Monthly Archives: July 2015


Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 60-61

This was our course: We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, “This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”


We avoid retaliation or argument. We wouldn’t treat sick people that way. If we do, we destroy our chance of being helpful. We cannot be helpful to all people, but at least God will show us how to take a kindly and tolerant view of each and every one. – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp.66-67

In the last few posts, we have been looking at the ways fear and anger have poisoned our well. We saw how old “stale anger” from the past reached into our present lives and made living such a chore. We also saw how fear could cast a cloud of worry and suspicion over the future. And, as I said earlier, there are direct measures we can take to “cure” this spiritual malady.

But there are also steps we can take to nip he problem in the bud. As any doctor can tell you, it’s far easier to prevent disease than to have to cure it. The term for this is “prophylaxis.” Here’s a definition:


Measures designed to preserve health (as of an individual or of society) and prevent the spread of disease.

I always read that first quote from pages 60-61 as applying specifically to alcoholics.¬† I completely missed the “most people” part. Of course I would. We’re so convinced of our alcoholic uniqueness that we don’t realize that “most people” labor under the sames burden of self-centeredness and fear that we do. Let me make haste to point out that we are prone to saying the “sick man” prayer and forget that we are probably sicker. It’s really a prayer of humility, a spoken admission that we’re all pretty much in the same boat and that other people are probably doing the best they can

So the key to spiritual prophylaxis lies in our realization that the people who wrong us are themselves dealing with same spiritual malady. The difference is that they CAN in some measure “afford it.” It may make them miserable, but they have the option of being miserable the rest of their lives. We all know people like that. But we also come across individuals who can spot it and take corrective measure. We know people like this as well. They have recognized a need in their life and have followed a course of spiritual action to remedy it.

We alcoholics, on the other hand, can’t “afford it” because it kills us. We don’t have the option of suffering through it because our only response to pain has always been escape through alcohol or drugs. So, if we are to survive, we also have to find a course of spiritual action that can solve the problem. The AA program is not unique. It is not even original. It is simply a synthesis of the most effective and proven methods for overcoming this human condition. And it is extremely pragmatic. AA does not require years of rigorous discipline before results are seen. Quite the contrary. It cuts straight to the core of the problem and offers a “kit of spiritual tools” that have proven over the years to be extremely effective. That does not mean that we never grow beyond this point, only that AA offers first aid to the alcoholic so that he or she can survive long enough to become the healthy spiritual being that He intended.

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The wreckage of the future

I’ve been structuring these posts around the discussion of time I laid out a few posts earlier. In our review of the Fourth Step inventory, we saw how our old response to fear had created in us a stubborn unwillingness to forgive, and we remained mired in resentments that were eating away at our lives. A good deal of the “obsession of the mind’ consists of our inability to feel comfortable sober. And these old resentments played a big part in that. Further on, we will discover the complete solution to resentments, but for now I want to focus on the way that fear distorts our view of the future.

All animals are imbued to a greater or lesser extent with a natural fear response, often termed the “fight or flight” instinct. In mammals (including humans) it arises out of a very primitive part of the brain, is mediated by neurohormones, and is entirely beyond our control. Sometimes we get addicted to the feelings and seek out activities designed to trigger it in a controlled way. I think this is why amusement parks exist. A “thrill” ride is designed to elicit a primitive fear response but in a way that our conscious minds know is still safe.

But we differ from every other animal in one important regard. We have the mental capability to anticipate future events based on our past experiences. As a child, I learned pretty young that Christmas came once a year and that it was going to be the very best day of the year, even better than my birthday which I also eagerly anticipated. (I wish I still felt that way.) This also means that we can project our fears into the future and anticipate them with dread. When this is conscious we call it worry, but it isn’t always conscious. Sometimes we deflect these feelings onto other people or situations and (surprise!) get angry at something that hasn’t even happened. My friend Don C. tells a very funny story that illustrates this perfectly. Allow me.

A man is returning from a trip, and while driving home one of his tires goes flat. As he gets out to change it a steady rain begins to fall. He is quite angry at his circumstances already, but as he opens the trunk he sees that the jack is missing. His son was probably using it to work on his car and forgot to put it back. Now he’s really getting perturbed and very angry at his son. Thinking of what to do, he remembers passing a house a mile or so back and there were lights on. He decides to take the long walk in the rain to see if he can borrow a jack. As he approaches the house, he notices that there are no longer any lights on. He thinks to himself, “This family has already gone to bed. I’m going to wake them up and they’re going to get upset. They may even tell me to go away and this entire walk would have been for nothing!” Reluctantly he arrives and rings the bell. No response. He rings again and sees a light come on. He’s now convinced that he’s going to have to deal with someone who is more concerned about their own sleep than his plight. The nerve of some people! The door opens and a man asks, “What can I do for you?” “I’ll tell you what you can do,” he yells. “You can take your jack and shove it up your ***!”

It’s funny because we have all had these kinds of experiences. Have you ever had that unpleasant talk with someone in the future? We imagine how the conversation will progress based on nothing more than fantasy and fear. I still go through that every time I have to let an employee go. I will ruin an entire weekend re-running the scenario. Of course, when it actually happens, it’s nothing like what I expected.

