Thursday, 6 January 2011

Step Six

[Unless otherwise indicated, the quotations are from 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions'. The square-bracketed number is the paragraph number.]
"When men and women pour so much alcohol into themselves that they destroy their lives, they commit a most unnatural act. Defying their instinctive desire for self-preservation, they seem bent upon self-destruction. They work against their own deepest instinct. As they are humbled by the terrific beating administered by alcohol, the grace of God can enter them and expel their obsession. Here their powerful instinct to live can cooperate fully with their Creator's desire to give them new life. For nature and God alike abhor suicide," (Step Six [6]).
Firstly, if the only problem in which my alcoholism consisted had been alcohol, this statement would have been entirely true. However, the problems caused directly by alcohol were relatively inconsequential—as I saw them—when set against the problems caused directly by my inability to function in the world sober, with alcohol as the solution to those problems—or at least to the consciousness thereof—albeit an increasingly ineffective and unreliable solution with a terrific sting in the tail.
It was the humility brought about by the terrific beating administered by alcohol and the terrific beating administered by living under the cosh of my own ego with its insistent demands, constant malevolent chatter, and venomous, hydra-headed attack on the marrow of my being that allowed the grace of God to enter my life.
Secondly, by the time I reached AA, I had no desire to live. Being sober represented death; the only 'life' I had really known—the only time I felt connected and joyous and optimistic—had been when I was drunk or high with one of my other addictions. A one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn was necessary for me to start cooperating with God's desire to give me new life.
"But most of our other difficulties don't fall under such a category at all. Every normal person wants, for example, to eat, to reproduce, to be somebody in the society of his fellows. And he wishes to be reasonably safe and secure as he tries to attain these things. Indeed, God made him that way. He did not design man to destroy himself by alcohol, but He did give man instincts to help him to stay alive.
It is nowhere evident, at least in this life, that our Creator expects us fully to eliminate our instinctual drives. So far as we know, it is nowhere on the record that God has completely removed from any human being all his natural drives.
Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn't strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, of our sins," (Step Six [8–10]).
To simplify these ideas:
(1) Our desires are natural
(2) But we want too much
The implication is this: our defects consist in wanting too much, so we must want less. The image that occurs to me in this context is being trapped inside a medieval suit of armour that is a couple of sizes too small—the 'solution' (should I adopt it) will involve constriction, suppression, repression, and down-sizing to a modest, scrimping life of resigned poverty.
When I am living inside a system of defects, this is always how the removal of the defects will appear to me.
It is not very attractive, this prospect. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that work on their removal can be faltering and lacking in the only component I can bring to the process—willingness.
The text of Step Six then goes on to describe the main obstacle to the removal of defects as the enjoyment we are getting out of them, e.g.
"We live in a world riddled with envy. To a greater or less[er] degree, everybody is infected with it. From this defect we must surely get a warped yet definite satisfaction. Else why would we consume such great amounts of time wishing for what we have not, rather than working for it, or angrily looking for attributes we shall never have, instead of adjusting to the fact, and accepting it?" (Step Six [17]).
The Step Six text in the 'Twelve and Twelve' implies a parallel between gross defects and alcoholic drinking—as with drinking, when I face ultimate self-destruction, I capitulate, and I am saved. The text also draws a distinction between gross and minor defects, suggesting that the grosser defects are somehow easier to become willing to have removed (on grounds of self-interest), yet the more minor defects are more troublesome (as we are getting a kick out of them—see above).
"Practically everybody wishes to be rid of his most glaring and destructive handicaps. No one wants to be so proud that he is scorned as a braggart, nor so greedy that he is labeled a thief. No one wants to be angry enough to murder, lustful enough to rape, gluttonous enough to ruin his health. ...
We who have escaped these extremes are apt to congratulate ourselves. Yet can we? After all, hasn't it been self-interest, pure and simple, that has enabled most of us to escape?" (Step Six [13–14]).
My experience is that, unlike the writer of the text, self-interest totally fails to keep me from even the most egregious excesses. If self-interest were the key factor, I would have stopped drinking at 17, when the trouble began. If self-interest were the key factor, I would not have had a problem with other addictions, or with the pride, vanity, domination, pugnacity, argumentativeness, arrogance, obstinacy, or other defects that made my life a living hell for years. At the first sign of trouble, self-interest would have stepped in and, in touching companionship and cooperation with God, I would have stepped back into humility and the service of God.
