Things have been all crashing down and wobbly underfoot lately. The last six weeks have been . . . trying not to be melodramatic . . . challenging. There’s the professional thing that feels stuck in a morass I can’t change, a morass that is compromising the development of the professional thing. This is a professional thing I have worked very hard at. Then there’s the personal thing that has been dying a slow death for several years and now seems to finally be ready to give up the ghost. Which is huge.
But here’s the good news. I’m not freaking out . . . so far. And I feel that I have cause to freak out. So what’s up with the 45 mph cruise-control my psyche seems set on? A part of it might have to do with the twenty milligrams of a certain chemical I ingest daily. I have written about that chemical and its effects here. It’s involved, so let’s give it it’s due.
Then there is there is the tendency I have always had to emotionally freeze in the face of chaos and uncertainty. I am good in a crisis. I go all robotic and Terminator. As a friend in the rooms who shares this trait once said, “I can handle the homicides, it’s the hangnails that send me over the edge.” I am not proud of this trait. There are some who think I’d be a lot better off if I’d just freak out every now and then. If I could, I would. But I can’t. Or very rarely.
But I am going to name a more controversial source for my calm, in addition to the one I have named above: spiritual evolution. Controversial, because in naming it I am suggesting that I am spiritually evolved, which seems arrogant – the opposite of spiritually evolved. Controversial because I am positing that there is such a thing as a spiritual life for the individual, that it can be nurtured and developed, and that this development can have actual consequences in his life. But I have been sober for over twenty years, and attending meetings of a certain fellowship which espouses spiritual principals. And even if I had stayed in those rooms for all those years and fought those principals, I would still have been changed by them. But I didn’t fight them. In one of the blessings in my life, they always seemed to make a lot of sense to me, and I felt their effect nearly instantly. I was one of the lucky ones – not that I haven’t drunk, which is daly reprieve conditioned upon my spiritual fitness – but that I got it quickly. “Just resign from the debate society” the man who laid the foundation of my sobriety told me, “you’ll be so much happier.” That was soon after my first meeting, after which he said “I have good news and bad news. The good news is the war is over. The bad news is you lost.” But like all great wisdom, the power of the bad news was the good news. All I had lost was my despair.
This fellowship has some slogans. I feel led to share some of my favorites with you now:
- If you have one foot in the past, and one foot in the future, you’re pissing on the present.
- S.O.B.E.R. = son of a bitch, everything’s real
- Don’t sweat the petty stuff, and don’t pet the sweaty stuff.
- Wear your life like a loose-fitting suit (with thanks to Satchel Paige)
- One day at a time
That last one is key, and the longer I live with it, the deeper it is. So much pain is caused by our tendency to plant our anxiety in the future and then live our life according to its waves of negative energy. Or by our reaching backwards to cling to the flaming bonfire of history, flames which time extinguished long ago but which we keep tendered and alive through our incendiary focus. One day at a time means: be in the now. Be here, where you are. And where I am right now is on my bed, in my house, next to my cat, with my children sleeping one floor below me. And I’m not addicted to alcohol or cocaine. I’m not killing myself. Therefore, I’m winning.
Here’s another story from the fellowship. A girl called her sponsor on the way to her first sober dance. She called from a pay phone in New York City (remember pay phones?). “I can’t do this,” she cried, “I’m such a mess! No way can I go dancing! No way!” From the other end, her friend said “Stare at your feet!”
The girl paused, bewildered and wiping tears off her cheek. “Stare at my what?”
“Stare at your feet!” came the command again.
So she did. “Are you staring at them?” asked her sponsor. She said she was. She felt her breath settle. “Where are your feet?” She said they were underneath her, holding her up, while she called her sponsor on her way to a dance. “So you see?” her sponsor said, “you are right where you should be. And you’re doing great. Now go to the dance.” She did.
Later, at the dance, she found herself frozen and off to the side, clutching a ginger ale as she watched other sober people dance the dance of the recently freed to Prince, Madonna and P. Funk. Someone she knew approached her. “Why don’t you dance?”
“I forgot how.”
“Follow me. I’ll show you.” And she was dragged out on the dance floor. “Now jump up and down!” her friend shouted. She did. For the next three hours.
I love this story – which is true – for so many reasons. First, the be in the now command: stare at your feet! Then, the vulnerable plea for help, and the delivery of that help, an exchange essential to the wellbeing both of the recipient and the giver. And then the unexpected help – the friend who dragged on to the dance floor, and led her into her ecstatic release. Some prayers are answered through pay phones when we make the call, and others just wander up to us when we’re frozen in fear, saying, mind if I rescue you? I heard this story about 18 years or so ago, in New York, and it has stayed with me. So if I reach backwards, I choose not to burn my hands on fires that have long gone out; I choose to warm them on the glowing embers of of the furnace which warms me now. It’s called faith.
Faith is not about the belief that everything will be alright. That’s just that future-anxiety dressed up in nice sounding clothes. No, faith is about being as present and as whole as possible for the magic passing by this instant. And doing the dance that magic asks of you, even if it’s just jumping up and down.
This is not a present-tense faith only available to sober people in my fellowship. Not at all. Eckhart Tolle has made a spiritual practice out of this idea. It is at the center of meditation practice as taught by many kinds of Buddhism. Yoga is the physicalization of this concept. And most of the artists I know will tell you that this “nowness” is found in the midst of creativity: when the singer sings, the dancer dances, the writer writes and the actor acts – they are in the now. What I’m saying is that it’s available to all of us. Even you. God pulls me into the now when I pray, which isn’t nearly as much as I might. Prayer isn’t a call to something far away, but instead, for me, an intercourse with Something right here, right everywhere, right now.
Ask me in a week, and you may find me in a puddle of despair, panic and pain. You may find me sucking on a bottle of Scotch. You may find me in jail. Or you may not find me at all. But ask me now, and I’m okay. No, more than that. I’m faithful.