Saturday, 30 January 2016

Borrowed from Mallory Ortberg

The Princess And The Pea, If The Pea Were A Small Piece Of Mild Criticism

ONCE upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess; but she would have to be a real princess. He travelled all over the world to find one, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. There were princesses enough, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be. They seemed capable of absorbing criticism as well as compliments without letting it tear up their self-image. So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to have a real princess.

One evening a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it.

It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.

“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bed-room, took all the bedding off the bedstead, and laid a piece of mild criticism on the bottom; then she took twenty compliments and laid them on the criticism, and then twenty genuine, loving friendships on top of the compliments and then also a perfectly good life full of interesting work and fulfilling interests and rewarding relationships on top of that.

On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.

“Oh, very badly!” said she. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something painful, so unbelievably destructive, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”

Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the piece of mild criticism right through the twenty compliments and the twenty genuine, loving friendships and the perfectly good life full of interesting work and fulfilling interests and rewarding relationships on top of that.

Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.

So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the piece of criticism was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it, but she never forgot it.

She never forgot it.

There, that is a true story.

The difference between alcoholics and Al-Anons

Once alcoholics start drinking, they cannot stop when they want to. The gorilla lets go when the gorilla is done.

Once Al-Anons start fooling with an alcoholic, they cannot stop when they want to. The gorilla lets go when the gorilla is done.

Alcoholics have a blind spot when it comes to alcohol. No matter how terrible the experience, the alcoholic will always go back to alcohol, without a spiritual awakening.

Al-Anons have a blind spot when it comes to alcoholics. No matter how terrible the experience, the Al-Anon will always go back to the alcoholic, or find a new one, unless he or she, the Al-Anon, has a spiritual awakening.

If you have discovered yourself, one more time, entangled in a merciless, enthralling bind with an alcoholic, and you are being cut to ribbons, Al-Anon may be for you, no matter how cute the alcoholic is.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Step Eleven review: is it too negative?

Question: ‘The review suggests that we should not drift into morbid reflection, etc., but the review has no room for congratulating yourself. It is just a ‘where I did go wrong?’ review. There’s no ‘I was proud of myself because’ section. So, if I have had a trouble-free day, I have to scan the day hard to find a problem; that can’t be good for a person, right?’


The review looks as though it is purely negative. However, If I ask myself the question: ‘where was I resentful?’, and the answer is, ‘I wasn’t’, then that is a good thing. Or even if there were just a few moments of disturbance but otherwise the day was resentment-free, again, that is a good thing. Resentment or lack of it is a good metric for mental state. The answer therefore lies somewhere on the scale from ‘wholly good’ to ‘wholly bad’. In the same way that a doctor’s examination is looking out, listening out, and feeling for abnormalities and be brief and dull when the patient is well, a review following a good day will end up being almost blank, whilst a review following a bad day will have a lot more content.

If you go down the inventory and you don’t come up with anything major, then you’ve got a wholly positive outcome. This is a cause for joy and gratitude.

The injunction against morbid reflection is an injunction precisely against insisting on scanning the day with a desperate desire to find something wrong. If the day was trouble-free, stop there.

The underlying purpose of the review is to find what went wrong so that we can make tomorrow better (and happier). To refrain from doing it on grounds that it makes one feel bad would effectively be to say, ‘I would rather keep making the same mistakes. I don’t want to be happier than I am.’ The point is to find what is wrong so that we can be even more effective and happy the next day. Finding fault, as it were, is not aimed at bringing us down but lifting us higher.

Lots of things are like this. When you have your car MOTd, the mechanics don’t spare you their findings in case you’ll be upset. You’re glad for everything they spot, and you certainly don’t take anything personally. Similarly a doctor’s examination.

If a person feels attacked by doing the inventory, there’s a misunderstanding. The inventory is not an index of your worth; it is not there to ask ‘am I a good person?’ The desire to congratulate oneself suggests that there is a deficit the individual wants to make up for through good deeds. Reading between the lines, the individual seems to be taking it badly if he finds something wrong.

Never forget: we are individually of infinite worth because we exist. Nothing we do can add to that; nothing we do can detract from that. Whether or not we think and act right is an entirely separate question (and comes under the heading of ‘integrity’ rather than ‘worth’). If one needs worth to be reinforced, that’s fine, but go straight to God for that; do not seek to discern worth in the inventory, or you’ll be kicked in the teeth whenever you do something wrong. Anything one tries to get a sense of worth from other than being a child of God will work when it works but destroy you when it doesn’t. The moral or spiritual realm is the domain in which this is most amplified. Self-congratulation for behaving well is a set-up for despondency when we behave badly.

