Sobering Thoughts

Thankful To Know The Difference


Thanksgiving Reflection 2015

I have always preferred the word thankful to grateful. They are synonymous but I always felt reluctance to write a gratitude list. It was full of silly things like, “I am grateful that the window opens and closes.” Sometimes it is true that the act of writing a list can change your attitude. You may, in fact, be grateful for your new windows, but it feels forced. Reflects a backward look that seems selfish to me.

For me gratitude is a result. It is the feeling that comes as the result of my positive actions. Positive actions that result when I am thankful. The thankfulness is a spiritual repayment for having asked for help and receiving it. And this leads me to more and more action.

If I am thankful, I do more for others because I am compelled to “do unto others as I would have them do unto me.” It is the opposite of resentment. Bill W., in some of his writings said, he believed people have confused the notion of gratitude. “ It is not about the past, it is about the future.” If you have gratitude you are serving others. Which, if you know the AA program, is about the 12th step – carrying our message to others. The message is that you can get better. Never does it or should it be telling you who god is and what he says by the way. Today, I determine gratitude in others, by looking at what they are doing. Are they helping others, opening doors, serving food, cleaning up, and driving someone to the store or simply buying and doing things for themselves only?

Gratitude is not words it is actions. It is the result of thankfulness and appreciation for what has already been received that leads us forward into better and better living.

There seem to be fewer and fewer people in our world whose actions reflect “an attitude of gratitude.”

When we search our lives for meaning, consult our various faith traditions, are we not usually looking to strengthen our beliefs? In essence, we are seeking. Remember when you were young and learning to cross the road? A parent would say, “stop, look, go.” Today, with the complex dangers of the world I would add to these words, when you look you might also listen, before you go. It is in this looking and listening that I usually ask for help. Despite popular belief our weakness often leads us to ask for help and in this asking we are humbled not inflated. I have always found similarities when I am down, not differences. Ego asks only questions, never answers them. Craving more and never having enough is its most significant characteristic.

Our world has somehow forgotten this. It does not know when to “pause when agitated or doubtful.” Where fear used to take us inward, it now seems to project outward with disturbing and hateful rhetoric. We are forgetting the wisdom of the golden rule, a version of which appears in all cultures. When I improve my conscious contact (call it god if you like but the name is not nearly as important as the intent of the prayer) there is always a significant change in how I see myself, and the world.

As an older man, a graduate student, I studied literature. Two writers had a profound effect on my thinking. Both where deeply spiritual men, who used words to promote love and tolerance, not hate.   William Blake and Henry David Thoreau both broke barriers and responded to major changes in their worlds. The later spoke often about the importance of valuing what we have and who we are. It is not about where we will get or what we will get. The way to be at peace now, in the present, as Thoreau said was to live in thankfulness. “My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.”

When I am thankful, I see only love. I guess the world today is not thankful and it is certainly not enough to be thankful only today. It is, however, a start.

Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may combine into being. Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone makes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” When we go deep beyond the surface, as we do when reading, we can find what units and bonds us to each other.

Whether you call it gratitude, thankfulness, or love does not matter. Your positive attitude will lead to the service of others. These words lead to unity. When we chose resentments we perpetuate the need to separate and divide. If our religion is promoting this, it may be time to leave it behind. Man-made rhetoric, religion, is not spiritual life. Stop, look and listen inside, then go forward – it is between you and your God.

The events of the world today are calling for us to unite. And while lobbing words like bombs might temporarily elevate us and make us feel safe… others in the world may turn and do unto us what we have done unto them. We should not incite retaliation.

On a recent school visit I noticed a box on the floor in the corner labeled “For The Food Drive.” This was an inner city classroom full of students – diverse races and creeds. On the surface what they had in common was as children of poverty they receive free hot lunch.  But underneath, it was compassion. Again, the children understand: children of poverty giving to children and families of poverty! If you are thankful for what you have, if you appreciate even the little things, you will serve others and pay it forward.

I am thankful to know, “there but for the grace…”

Life Has No Finished Product

IMG_0030As long as I can remember I was told to set a goal and try to achieve it. At times I honestly thought I had no goals. Then when I set goals it felt like all I did was set them and fall short. Now I see that “being done” never fit with my larger world view; don’t get me wrong, it is important to have goals. How else would you finish a job, get into college, and even achieve sobriety? But the issue is not goals as much as the perceptions that goal achievement is the only thing of value. The idea that the goal’s end result is more important than what you learned on the way seems absurd. For example, there has never been a bloom more beautiful than the bud that produced it or the seed that germinated it and, for that matter, the soil that enriched it. Goals have a time limit that the evolution of nature does not necessarily follow.