Furthermore, I do not fully subscribe to the distinction between gross and minor handicaps. I am capable of being entirely miserable for a whole day because of one tiny thing not going my way. A small gripe with another person can totally block me from genuine connection with him. There are no orders of magnitude in disturbances to my consciousness. There is a binary distinction between being in the present and not being in the present. Either I am here, or I am not. Either I am at peace, right here, right now, or I am not.
My perspective on Step Six is this:
(1) My drives for love, connection, peace, joy, happiness, and harmony are the real underlying drives. This is my true will, my heart's desires, and, simultaneously, the will of God.
(2) The fulfilment of these is unlimited—as God's will is, itself, without limitation.
(3) My defects are not wanting too much but going about getting it the wrong way. One example: rather than relying on God for validation of my infinite value as a spirit housed in human form, I rely on other people valuing particular characteristics (looks, possession, achievement), and I become 'unstable in all my ways', as the prices of these commodities, in the eyes of others, constantly rise and fall. I then become fixated, say, on achievement, and criticise and condemn those get in my way, am envious of those who achieve more, am jealous of those who usurp my position, and feel superior to and distance myself from those who are lower on the 'pecking order'. All problems arise from this: outlining how I think happiness is to be achieved in my life. THIS is self-will.
(4) Precisely the same principle applies with my drinking—I was looking for love, connection, peace, joy, happiness, and harmony, I found it temporarily in drink, and I continued drinking for well after it stopped working, because I had no other option.
(5) Willingness to have God show me a different way requires the following realisations: (a) What I ultimately want—love, connection, peace, joy, happiness, and harmony—I am entitled to in unlimited measure; (b) I have no idea how to get love, connection, peace, joy, happiness, and harmony—if I did, I would not be unhappy; (c) I have to scrap all ideas of mine about how to get love, connection, peace, joy, happiness, and harmony; (d) I have to be willing to be led blindly by God, step by step, moment by moment, down new paths of thought and action, without outlining the destination or questioning God's purpose.
To sum up: all my difficulty—whether with addiction or with other defects—arises from looking for God (love, connection, peace, joy, happiness, and harmony) in all the wrong places. It arises out of confusion. The infinite drives within me are God-given—in nature and magnitude, too—the problem is merely one of how those drives are directed, and the real problem, therefore, is reliance on my limited perspective: my misinterpretations of flawed perceptions of only a fragment of God's universe.
I only ever hold onto a defect (whether an addiction or another defect, whether big or small) because I am getting some temporary benefit out of it. I need to rise above the blinkered vision of this benefit and see the true nature of the defect: the illusory glow of the benefit and its true, destructive nature.
Even once all apparent benefit is stripped away, there is one final obstacle—I have to admit that I was wrong and, of myself, can do nothing to change myself.
Willingness to be shown a different way must be unlocked—willingness, indeed, is the only commodity I can bring to this process:
"We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable. Are we now ready to let God remove from us all the things which we have admitted are objectionable?" (76:1, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')
And this is the key to willingness—seeing defects as objectionable.
The 'Twelve and Twelve' draws a distinction between the unnatural self-destruction of alcoholic drinking and the natural drives which, when distorted, cause our defects.
I believe that all drives—including the drive to attain what I sought to attain through drink—are natural.
I believe that the distortions in those drives wrought by misperception—whilst 'naturally occurring'—are unnatural, in the sense of being out of alignment with God's will, because from these distortions flow all destruction, and destruction, as the opposite of God's creative force, is therefore against nature.
An exercise to finish on:
Take the above paragraph 6 from the Step Six reading of the 'Twelve and Twelve' and substitute, for alcohol, whatever the character defect is. Let's try resentment.
"When men and women pour so much RESENTMENT into themselves that they destroy their lives, they commit a most unnatural act. Defying their instinctive desire for self-preservation, they seem bent upon self-destruction. They work against their own deepest instinct. As they are humbled by the terrific beating administered by RESENTMENT, the grace of God can enter them and expel their obsession. Here their powerful instinct to live can cooperate fully with their Creator's desire to give them new life. For nature and God alike abhor suicide," (Step Six [6]).
Resentment is, indeed, suicide. The weapon is always turned, instantly, on me. The same goes for fear. The same goes for envy. The same goes for any defect, because it stops me living right here, right now. It is this observation, whatever the defect, whatever the magnitude, that fosters my willingness, as I finally start to see the objectionable nature—objectionable to me!—of all of my defects.
There is nothing for me to give up but suffering.
There is everything for my ego to give up—its entire existence.
Provided I recognise that I am not my ego, entire freedom is entirely possible.

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