It has to be recalled that what we’re finding, when we find something wrong, are signs of spiritual sickness (or ignorance, which really comes under the same heading). If we find something wrong, it is because we did not know what God’s will for us was or because we knew but did not have the power to carry it out. To find something wrong is not, therefore, to find something wrong with us but to determine that we were in a state of ignorance or powerlessness, in which case the answer is more knowledge or power.

One should never beat oneself up for something one finds. The Step Eleven review is performed in God’s presence, and therefore with knowledge of God’s care. Finding something bad in a review may be a cause for sorrow for not for self-flagellation: by definition we were driven. Finding something good, however, should absolutely be a cause for celebration (and the absence of bad is good). The celebration is not self-congratulation, however, because we were not the cause of it. We did not develop the moral law we have abided by. We did not conjure the knowledge of God’s will for us: it was given; we did not conjure the strength to do the right thing: it, too, was given. Finding that the day was good is a cause for gratitude that the programme works or, at a higher level, seeking God’s will works, because, on performing a review in His presence, we discover that we have been given all the strength and direction we need.

Incidentally, if we have behaved morally (which is invariably in our ultimate best interests), it would be odd to seek a medal for doing so, as the fact the action in question is right and that right action serves us as well as anyone else should be enough. People outside AA often find it odd that people in AA do congratulate themselves for doing what healthy people do automatically.

When you read news reports of people who have acted heroically, the so-called hero will often reject praise, saying, ‘I did it automatically; I did it because it was right; I didn’t think about it.’ I think that reflects a real spiritual truth.

A further point is purely theological: good and bad are not warring sides, in my view, with good sometimes winning and bad sometimes winning. Bad can exist only in the context of good. Faults in computer programs can exist only if there is a computer program; they have no independent existence. It is the same morally: we are essentially in a benign universe, but one with flaws—sometimes grave ones. The job is to eliminate the flaws. The design of the inventory (probably intuitively) mirrors this moral design of the universe.

There is a place for the recognition that God is working wonders in our lives, which is why the review cannot be seen in isolation. It is one part of a big package. The review is the bit where, in God’s presence and in God’s care, we dare look at what went wrong. Casting the mind back to Step Three, our whole lives are demonstrations to others of what is going well: when we share in meetings or with newcomers, that is the point at which we catalogue the good, not to bolster ourselves (which is a soul-souring activity) but to give hope to others.

Finally, it has to be remembered that, if our self-image needs bolstering, it should never be done with reference to achievement, whether practical or moral. Rather, remember this: we are innocent and we are perfect, as are others; our thinking and consequently behaviour may need adjusting, but we are not our thinking or behaviour, and identifying with either will cement them in place because we will wish to defend them. We are no more our thinking than the words written on a Word document on the screen of the computer are the computer or say something about the worth of the computer.

Approach the review with the attitude that you are loved by God because you are innocent and perfect, and the process becomes a wholly positive one.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Low self-esteem

People are often bothered by what others think. If other people approve of you, you're happy; if they don't, you're not. Others' (perceived) perception is the barometer of your value.

More specifically, the most recent (perceived) perception is taken as the barometer, not a robust selection of (perceived) perceptions spread over time and across a wide range of people.

This is insane, as evidenced by the instability of the self-image that arises. If you have a value, it will not change because Jennifer or Serge has just slighted you. If you feel your value is affected, you're wrong: it is not.

So, what's the solution?

Firstly, recognising that you are of infinite value as a human being merely because you exist. The debate is now over. Any other viewpoint is invalid. There is a question of integrity, and whether or not you are living with it, but that's a discussion for another day and is separate from the question of your human worth.

Now, you won't necessarily feel that to be true. The marvellous thing about the truth is that it does not matter whether you feel it to be true; it's true anyway. It is the height of (alcoholic) hubris to believe that one's feelings about this matter are of any significance at all. They are not.

How do you get to feel that this is true, however?

Here are some tips:

(1) Minimise your exposure to people and environments where you are explicitly or implicitly told you are of no or limited worth.

