidgeting in her backpack, pulling out stuff, putting it back, then she got out her cellphone and started taking pictures, stretching out to the right and so I thought perhaps she sat down to photograph the ducks, but then I saw her reflection in the cell phone and realized she was taking a selfie and then thought perhaps she was stretching to such an angle to get the 64-year old white dude sitting prone on the bench into the frame, for some study in contrast.

I reached down and pulled the Divine Dance back out of my backpack.  I broke the conversational ice and said something like “lots of ducks here today” to which she replied “Yeah, I don’t know why, maybe because of the rain yesterday” to which I said “so do you come here to watch the ducks” to which she said “well I really just stopped here for a rest from biking.”  And then the conversation took off – so she is a Biology senior at Loyola on the other side of the Park.  She had an old clunky bike but a friend gave her the one she had now which was good and she wanted to ride more.  She was from the Virgin Islands and we talked about that and how she can vote in Presidential elections because she has lived as a student in New Orleans for the past 4 years.  I asked her questions about the logistics on voting and the status of the Virgin Islands as a U.S. Territory, and she replied as she could, and then on a couple of points she did not know, smiled and said that was a good question.  I raised the possibility that she could have a couple hundred of her friends from the Virgin Islands come to the New Orleans, register to vote, and she could then get elected to some local council position, which she thought about for a second, before she got my sense of humor.

She then introduced herself as Revel and I said my name is Robert.

We then went from my poor aptitude for natural sciences and how I had used my 5th grade “All About” books so that I could understand college genetics which led to discussing Young Adult Novels and I could not think of the title of a particular book I had really liked in the YA genre, but she offered that by just doing keyword searches in Google I could probably find it, and I did Made You Up by Francesca Zappia and she made a note in her cell phone because it sounded interesting.  We talked about what she was going to do when she graduated, how she enjoyed doing service work.  She then asked if I came here often to which I said I either come here or go to the Fly when I have our dog because she would not be able to deal with all the people at the Park, plus there are benches at the Fly to sit and watch the sunset on the Mississippi.  She then asked where the Fly was that she had heard about it, and it was on her bucket list to go to before she left New Orleans, and I explained it was only on the other side of Magazine St. between the River and the Zoo.  I thought to say, I could take you up there now as it is less than a 10-minute ride, but thought better of it, for some reason.

Our conversation went on about as long as the centering prayer had.  She then got back on her bike and headed toward Loyola, said she hoped to see me around the park again – and have a Happy New Year, to which I replied in kind.

What does this have to do with recovery?

  • I find that I really am interested in things outside of myself and enjoy engaging in conversations with others.  Everything from an extensive conversation with our nextdoor neighbor on her cat that disappeared for a couple of days and came back with a clipped ear and whether that was a sign some animal rights do-gooder had the quasi-feral cat spade as a clipped ear is supposed to be a sign of same – to a convo at the P.O. with the fellow there on why he put different size stamps for the same amount on two packages I brought in that weighed the same and he smiled and explained that to me and seemed to enjoy that I was interested in a humorous sort of “this guy has a lot of time on his hands to worry about that” and he smiled too.
  • I had finished up writing a report I had struggled with for quite a while earlier in the day and rewarded myself with the afternoon off and a bike ride – instead of a 6-pack of Dixie (do they even make that anymore?) which would have led to much more.
  • In my life today, I read not just to get data in my head, but to have good things to think about and mediate on.

All of which led to a fine Friday the 13th afternoon in New Orleans, for which I am grateful.

 

 

 

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 2

eckoFollowing up on the last post . . .

Only those who go through something of Calvary and of the descent into hell, not alone but in solidarity with Christ who has been there, can find that life which comes through deliverance from the captivity of the false self.

Kenneth Leech, We Preach Christ Crucified, p. 83, Cowley Publications.

 

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

 

To qualify my use of the above quotes.  I don’t mean them as bible thumping tracts of crucifixion and sin.  Rather, I use these examples as a hitting bottom and a surrendering to the reality of addiction.

So, I wonder if that action of hitting bottom is something that is not unique, but certainly prevalent, in addiction recovery or the reality of dealing with any extreme trauma/issue.  And hitting bottom means making a decision to engage something along the lines of the first three steps 1) admitted we were powerless and unmanageable, 2) recognizing the need for a reliance on something outside ourselves for recovery, 3) made a decision to develop a relationship with that entity to start the recovery process.

And that process can result in a resurrection with such a profound feeling of rejuvenation and gratitude that when asking the Why question, a prominent focus is Why am I so blessed to be in recovery when so many others continue to suffer?

So, is it the resurrection that allows one to prioritize the positive over the negative when asking the Why question?  Is it because those who have been resurrected and released from their bondage of addiction know the negative but want to live into the positive?

Just some thoughts . . .