Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Victimhood and responsibility

I've heard an assertion several times recently. If I had heard it only once, I would pass it over as a particular individual's quirky interpretation of the programme. Clearly, however, it's more widespread than that and echoes a delusion I, too, was under when I was new. It also resurfaces periodically over time in AA, as a recurring meme.

The assertion goes like this: 'AA tells you to take responsibility for everything, but that's wrong. Bad things happened to me as a child, and I'm not responsible for that. I can't just forgive people. My sponsor told me I need to get angry over what happened and sit with that, and somehow I'll get over it.' (Pretty much verbatim.)

This is sometimes accompanied by objection to the assertion that we are selfish and self-centred. Perhaps, also, this is viewed as encouraging shame.

Let's look at where this might come from:

'Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.
So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making.'

To be fair, it is easy to see how this can be misunderstood. The problem, as ever, is weak sponsorship, i.e. the lack of anyone to explain properly what this material signifies.

Let's first of all look at the truth of the statement:

Have I been selfish and self-centred throughout my life? The question is not a moral one but a factual one. Do I spend more than 50% of the time thinking about me? How you treat me? What you think of me? What I think of me? What I want? What I need? All the ways things are not going my way? If you're anything like me, the answer, certainly prior to treatment with the Steps, was somewhere up around 90%. My thinking was centred on me. That was a fact. I'm not a bad person because of that. But the fact was undeniable.

Secondly, if one understands 'troubles' to denote our troubled experience of life (as opposed to external circumstances over which we have only partial control, as the Book indicates on page 67: 'Though a situation had not been entirely our fault'), it is clear that very many situations, once one is adult, are entirely self-constructed: who said 'yes' to the job you are in? Who chose that particular person to enter a long-term relationship with? Who chooses what you believe, think, and do, the decisions you make, if not you? Are these things not ultimately the chief drivers of the course of your life?

Clearly, by contrast, the events of one's childhood are ones over which one had extremely limited control. The Book nowhere suggests that children are responsible for ills that befall them, and I've honestly never heard anyone in AA suggest that this is the case. This is the 'message' 'heard' by many people, however; the Book, on the contrary, is clear that 'the world and its people are often quite wrong'. There is no suggestion that others have not had a role to play. There is no suggestion that we are all bad and others are all good.

To summarise: as children, we were not in control. What is within the scope of our responsibility, however, is whether or not we retaliated against people for what happened to us (which is what I did), committed the same actions against others, and continued to ruminate on such ills for the decades that followed. As the Book indicates, however, our job is not to feel guilty about having gotten ourselves into such an emotional predicament but now to take responsibility for doing something about it.

Regarding the shame and guilt that people (wrongly) associate with taking responsibility, there are plenty of quotations that could be used to put this into further context, but here is a particular good one:

'If what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all of us, whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try.'

As children of God, we are of infinite value. A good sponsor will point out that we are wonderful people who have been 'driven' (as the Book says) by forces greater than us, deep down within us, which we are as powerless to do anything about on our own as we were over alcohol.

The greatest antidote to false guilt and shame about being in this predicament is found immediately below the main quotation above about selfishness:

'And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to. Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.'

All of this may seem academic, but it is not. If responsibility in general is rejected on the grounds that (a) we are not responsible for everything and (b) responsibility is associated with guilt and shame, the danger is finding oneself five, ten, fifteen years sober still full of bitterness and erroneously believing that one's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour are so hard-wired from childhood by the bad behaviour of those who influenced us that we are doomed ever to dance around the totem pole of our own distress. Essentially, these small misperceptions of the AA programme will condemn the individual to perpetual unhappiness. The only relief that can be provided is the temporary assuagement of guilt by propagating blame. And I should add at this point that this was a phase I myself went through between ten and fifteen years sober: the more I joined the dots regarding how those around me during my childhood affected me, the less guilty and ashamed I felt.

I'm very grateful I've been shown a different way: one in which responsibility is duly allocated, without guilt and shame, and without blame, but in recognition of the fact that, without God, there is little I can do to change (which goes for others, too).

My circumstances are not 100% my responsibility, but my beliefs, thinking, and behaviour are, and it is the ability to pull these three levers under God's guidance that provides full emotional freedom from the world, fate, and the actions of others.

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