(2) Minimise your exposure to people and environments where you are explicitly or implicitly told you are of conditional worth (i.e. of worth if you comply with certain criteria); such environments are enticing because when you do perform you feel great; nevertheless, this is simply placing the noose around your neck for when you fail (as you invariably will at some point), and the trap-door opens.

(3) If you must expose yourself to such people and environments ((1) and (2)), erect an Al-Anon defence shield: recognise that other people's beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, emotions, actions, and internal worlds are their own, not yours; just because a baby is screaming does not mean the adults present also start to scream; there is no more reason for you to feel you are worthless because someone thinks you are worthless (permanently or temporarily) than there is for you to believe anything else they say: do you automatically agree with the person you are talking to on politics, regardless of what you thought last week or last month? Of course not.

(4) Maximise your exposure to people and environments where you are explicitly or implicitly told you are of infinite, unconditional, inalienable worth.

(5) Engage in activities and domains that stress that. Exposure to the arts, religion (if it's the right sort: be careful here), and nature helps.

(6) Watch your mental hygiene: you do not have to get on every train that comes into the station, and you do not have to follow every train of thought that tempts you. If you want to avoid negative feeling, you'll have to avoid negative thinking, which must be cut off promptly and without doubt or remorse. You are likely prone to all sorts of logical fallacies and cognitive distortions underpinning your negative thinking. Familiarise yourself with those and learn to spot when your thinking is structurally wrong.

(7) Watch your spiritual hygiene: if you mentally treat others as being of infinite worth (including all of your enemies and the people you have historically held in various degrees of contempt), this will rebound on you and reinforce the truth. If your practice backs this up, with a life built on service to God through service to others, your problem will be solved.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Principles and rules

Someone emailed me about the last post and asked about the difference between principles and rules.

Here are two rules that some people in AA express:

‘Amends have to be made face to face, or they don't count.’

‘Never say no to an AA request.’

These are rules, because no judgement is involved: if you have an amend, it must be made face to face; if someone in AA asks you to do something, you must.

Principles are invariably applied alongside other principles picked from a constellation of principles.

Two examples:

The suggested rule that amends must be 'direct'. In 1939, when the Big Book was written, the concept of 'face to face' was available and expressed as it is in now with the phrases 'face to face' and 'in person'. The fact that the Book says 'direct' not 'face to face' is telling and deliberate. Face to face is often better and clearer and there are many amends I would not dream of making in writing or in some alternative way. The Book clearly suggests face to face as the best way of making amends in many cases but concedes other options.

Another couple of pieces of background information: Bill is extremely sketchy, frankly, on whether he made amends and, if so, how. One might expect a little bit of detail somewhere in his 36-year career in AA on how he actually made them, but we have almost nothing. Bob made them all in one day, by driving around Akron. We learn nothing from Bill about how to make amends other than being told general principles and how others he knew made amends. We know from Bob's amends, which were completed in one day, that he did not make amends to anyone outside Akron and that he made amends only to as many people as he could see in one day.

I got to AA when I was 21 (compared to Bob, who was much older), and I had amends to make all over the world, by then; people in different cities, people in different countries. If I had lined them up, I could have made the top ten to fifteen amends in one day. No way could I have made all of them. I did a second round of amends when I was around 36. I had 78 names. Again, if you added up the time these took, it was way more than one day. My friend N had around 270 amends. Many people I know have over 100.

My conclusion: the amends process as described in the Big Book set the threshold very, very high indeed for making amends; only the most egregious crimes made the list.

Given the scrupulousness with which we draw up complete amends lists these days, covering every little theft and every broken relationship, however minor, we have to conclude, I believe, that we do a far better job of this than the founders. If Bob could complete his amends in one day, he was either saintly for having so few people to see or was applying different criteria. I presume the latter was the case.

Now, all of my top amends (basically the closest friends and family members) absolutely had to be seen in person. What about the rest?

Here's where other principles come into play: tact, consideration, proportionality, decorum, respect, efficacy.

There are many amends that are best made in writing (with a phone call and/or a face-to-face meeting offered as a follow-up if the recipient would like). These include (but are not limited to): people who live a long way away where trekking across the city, country, or world would appear to the recipient utterly disproportionate and self-aggrandising; amends where the recipient is so reactive and domineering that the only way a clear message can be conveyed without being rebutted, garbled, or diverted is in writing; amends where the difference in status is such that demanding or even requesting the person's time would be quite disrespectful or presumptuous; amends where what you did was so creepy the last thing the recipient wants to do is see your leering face; exes where there is the risk of re-igniting romantic feelings; amends that must necessarily remain anonymous; there are scores of such examples.

