entitlement and gratitude

These two frameworks pervade all of life, and characterise the difference between addiction and recovery.

In the framework of entitlement:

  • Focus on what I do not have… and assume I deserve
  • Resentment
  • Blame
  • Anger
  • Aggression (incl. passive forms) toward others
  • Manipulation of others
  • Envious of others’ possessions or accomplishments
  • Fear
  • “No Fair!”
  • Medication via drug of choice

In the framework of gratitude:

  • Focus on what I do have… realizing I might not have them
  • Acceptance
  • Taking Responsibility
  • Understanding
  • Assertiveness toward others
  • Respect of others
  • Celebrating others’ possessions or accomplishments
  • Love
  • “Thank You!”
  • Contentment in all circumstances
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under-standing God

The founders of AA were wise in avoiding any language that would turn recovery into an exclusive theological debaters club.  God is defined as “God, as we understood Him.”  There are obvious positives for this move.  Let’s just focus on the essential spiritual principles of recovery!  What about any negatives?

People have a tendency to feed their resentment against religion (often Christianity), and reject its vision of God for their own personal, privately conceived deity.  One imagines thousands and thousands of such ‘gods’ whose existence depends entirely upon the creative thinking of the addicts that conceive of them.  But the language of the AA steps and the Big Book seem, actually to speak of God as a singular, universal – and yes male? – being.  “God, as we understood Him.”  The literature speaks of God as the “One” with all power and authority.  It seems that God is being spoken of not as a privately conceived lower-case ‘g’ deity, but as the highest possible, ultimate Creator.

‘Understanding’ a God is not to stand ‘over’ it, in a position of power and dominance (not to mention resentment); fashioning for ourselves a ‘god’ we ‘understand’ to be better than the one I despise.  To understand is more to stand ‘under’, in a position of humility and growth, never claiming to have God-like knowledge of God, but eating whatever crumbs we have been given.  AA was wise to coach addicts to ‘be quick to see where religious people are right’ (p. 87 of Big Book).

What’s the point here?  Simply this.  Understanding God is about humility and openness; standing ‘under’ the One who can never be fully ‘understood’, rather than standing ‘over’ a god you create with the fashionable power of your own brain.

resentment & repentance

As Bill Wilson writes in the AA Big Book, “resentment is the number one offender”.  When I really began to grasp how much of a hold resentment had previously had on me (and still can!), I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard about it as much in church as I had in recovery fellowships.  What do we make of this?

First, let’s remind ourselves what Resentment is.  As the saying goes, “Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies.”  To hold on to a resentment, grievance, complaint, grudge or issue against another person is to hold on to a rattlesnake by the tail, as it bites you over and over again.  Why do we hold on to resentment so strongly?  We like to feel the pride of having been wronged.  You see it in between – or in! – the lines of countless narratives where person ‘A’ documents, recalls, or makes passing reference to group/workplace/church/family/person ‘B’ did something to them.  The subtext is often, ‘Poor me.  Poor innocent me, having to endure the senseless actions of ‘B’…”

Make no mistake.  The AA Big Book does not suggest that people to not wrong us.  They do!  People ignore us, pull out in front of us, shame us, exclude us, injure us, etc.  They really do.  The point is that when we hold on to resentment, we keep re-injuring ourselves.  Not only that, we miss out on (or avoid, or distract ourselves from) seeing any part we played in our misfortunes, even if they were minor compared to the others’ actions.

This brings us, second, to the negative relationship that Resentment has with Repentance.  12 Step Recovery, as the Serenity Prayer reminds us, teaches us again and again, to forget the things (most of all people!) we ‘cannot change’, and focus on the things (and the only person!) we ‘can’.  We must ‘clean our side of the street’, and stop pointing the finger at others, however wrong they are or were.  The only question that will actually change anyone, is “What did I do wrong?”  “But they were awful!  They hurt me!”  “Yes, but what could I have done differently?”

It turns out that this is a huge theme in Christian Scripture, even if the language may be different.  We could say at the ‘justice’ level of “eye for an eye”, resulting in everyone trying to make things ‘fair’ by injuring others just as they’ve been injured.  ‘Injure thy neighbour as they have injured you…’  How awful!  But Scripture takes us forward to ‘mercy’ and ‘grace’.  We ‘write off’ others wrongs, as God writes ours off.  Grace does not mean being naive or passive.  Grace does not mean that we let others keep harming us.  Grace does not mean we stay in the group, marriage, workplace, church, partnership, club, etc.  But grace means letting go of resentment.  And letting go of resentment means letting go of my sense of my ‘right’ to be angry at them.  And once I’ve let go of my anger at the other, maybe, just maybe, I can have the sanity and clarity to focus on what I can, and maybe need to, change about me.  Maybe I’ll be able to repent.

less power

Step one rings the bell of utter powerlessness over our addictive behaviour.  But the implications of this one word go much wider…

