“God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Making the decision to get sober is not one anyone who has ever done has taken lightly. If one decides to fully cut out something they so previously relied on in their lives, a reason is needed; one strong enough to make you believe that whatever the outcome, you’re trying to do the right thing. You may want to be a better parent, partner or child. You might decide to set a new trajectory for living a longer, healthier life. Or maybe, like me, you realize that there’s no way you can ever become the person you want to be with the vice that always seems to find it’s way into your hand and slip it’s way into your thoughts.
Looking back, the part that is most visible to me is not the shame or guilt associated with substance abuse – it’s that for all the time I was using, I wasn’t growing as a person. You enter a mindset where you begin to assign blame or attribution to others for the actions you take, decisions you make that don’t turn out the way you wanted. And the hard thing about entering a mindset where you stop being honest with yourself about who you are is your image of yourself and others becomes more cemented. You stop seeing people as human beings and start seeing them as figures, with set characteristics who don’t care about you or your problems. Everyone you owe money to has it out for you personally. Every teacher who won’t accept a late assignment is completely unreasonable. Every relationship that ends because people are sick of watching you destroy yourself is because of them, not you – never you.
AA understands this. That’s why Step 2 of 12 and an entire chapter of the Big Book is dedicated to “believing in a power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity”. That type of flowery language and discussion of faith conjures an image of organized religion or God. But finding a power greater than yourself – or a higher power – is interpreted as “finding a reason not to use again”. It speaks to a notion of hope, that same hope that made you quit in the first place. We need hope – hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, hope that we can be there for the people we love and that the things we do matter. Without hope, and the faith that that hope will be realized, we would’ve never sought help to begin with. But the thought goes that having that hope within you will boost your mental fortitude, your capacity to be resilient in the face of fallibility. It also removes a burden. All of a sudden, you understand that you have something to believe in, a reason to keep going, that makes you feel like control is within your grasp. We delegate our control to this ideal with the understanding that we now operate for a reason greater than just ourselves. It helps inform a sense of purpose and identity that your average addict lacks. And when one better understands their own story, one can start to try to find the community where they feel they belong.
Because we see what we choose to, I began to view the world with new eyes when I got sober in the summer of 2015: Instead of looking for distractions or assigning blame, I sought to see how the role I played in my life and others impacted the people around me. I wanted to understand why I did what I did, and understood that I needed to be honest with myself and open-minded enough not to reject the answers I got in return. I learned to listen, to accept and to have hope. Continuing in sobriety means that when times get rough, you have to be self-sufficient and accepting enough to know that every moment of discomfort is a lesson you’ll someday appreciate learning, that every opinion you disagree with is a perspective you may lack the context to understand, and that hope and faith come in all forms – Who am I judge a zealot for having a purpose, hope in their faith and for being happy? If no one else gets hurt along the way, then their life may conclude with the sense that it was lived to it’s fullest and was the best possible one that could be lived. It’s hard to argue with that definition of success.
But life isn’t a tale of one person’s journey to manhood through sober thought. People get hurt and killed every day. Every action we take has repercussions, and every relative advantage one assumes has a very real trade-off for another person. A zealot may be happy, but if their happiness comes at the expense of the safety of another, then we must make a decision as to who we think should come first. If a man kills another, our own inherent values system can help us make that judgement call. But where we differ on subjects of abortion, gun control, the line between religion and extremism, immigration, terrorism, energy and food production, the sanctity of marriage and transgender rights, then we have to disagree. I’d expect nothing less – our backgrounds differ. My perspective is informed by my history and my context, yours by your own. It’s only right that we stand by our values and act in the way we think is morally correct.