Get this wrong, and you'll get sub-optimal results; I know, because sponsees have reported great reluctance on the part of potential recipients to meet and the attempt to meet actually hampered the amend; good judgement in advance often means approaching certain people in writing instead.

Here, the principles must be applied in concert and with plenty of prayer and contemplation.

Let's turn to the other question: never saying 'no' to an AA request.

The only way I could comply with this would be to neglect my immediate and extended family and to give up work. This is insane. We're supposed to rely on God for guidance, not develop a one-off rule so we don't have to rely on God. That's the whole point of rules: they're a way of manifesting self-reliance, as you rely on the rule you've chosen not on the relationship with God.

Do I do a lot for AA? Well, frankly, yes. So, yes, I do say 'yes' to a lot of AA requests. Most days I spend about three hours sponsoring. Sometimes more, occasionally up to five. Often a lot less at weekends, perhaps an hour or two on each day. I redirect about two-thirds of people who ask me for sponsorship to sponsees or friends of mine in AA, and I reserve the ‘yes’s for people I am uniquely positioned to help; we are responsible for ensuring the hand of AA is there to help, not to be that hand in all circumstances. The same principles apply in saying ‘yes’ to service opportunities, whether in the service structure or in groups.

What we do in AA is an avocation not a vocation. When, in the past, I neglected my family, work, friends, and other interests (which the Big Book enjoins us to engage in!), I was not more helpful, honestly, and was not a good example to others. To be a good sponsor you need successful relationships in your life and a worthy occupation, because otherwise there is nothing to attract people with; the subject matter of my life is my life, not AA: my career(s), family relationship, close relationship with my partner, and friendships are the worked examples of how to work the programme. If I were to sacrifice my life for the sake of never saying 'no' to an AA request, I would destroy my ability to be useful.

To sum up: the only rule is to be cautious about rules; principles and God-reliance offer a much safer course.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

How do you know if it's God's will?

To find out God's will, ask God for his will. You do this by praying to God, which is simply addressing God, in this case with a question. You then sit quietly and take note of what comes to mind. What comes to mind may be from God or it may not, but you have to trust that what comes after praying for God's will is more likely, on average, to be God's will, than if one had not prayed.

Here are some other ways of testing what comes.

(1) Run the idea past trusted advisors whose lives demonstrate usefulness, cheerfulness, and kindness.

(2) Ask: is the idea for the good of all?

(3) What are your motives? Are they selfish?

(4) Have you any experience of the idea in question? How did it work out last time?

(5) What is the cost of the idea: what would you do instead?

(6) Will this bring short-term gain or long-term gain? Will this bring short-term discomfort? Will this bring long-term discomfort?

(7) Are you following a principle (which allows for the application of and trade-off with other principles and adjustment to situation and circumstances) or a rule? (Tip: principles are more reliable than rules).

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The games people play and the mistakes people make

Sometimes people come to you in crisis. We're morally bound to respond in kind, right, to make sure that we match the crisis with a sterling, robust offer of help? The tricky thing is, it depends ...

I cannot tell you how often I have fallen for one particular game. Here're the rules:

[By the way, I am adept at both sides of this game, so I'm really describing myself all along ...]

X calls up: 'I'm bleeding and on fire; help! Help! I need fire-extinguishers! I need gauze! I need ...' I hear the 'here-come-the-cavalry' theme running in my head, and I rise to the occasion. I might be full of practical, homely advice; I might offer a more comprehensive solution, involving learning how to handle sharp objects and Bunsen burners. On a bad day, I get emotionally involved. Following hot on the tails of the heartfelt compassion come its stooges: irritation, bluntness, peremptory responses. (Remember: 'help is the sunny side of control!) We’re on the phone for hours. And I’m exhausted.

Maybe a day later, maybe a week later, I'm waiting poised, with my finger hovering over the Big Red Button of Assistance, ready to deploy the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles of Sponsorship ... and I hear from them. And they're kinda fine. They've sometimes forgotten what the problem was. But one thing is clear: whatever that was, a true crisis it wasn't. And you've fallen for it again; all the words were written on wind and water, sound and fury signifying nothing.