As Gerald G. May suggests in Addiction and Grace, our fundamental problem is that we try to be all-powerful (omnipotent!) rulers over ‘our’ worlds.  Some of us do this in direct and aggressive ways, such as shouting or physical manipulation.  Others do this by indirect and passive-aggressive means, such as calm argument or emotional manipulation.  Whether we are obvious about it or not, we try to exert power and control over not just our own lives (‘the things I can’ change), but also over the lives of others, or the circumstances and conditions around us (‘the things I cannot change’).  Bill Wilson, in the AA Big Book suggests the same; that we try to run the ‘whole show’.  We feel entitled to having things go a certain way, and when things don’t turn out as we think they should, we resort to whatever drug of choice we have to medicate our resentment.  Even when things do go our way, we can grow restless and irritable, feeling that we deserve even more!  So we turn to the drug even when things are going well!

It’s a deep problem, lying deep in our souls, but recovery, as enshrined in the 12 steps and the Serenity prayer, teaches us the even deeper solution.  To ‘let go, and let God’ run the universe.  Scripture is permeated with God reminding us “I am the Lord”.   In 12-step fellowships, members are left to discern their own understandings of ‘God’; however, the non-negotiable principle is that ‘God’ cannot be ‘you’!

Yes, we are powerless over addictive behaviour.  And, the solution is to grab at less power.

resentment and acceptance

Of all the points at which 12-step spirituality coheres with Christian spirituality, it has to be on resentment most of all.

As I’ve had to learn painfully, I wasted so much time seeding resentment in a thousand forms.  Far too much of whatever intellectual resources I have, it seems, was wasted on finding fault with just about anyone I could.  To make it worse, I was committed to being ‘nice’ about the ways I would disagree with people.  Not passive, not aggressive – but yes, passive aggressive.  Whether traffic, theology, or kitchen maintenance, I would rarely let a point slide.

Gerald May, in his book Addiction and Grace, understands addiction as effectively stemming from when our resentment for a person, system, institution or principle seethes and swells until we finally reject or at least escape it.  If ‘it/they/them/that’ will not bow to my control, then we will simply find something/someone else that will.

Steps 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10 – along with the serenity prayer, express the reality that we can only change ourselves.  We can only clean our side of the street.  We can only (seek to) make right the things that we have done.

The serenity prayer in popular form is a condensed version of the following ‘long form’ of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr.  It expresses acceptance as clearly as I can imagine:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.

deception and awareness

One of the most common and most tragic features of addiction is self-deception.  It is the opposite of self-awareness.

Deception

Paul writes in Romans 2 about the way the consciences of the Gentiles both “accuse” and “excuse” themselves.  This is what we all do.  Addicts, however, notoriously distort both the accusation or excusing of self.  When we accuse ourselves, we typically do so with a vengeance.  Going way beyond appropriate taking of responsibility for our actions, we heap huge doses of condemnation, hatred, insults and all kinds of negative self-talk onto ourselves.  This accusation kills self-esteem, and heaps on the shame and isolation.

Likewise, when we excuse ourselves, we typically do so to the extreme.  Circumnavigating any healthy focus on ourselves, we obsessively focus on anything but us: the conditions, that situation, what they did or said (or didn’t say or do), etc.  This excusing blocks us from seeing our part in our problems, and therefore keeps us from doing anything constructive about it.  Like a pendulum, we swing from being ‘innocent’ to being a ‘monster’; and back and forth…

Awareness

Paul’s argument in Romans begins with an extended (and deliberately exaggerated) critique of stereo-typically negative Gentile behaviour in chapter 1.  In doing so, he gets the Jewish readers on his side, pumping their fists in self-justifying, self-righteous fervour.  But then he pulls the rug out from under them as he turns the corner into chapter 2, boldly claiming that the Jew is just as bad as the Gentile.  Paul’s goal is for the Jew (and Gentile) to have self-awareness.  Nathan did a similar thing with David in 2 Samuel 12: he told him a story about a hypothetical person’s harmful behaviour, and then confronted him with the charge that he had done the same thing.  Finally, Jesus talked famously about the need to focus first on the ‘log’ in our own eye, before we worry about the ‘speck’ in anyone else’s eye.  Interestingly, and with stark imagery, he says that when we remove the ‘log’ in our own eye, we can “see clearly”, or in other words, be self-aware.

As the AA big book suggests, resentment is the “number one offender”.  We get so busy feeling burned up at all the wrong things other people do, we fail to look at ourselves and “change the things I can”, as the Serenity Prayer reminds us.  Until we surrender our pride and become willing to see our faults, defects and sins, we will not see them.  We will continue to resist the advice and feedback from others, and continue to suppress the signs that bubble to the surface of our awareness.

Lest this post be overly filled with ‘we’ statements and devoid of ‘I’ language, let me close by affirming that I can only say the above because, like so many in recovery, I’ve had to  face up to my own behaviour, and I’ve known first hand the humbling and liberating effect of working these spiritual and biblical principles.