I feel the same way about Recovery. When I began I had one goal in mind: not drinking. When I achieved that I set another: being restored to sanity. When I finally committed to the goal of “turning my will and my life over,” I started to see that I would never be done. When I read the words “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” I felt how I too was something growing, something evolving, and might even bloom. And while I have not bloomed every year, I have grown.

You might argue that the bloom is the only goal, but that would mean that the green grass, the early buds on trees, the bulbs breaking ground would have no value without the finished product we call blooms. My daily encounter with nature reminds me how short-sighted it is to live only in the artificial deadlines of my goals. The real key is to live in the presence of my growing no matter where I am in the process – allow myself, if you will, to see the whole forest of trees.

We will never be done. At significant times in my life, like finishing graduate school, the illusion that I had finished caused me great pain and I fell into a long depression. A finished product means you are done, and I was left without purpose. In many ways the ultimate goal is simple: to grow. And if a second goal is needed: to grow despite or because of the obstacles.

Go to any garden or wood. Look for the flowers and trees that were blocked by the sun or in a particular year lacked water. When you do, tell me that they are not the most beautiful and complicated organisms you have ever seen. As Mary Oliver says, “each life as singular as a flower and as rare.”

And of course, the root of our Recovery programs makes is clear – humus or humility is what we must be grounded in to grow. And to grow is to know who you are in the moment, not in the future. To evolve in Sobriety and “practice the principles in all our affairs” we must be firmly planted.

Just for today forget be about being a finished product.  Accept the progress you are making and do not get detracted by the bends and burl you encounter on the way.

In Praise of White Space


Sometimes we just need a new day a fresh start.  Sometimes we need the timer reset, a “time out” like we give our children.  Oh yeah, that must have been what our parents were trying to teach us.  In Recovery I have learned to “pause when agitated or doubtful.”  The urgency of addiction has slowly been replaced by the peace of Sobriety but only when I practice it.  We talk about prayer and meditation as something we must do, I see it as something that makes my life better which gets to the quality of life I am hoping to have. It takes time, even years, to learn how to not react, to know that if I do not say something or do something immediately that it will be okay.  Take it a step further; I do not remember being told that an action can sometimes be doing nothing. I remember the first time I tried to write – it was painful and awful. I felt like I was doing nothing, wasting my time in fact.  Today I do not know what I would do if I could not seek out the comfort of the white space before I begin to ink up the page with words and ideas.  Today I look forward to the promise of the white space as I do the promise of a new day.  Today I know there will be so much to say, so many things to see.  And if this does not turn out to be true I have hope that tomorrow will be different.  Today I will embrace the white space and the new day with discpline and praise.  Today I know that peace is white.  Today I know that a blank slate awaits me and might even wonder what I will do with it.  Today when I get scared of the white space I look back and see all the pages I have filled – my life is being written and painted every moment of every day and this proves my choices matter.  Amen.

Everyday Birthday

I suspect that when you have faced a challenge head on you understand; you understand that agents of change are individual people who know that change is necessary and work to achieve it. Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King (MLK) who knew that what he held to be true for himself was also true for his people.  I am sure there were long periods of doubt and despair, but with faith this amazing man held true to his beliefs and convictions until his death; highly imperfect, this man helped us see people differently and set out to change our relationships with all people regardless of our differences.  In many ways, Alcoholics Anonymous has helped me find who I am so that I can face life’s joys and sorrows with the same conviction.  I honor this new insight each day when I say “I am powerless over Alcohol and that my life has become unmanageable.”  The admission of my flaws and my willingness to accept God’s grace, is tantamount to what every great leader accepts as the price of greatness:  responsiblity. We cannot all have the courage of an MLK, willing to accept responsiblity for the injustice and work to change it, but we can all take responsibility for our wrongs and work to correct them.  When having done this, I  truly experience a “new freedom and a new happiness.”  The n to do this work seems closely linked to waking up and seeing every day as a birthday, a chance to live anew in faith and hope.  Happy Birthday!


