A client recently gave me a copy of the Big Book which is the basic text for Alcoholics Anonymous. I've been familiar with AA for many years and have heard clients talk about the positive impact it plays in their life, but for whatever reason I never had much interest in diving into the source material or figuring out what the 12 steps were really all about. I do a lot of work related to sexual addiction, but I don't tend to see a lot of people with substance abuse/dependence issues so maybe I thought it wasn't relevant. But I think the real reason was a form of psychological snobbery, thinking that somehow the 12 steps weren't as sophisticated as other interventions and were somehow beneath me. The thought was, "I'll leave the groups to the untrained people in the community and do the real counseling in here." How arrogant! What I'm discovering as I read this gem of a book is that the foundation and applications of AA are relevant for all of us and provide much needed insight and direction into what it means to be a healthy person- addicted to alcohol or not.
Battling Selfishness, Self Pity, and Resentment
The Big Book describes how we must become convinced that any life run on self-will can never be a success. It says we are headed for inevitable conflict and frustration when we behave as the actor who wants to run the whole show and get all the other players into the right positions, because the show never comes off as we intended.
"He begins to think life doesn't treat him right. He decides to exert himself more...Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self pitying...Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self pity? Resentment is the number one offender...From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick."
This kind of language got my attention. Alcoholics understood that they would never stop drinking and would eventually kill themselves if they continued to view the world this way, as a place we could control and orient towards our own comfort and pleasure. Why? Because it is impossible to view the world this way and not become angry and disillusioned to the point of needing an escape and comfort that we create for ourselves. This is all of us. Aren't we all addicts in one way or another, searching out ways to dull and numb our frustrations that life isn't treating us as we deserve? Just stop and think about your spouse, your children, your employer, or your parents. You could immediately think of ways they have disappointed you or not done what you wanted. How you handle this will determine whether you are moving into health or towards something that's going to kill you. "It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die."
The Way Out
The stakes are high. So what do we do? Again the advice is common sense and practical, but incredibly profound. We are urged to first make a decision that God is the director of life, not us and to turn over the reins to Him. "Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life." Then we are advised to make a list of people, institutions, or principles with whom we are angry and to note how they injured us and why we're angry about it, focusing on the perceived threat to things like our self-esteem, finances, ambitions, and relationships. The challenge in this is to resolutely look for our own mistakes and to have compassion on the wounds of others for responding to us out of the same selfish mindset. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self seeking and frightened? Even though a situation may not be entirely our own fault, because of the dangers of resentment, we disregard the other person entirely.
They then make a bit of a leap that puzzled me at first- they start talking about fear. Underneath all this anger, hurt, resentment and our poor responses we find fear. "This short word somehow touches about every aspect of our lives...We reviewed our fears thoroughly. We put them on paper, even though we had no resentment in connection with them. We asked ourselves why we had them. Wasn't it because self reliance failed us?"
The more I look at myself and talk with people in my office, the more I see fear behind just about everything. We run and hide or strike back because we are afraid. We take matters into our own hands and are slaves to performance or are crippled by anxiety because of fear. Again, we see that fear leads us into a place of isolation and reaching for our addiction of choice to be comforted. The answer is to take our fears to God and to continue entrusting ourselves to Him. The Big Book urges- "Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone. Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help...We can exercise our will power along this line all we wish. It is the proper use of the will."
I absolutely love that line "proper use of the will." It's beautiful to me and gives me a path to walk. We spend so much time improperly using our will by trying to get people and God to do what we want. The proper use of the will is to love others and to focus on their needs instead of our own, quickly noticing when we are drifting and getting back on course through confession and community. This is a way of peace and a way of walking with God in contentment. In this place we are not reaching toward our addiction of choice in a state of bitterness and hostility. Make a commitment today to stop nursing resentments and blaming the people in your life. Instead of directing will towards self, find the proper use of your will.