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Thankful To Know The Difference

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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

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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!

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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

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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.  

Control

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

Reframing to Move On

It has been awhile my friends since I have written.  There is s time to write and a time to act.  A simple conclusion with a complex set of precepts that I must accept in order to get unstuck.  One cannot think there was into change, one must face the pain and do what hurts psychologically in order to break through the pain of despair.  Alcoholics know the comfort of pain and disillusionment, but must learn the joy of living – oh how strange and foreign these feelings are! Not until recently, after over 22 years of sobriety, have I truly come to see how some of my behaviors were predating sobriety; in IMG_0105other words, I was not drinking but  I was acting the same way as the damaged little boy before he started to hide behind a drink.  It was how I was processing, or not processing, my feelings that led me to the old way of thinking and behaving, it was because it “seemed” like I could control things this way.  Of course, I can’t and never could.  Perhaps this issue of truth and honesty, as the 1st Step suggests, is really the only Step we must do so that we do not  return to drinking. We say over and over in our program “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” and the truth is for me it has been very slowly.  Perhaps the search for truth about ourselves and our relationships to our higher powers is all the 11th Step is really about.  Emerson has said many things about the truth and how we must discover it within ourselves, including some thoughts about fitting in: “the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.”  The problems I can change lie within myself and are faced as the willingness to grow flourishes within me.  The sickness of alcoholism seems to really lie in my lack of willingness to change even when it hurts. I struggle so much with knowing I need to change, but still being afraid – usually hidden under the anger.  Recently, a man much smarter than myself pointed out that the key to it all might simply be honoring the feelings, even if each day is full of fear or anger, acknowledging these feelings might lead me to the others… and this may be the spiritual realm at its finest.  For so long, I have heard the negative language of the sinner, whose feelings and fears are the root of all evil.  I have a disease, not a lack of faith, though as Emerson alludes to so brilliantly in 2nd Step fashion is that we are always looking for that restoration to sanity (wholeness) that only a higher power can provide.  I know now that I looked to blame others, rather than change what I could.  But I am grateful for this experience as it has helped me break free from the people who enabled me to stay stuck in the past.  The past is a damaged boy, denying the past in order to survive. The future is a healing man moving, having learned from the past, moving on to the next great adventure, fully present, feeling, making mistakes, taking risks, and treating his illness.   Recently I saw this unidentified quote that illuminated my thoughts perfectly:

“There’s a world of difference between revisionism and reframing the past.  Revisionism leads to denial and a repetition of the past and reframing leads to learning from the past, healing memories, and moving on.”

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Many Gifts

 

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It is easy to get caught up in “stuff” during the holiday season.  I try to remember that gifts are symbols to represent something deeper, on the inside, invisible to all around us. These are great paradoxes that we want external validation when we need internal, that we want to see God when we must know and believe.   How lucky we are to have a Recovery program that reminds us of all the real gifts we receive when we live a Sober life.  Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, understood this:

“Is sobriety all that we are to expect of a spiritual awakening? No, sobriety is only a bare beginning; it is only the first gift of the first awakening. If more gifts are to be received, our awakening has to go on. As it does go on, we find that bit by bit we can discard the old life – the one that did not work – for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever.”

Even the greatest Spiritual teachers have learned that the teacher and the student are one, living in the balance of reciprocal joy.

 

 

Twelve

It is a time when many of us are celebrating the 12 days of Christmas as we busy ourselves with family and friends.  I sat this morning looking at the ornaments on the tree and read my twelve and twelve.  Here is the passage from the twelfth step (I have taken out the word God) that exemplifies what I strive to be:

True leadership, we find, depends upon able example and not upon vain displays of power or glory… Service, gladly rendered, obligations squarely met, troubles well accepted or solved with help, the knowledge that at home or in the world outside we are partners in a common effort, the well-understood fact that all human beings are important, the proof that love freely given surely brings a full return, the certainty that we are no longer isolated or alone in self-constructed prisons, the surety that we need no longer be square pegs in round holes but can fit and belong in the scheme of things – these are the permanent and legitimate satisfactions of right living for which no amount of pomp and circumstance, not heap of material possessions, could possibly be substitutes. True ambition is no what we thought it was.  True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly… For it is only by accepting and solving our problems that we can begin to get right with ourselves and the world about us.

As a sober man, each time I work a Step, I receive a small gift in the form of piece of mind.   May each of you this season, pick up the real gifts of a Sober Christmas, and work the twelve Steps of Recovery.  There is no greater gift, no matter what you believe, than becoming the man or woman you want to be.

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