Death and Discovery

Many people say to me things like, “so are you all better now?”  Of course I can only say, “today I am great or today I am doing okay.”  When we enter Recovery we learn to live “one day at a time” and we learn that the “same man and woman will drink again.”  Many of us go, “great I thought all I had to do was stop drinking!”  Far from it; Recovery is a life long process of discovery.  It is so important that we work the Steps so that this discovery can take its course.  In the discovery process I have learned who I was and I have learned who I am becoming.  I knew fairly quickly that drinking was just a “symptom” of the larger problem of how I had come to view the world. I recently read these words by Mark Nepo:

“What this means is that I have to be conscientious about being truthful and resist the urge to accomodate my truth away.  It means that being who I really ami is not forbidden or muted just because others are uncomfortable, or don’t want to hear it.”IMG_9029

He really is right.  When you accomdate everyone else in an effort to people please and hide or run away from the truth, a part of you is slowly dying. It is clear to me today that I was giving everyone but me what they needed.  Ironically, alcohol was the only way I could continue to do it in the end.  Then when I gave up drinking I had no idea who I was.  I was like dried flowers holding their shape on the outside but dead on the inside.  Then it all began to change.

Ways of Seeing



The alcoholic mind is anything but clear when we we first get sober.  In the 1950’s if you had a drinking problem it was quite ikely that we would end up in a rubber room in a hopsital’s psychiatric ward.  Part of the great legacy of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it did so much to change the widely held beliefs about those of us who suffered.  Today’s view of Alcohilism as a disease is due in no small part to the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and the many people, including doctors, who went out on a limb for us.  In many ways there is a parallel to the awakening we Alcoholics have as we sober and adopt our “design for living.”  Over time we experience radical changes in our beliefs and attitudes – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly as we hear over and over again in meetings.  Each time someone new tries to get sober, a memeber of alocholics anonymous goes out on a limb ljust ike our founders to bring a solution to those who still suffer.  Each time we do this we carry the message by re-creating a scenario of possibility and promise just like those offered by our founders.  This is how we pass it on to keep it and perhaps it is why Margaret Mead said that AA was the greatest human invention of the 20th century.  Now I want to be clear, this clarity of vision and this new way of seeing is contingent on our spiritual condition.  If I have gone without meetings, gone without contact with another alcoholic for a long period of time, and do not work the steps I become a jumble of thoughts and discontent. In fact, I lose my way of seeing and I visit the dark recess of the past with regret and fear.  Take it a step further, I resort to old ways of behaving and thinking that first became habitual when Alcohol was my solution to everything.  Today, I try to work a program that changes my attitudes and outlooks on life so that I may see the treasures in the mundane and everyday.  

Promises, Promises

“It is by going down into the abyss that we discover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

Joseph Campbell’s words are true for anyone.  However, for the alcoholic I think he offers even more insights.  When we come into Recovery we hear for the first time that others have thought and felt like we did; this shared camaraderie allows us – the great “we” – to admit we are in the abyss and together we begin the slow climb out.  These “treasures of life” we call the promises.  Not only are these little gems hidden ( We can look the world in the eye is a promise made in the 5th step) throughout the first 169 pages of the Big Book which is our basic text for Recovery, there are specific, more well known 9th step promises on page 83:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,
1. 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 (spiritual awakening).

When you face the abyss and see it for what it really is, you can begin to look the world in the eye. I have slowly found that the light at the peak of the mountain is made more manifest by the darkness at the bottom; the person I am today is a tapestry of dark and light.  I try not to judge either and find that the treasures of the abyss are aluded until I accept help from my fellow travelers and consult with a power greater than myself. We call these promises, but for me they are guarantees, when I work for them.


Light and Shadows

“I will not dwell on the past or the future, only on the present. I will bury every fear of the future, all thoughts of unkindness and bitterness, all my dislikes, my resentments, my sense of failure, my disappointments in others and in myself, my gloom and my despondency. I will leave all these things buried and go forward, in this new year, into a new life.”

It really is this simple if the pledge I make is based on rigorous honesty.  These words are from a meditation book I have read now for 22 years (January 1 – Twenty-Four Hour A Day Book) and these words still resonate – while “we do not regret the past” we cannot be governed by it either.  We must do the work so that it, the awful its – resentment, fear, anxiety, and self-loathing do not become the life we live.  To identify the patterns behind these states and do nothing with what we find is to re-create and perpetuate the self-made prison of alcoholism.  We must uncover the its, the shadows of our old lives, so that they are merely frames on an new way of living.  Because I am a recovering alcoholic, I have found a way out and for that I am grateful.  I have been despondent drunk and sober.  But despondency is a choice.  All around me are people who know me and know how I feel and when I look at them and try to help them my own light shines too; they are a mirror.  It is because I am broken, and took action, that I have been repaired.  It was in my brokeness that I found the “sunlight of the spirit”  – in the rooms, in the fellowship, in the steps, and a higher power.