None of these are easy decisions, nor are they easy conversations to have – that’s why, within the traditional ideals of nationhood, the electorate should together to appoint a representative group of voices from within society to speak on their behalf. Civilizations understood that the role of this governing group would be to make complex societal decisions on their behalf so that ordinary citizens might go about their day. In return for this power, this appointed body would be subject to the electorate, held accountable in their actions and decisions made, and removed should they be deemed unfit to hold the power they wield. The Greeks understood that without this body, this early representative democracy, their society would be consumed by in-fighting and divisiveness, plagued by battles that would sow divisions between families, friends and communities. If direct democracy was attempted – where the people sought to come to a consensus on their own for every decision – inertia would be inevitable. Removing the intermediary voice, the arbiter of dispute, would create an anarchic system where thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of voices would drown each other out in screams, where noise would rule until the only thing that has ever cut through the din of the masses rose above it – a might strong enough to demand silence.
With the age of the internet came the democratization of information, and with that the sense of the death of expertise. The internet sought to level the playing field by equalizing access to information across the globe, and it’s bounty has been harvested exponentially to incredible results. But with that access came the elimination of a fine barrier, one that separated those with access to information from those with the same information and the context to understand it’s value. That is the value of higher education – not the content taught, but the context that explains it’s value to a scope beyond our own. Understanding third-wave feminism is conceptually interesting, but understanding how power structures influence the systems in which we exist is essential in understanding arguments made in international development, civil rights movements, Women’s suffrage and sexual assault advocacy. If all that’s given is information, without the context, where we don’t attempt to find the perspectives of others to learn, then we cannot be surprised when our opinions differ, especially if we don’t attempt to understand why others do the things we do. No party can claim immunity from this – until you have truly put yourself in the shoes of another, you cannot claim to understand their lives and claim an objective or moral superiority.
My journey to sobriety has been one of uncomfortable truths, of self-reflection that has at times made me break down, and one of consistently forcing myself to give up control and commit myself to learning the things I think I already know, for a sense that I may hold the information but may not understand why we stare at the same puzzle pieces and see two different things. But today’s push towards a more direct form of democratic discourse, fueled by an engagement platform that allows us to remove the intermediaries from debate, has lead to something more akin to being spiraling drunks – we seek at attribute blame and intent to others without admitting our own roles, we seek to ignore context and magnify fallibility in an effort to discredit every party involved, and we decided that we only need the hope our team can provide, looking away from those who speak the things we don’t agree with to turn to those whose words we have already in our own minds.
As to how we move forward, the Greeks failure with democracy has lessons the Big Book does not – namely, the Greeks first system of democracy was a direct one, where the people voted on every issue directly. Voting was exclusionary and reserved for those who held power. And while it lasted for a time – attributable primarily to the fact that only those who already controlled resources made decisions as to who should have them – it collapsed when citizens began to gain their franchise through grassroots organization. Citizens came together to make their voices heard, appointing from within those they trusted and engaging with each other to better understand the issues faced and what solutions would result in the largest overall benefit. Not everyone was happy. But it’s politics – it’s not about being happy and it’s not about being right. It’s about the community, the entire community, every community we find ourselves being a willing or unwilling member in, and making hard choices so that we can all move forward together.
I choose to live my life based on the principles of seeking serenity to create a sense of unity within myself, finding courage in darker times, and looking for wisdom that can help me better function in the service of something greater than myself. When we use and attribute our problems to others, we cease to grow and start to become scared of the discomfort associated with forcing ourselves to. A metaphor I’ve come to enjoy is that living in fear is like having lead pulsing in your veins. If you don’t do anything about that fear, it’ll poison you slowly. But if you take that same fear and direct it, wielding it like a pencil, you can create incredible, beautiful things that solve problems, build bridges, thrown down walls, illicit tears and bring people together. But what we do with those tools is our choice, each and every one of us. And it’s one we make every single day we don’t reach out and engage, every time we dismiss an opinion, every time we read a news article and mock a perspective that seems ludicrous.
It’s not your job to reach across the aisle every time you read something on the internet. But it is your job to know whether you’re pushing yourself outside of your personal bubble, whether you’re admitting your role in your community, how you fit within the larger systems and the impacts the decisions you make have. It’s not never you. It’s easy to be better than everyone else if you don’t see them as people. It’s harder to look them in the eyes and say the same.
I made my choice two and a half years ago – what’s yours?