In reality, the future we fear almost never happens, and we never anticipate the bad things that sometimes do. In other words, we never worry about real things. If we could all adopt the attitude “Don’t worry; be happy” life would be a whole lot better. But this is not natural for an alcoholic. It is a skill we must learn and practice until it becomes a part of our nature. The Steps provide a practical and proven way to get there, but it will always be a lifetime struggle.

My next post will discuss just how we go about that.

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The Step Four Chart and That “evil and corroding thread”

Notice that the word “fear” is bracketed alongside the difficulties with Mr. Brown, Mrs. Jones, the employer, and the wife. This short word somehow touches about every aspect of our lives. It was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it. It set in motion trains of circumstances which brought us misfortune we felt we didn’t deserve. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 67

Maybe this should be split into more than one post. But I think the point is better made if I can maintain some continuity, so here goes.

On page 65 of the Big Book, we find that familiar chart we use to begin our Fourth Step inventory. It looks like this:


I was taught that the most effective way to approach this was systematically, one column at a time. So first we list the people, institutions or principles that we resent. This should not be difficult since most of us came into the program with a lengthy “sh*t list.” All we need to do to get started is take that mental list and put it on paper. Column one only. Don’t get into column two yet. Once we are certain that column one is complete we move to column two, listing the harms these people had done us. Again, not difficult since we’re pretty aware of why these folks are on the list.

After a period of reflection, we now begin to ask ourselves what it was in us that was threatened. Bill uses the 3S list: sex, security, society. Our sexual lives, our emotional and financial security, or our self-esteem and acceptance by others. It’s only an aid. You can modify it to suit yourself.

This is the actual start of the inventory process because we are now looking into the “causes and conditions” in ourselves that informed our behavior and attitudes. The step refers to “a searching and fearless moral inventory…” We’re taking a hard look at ourselves, but not a negative look. For people like me, I already had a very complete list of the positive qualities of my personality. Others come in with a unrealistically negative view of themselves. Neither is accurate and actually reflect¬† deep-seated self-centeredness since it is an image of ourselves which we have carefully guarded from objective scrutiny by others. We face facts, admitting where we have been wrong, but with the awareness that nobody is perfect: neither perfectly right nor perfectly wrong. (I love it when people say “I’m only human.” I like to ask, ‘Is that “Mother Theresa” human or “Jeffrey Dahmer” human?”)

The book now makes reference to the fact that every one of these resentments can be traced back to fear of some kind, fear of losing something we have or not getting something we want. In other words, the “stale anger” was once “present anger” triggered by fear. Or to put it more succinctly, our unconscious response to the feeling of fear was to become angry at the person(s) who threatened us. And since the threat never simply went away on its own, the anger hardened and became resentment.

And so we come to an inescapable conclusion. Anger is no more than one particular response to fear. When we get to AA, it’s usually the only one we know and it seems quite impossible to us that there could be any other way to react. But we will learn, as we continue to work the Steps, that it’s possible to “outgrow” fear, that is, to react to it in a way that reflects spiritual maturity and serenity.

This leads me back to my discussion of time and how fear also affects our future. Next post.

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Spiritual Offender #1

Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64

I’m finally feeling well enough to resume some blogging, so I want to continue the thread that I started last post. Thanks for all prayers and encouragement.

First and foremost I want to carefully define what I believe the book means by “resentment.”  There are a number of dictionary definitions which don’t fully convey it’s intended meaning here. Resentment is not the same thing as anger or being indignant. Resentment persists. It lives in the past and might best be defined as stale anger. The book nowhere tells us we should never be angry. Anger is a basic human emotion that we experience quite involuntarily (usually) when something is done to wrong us or those we love. It’s usually justified to a degree, although there are many of us who get a perverse delight in being handed the moral high ground and so go looking for injury.

So when I say “stale anger” I am referring to anger over a day old.

In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. – Ephesians 4:26 New International Version (NIV)

We experience resentment in part as old, unresolved anger, but also as a feeling of moral superiority. In fact, it is in this sense that we can find a way out, a way we can offer forgiveness.

When Jesus spoke of forgiveness He usually used a financial analogy, so we’ll do so here. If you borrow $1000 from me, there is a debt created. You, the debtor, have an obligation to me, the creditor, to repay the loan. Now suppose you come to me to repay the loan and I tell you that you don’t owe me anything. And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t convince me otherwise. Where did the debt exist previously? Clearly in the mind of the creditor, the one owed. It doesn’t mean you didn’t borrow the money, it doesn’t mean you never owed me. I can simply choose to “forgive” the debt.

So it is when someone wrongs us. A moral “debt” is created and we feel that person “owes” us something. We become moral creditors. And just as in the previous example, we can choose to “forgive” the moral debt. We’re not saying it didn’t happen, we’re not saying it was acceptable, we’re simply saying that it no longer applies. Forgiveness itself is not a feeling. You don’t have to “feel” forgiving to forgive. What happens when you forgive is more powerful than that: you no longer have the resentment.

I have tried in vain to find a distinction between unforgiveness and resentment. I don’t think there is one. So the cure for “stale anger” is to let go of it so it can drift into the Past. And that is why I made such a big deal about the Present. If we are going to learn to live there, we can’t be held back by the Past. Our Future will never brighten so long as we hold onto the things that are anchoring us there.

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