The word ‘crisis’ originally meant ‘turning point’. A lot of what passes for crisis is actually Saturday Night at the Palladium. The curtain rises, and the show begins! ‘Send in the clowns … Don’t bother; they’re here.’

It is very easy to get sucked into a drama, thinking you're helping, when actually you're just the cat following the dot of light. The ego, somewhere, is laughing, although maybe not the person—he or she is usually unaware that this game is being played, because games, once brought to consciousness, are hard to play with a straight face.

It wasn't true assistance that was wanted: it was company, eating popcorn, eyes wide open, staring at the screen on which the drama was unfolding, with all the flashing lights, distorted sound, and excessive volume of the modern cinema experience.

So, how do you tell when it is help that the person genuinely wants, as opposed to someone to take the spare cinema ticket?

Here's a story. Clancy—at least I think it was Clancy—tells a story of Chuck C.—at least I think it was Chuck C.—who was approached by an AA member in profound, fulminating despair, full of suicidal threats. The response was this: 'I'm tied up for a few days. If you're still alive by Monday, come round to my place at 6.30, and we'll talk'.

The chap was, and did, and progress was made.

So, tips, are there any tips?

What is true is that occasionally the crisis is real and the cry for help is a cry for actual assistance; what it also helps to remember is that awareness of what might be going on should never tip over into cynicism or harden the heart; the last sine qua non is the maintenance of calm and kindness. As George Herbert said:

Be calm in arguing: for fiercenesse makes
Errour a fault, and truth discourtesie.
Why should I feel another man’s mistakes
More, then his sicknesses or povertie?
In love I should: but anger is not love,
Nor wisdome neither: therefore gently move.

I’m not going to give you an algorithm for navigating these situations, partly because you haven’t asked, and partly because I haven’t got one. But there are three tools to use, which can be thought of as ‘the three Ps’ (remember Al-Anon’s ‘three Cs’ and ‘four Ms’? Well: here’re the three Ps; and you can quote me on that).


Pausing because the Big Book (page 87, for the geeks) suggests pausing when agitated or doubtful (Ever get agitated? Ever get doubtful? Are you ever anything other than one or the other?!), reminding ourselves we’re no longer running the show (including their show), stating the wish that ‘Thy will be done’, and asking for the right thought or action. Pausing is my favourite tool and my most underused one. Although sometimes I do pause for so long people hang up, thinking the line has gone dead (like the Molvanîan actor whose dramatic pause was taken to be a sign that he had kicked the bucket and who was actually buried alive). My friend Tom suggests that we get one second of reaction time for every year of recovery. I’m therefore working on my 23rd second.

Praying is great. God is very, very big, and of above average intelligence. God is also not particularly interested in my take on how things should proceed, but I should definitely be interested in His. God’s will in many situations is the needle buried so deep in the haystack that it cannot be discerned by ordinary sight. The sixth sense—the common sense that becomes uncommon sense, per the Big Book—is required.

Postpone: this is a tool available, not the tool that will necessarily be required; but in any case it is rare that a solution is required this instant. Perhaps the postponement will be for half an hour; perhaps for a day or more; but the individual took decades getting where they are; a little caution, forethought, and postponement now won’t generally hurt.

Here are some postponement tools:
‘Let me think about this and get back to you [in a few minutes / in half an hour / later today / tomorrow / next Wednesday]’.
‘Try XYZ [perhaps suggesting pausing, praying and postponing], and let me know how you get on. We’ll talk again then.’

This last option is great because whether or not the action is taken is a good sign of whether it is genuine assistance or company that is being sought.

As usual, this year’s resolution is to practise the three Ps more assiduously than I have ever done before.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Years sober and still self-obsessed?

The reason you're self-obsessed is probably because you're obsessed with yourself. In practice, that means you're thinking about yourself. If you're thinking about yourself, it is probably because, when you start thinking about yourself, you carry on, rather than stopping.

The way to stop being self-obsessed is to stop thinking about yourself when you start thinking about yourself, which requires two things: spotting when you're thinking about yourself and then stopping it and starting to engage mentally and practically in something else.

So, ask, when you catch yourself thinking: am I thinking about how I can serve God or am I thinking about me?

If it's the latter, switch to the former. Try this for a year, then get back to me.