In the very beginning I learned that I was “powerless.”  And it is true, to this day, that I am powerless when it comes to alcohol.  The awareness that I have an “obsession of the mind and an allergy of the body” is invaluable.  At times, however, I have misinterpreted this powerlessness as true of all people, places and things.  Imagine if every time you went in to a situation you said to yourself, I have no power here.  You might as well let people and the world walk all over you, right?  Very wise people have taught me that I actually have power – especially the power to choose. When I surrender to alcohol and enlist the power of someone or something greater than myself, I am empowered to live a life of freedom having escaped the oppression of alcohol.  It turns out that I have confused power with control.  I have at times approached Recovery as if I could figure it out and move on to my life; when it actually means that I accept I know very little and that I can control absolutely nothing. But to acknowledge the power that I have over the choices in my life has lifted me from being a victim of alcoholism to someone who is grateful that my disease has taught me, when I chose to work the Steps and integrate them into my daily living, that I can be in awe of the world and its facets instead of blaming the world for my woes by saying “it is because I am an alcoholic.”  Today, I have no business questioning my disease or engaging in constant mental gymnastics over my spiritual, mental, and physical disease.  But I can and want to be “baffled” and “challenged,” both personally and professionally, to be the person I was intended to be.  Today this means that I have no control and very little security, but that I face the challenges and enjoy the journey that truly begins each time that I do not know which way to go.  These times are no longer a burden, an excuse to be a victim again, they are an opportunity to heard the singing and to participate in the hum of the world.  Image

From the Gutter to the Curb

I have said for many years that there is not much distance from the gutter to the curb.  If I forget where I came from – not literally but figuratively – I can easily return to the comfort of the gutter where I would attempt to fix all problems with a bottle. Now that I have been around for awhile I see the problem; the view from the curb can be misleading as it can suggest you are cured.  Many folks sink into a pattern of behavior believing that they have all the answers and then impose them on others as “shoulds.”  When people say to me, you should, I often questions how they really know what is best for me or what God’s will is for me.  Many in Recovery have good intentions and sober experience, but they are still alcoholics and still capable of falling into old habits – a common myth exists that they are different than the rest of us. While I have benefited greatly from their insights, I have also seen their lack of humility – what I call the “you do this and I’ll do that behavior.” Image

They have more experience with sobriety, but our literature repeatedly tells us that sobriety is based on a daily reprieve and contingent on our spiritual condition which is generated by the hard work of climbing the steps.  The Little Red Book says we are “physically, mentally, and spiritually sick.”  This mental condition can exist long after we have recovered physically and no longer crave alcohol.  Today, my main goal in recovery is to achieve mental and spiritual balance and as someone who knows alcohol did serious damage to my nervous system,  I know that signifcant work must be done to restore the mental imbalance that resulted.  This is hard work, and at times seems unsupported by those who believe simply being dry is enough. Emotional sobriety requires that we honor our feelings, not just blame them for screwing us up.  When we know what we feel, we can change.  Our thinking about our feelings allows us to assess whether our feelings are accurate or based on old ways of thinking, usually patterns that began when we were young.  For me this was around 7 years old – to this day my first reaction starts as a 7 year old. In fact, many of us find that our alcoholism kicked in strongly when we had a marked emotional upheaval, a personality change as the result of prolonged negative thinking.  My go to response today is still negative and I have to stop and correct this.  Perhaps this is why I had such a hard time with gratitude lists… I need to be more pro-active and less passive.  I have found that a list of goals, a change list is much more powerful. One like this:

  • Try to experience life today, not judge it
  • When agitated reframe – remind yourself you are not a sinner but have a sickness
  • Elimate thinking that bases success on being a “good boy”
  • Stop validating the crazy stuff you believe is true in your head
  • Remember you have survived, the real goal is living…

Ironically, active participation in my own recovery makes me grateful. A therapist said to me recently, “you have a good spiritual life, but what you want to do is add to your prayer and meditation actual changes you want to see in your behavior.”  If I come to believe that my life magically gets better because I stop drinking, I begin a pattern of dilussional thinking that says I do not have a three fold disease – my physical addiction can go away but nothing then is restored in my mental and spiritual life. Sadly, it is the mental trigger that could lead me back to a drink if it is not treated daily to new thinking.  As I said, the curb has a view that can lead to spiritual arrogance.  Today I believe the only thing keeping me on the curb is my continued willingness to know that my thinking about who and what I am, must evolve.  The freedom from false-pride and an honest evaluation of how things are brings me the humility to see the world as it is in all its glory, not my limited view of its discontents.

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