Not often have I used this space as a kind of open journal, but this week is going to be a bit different. My program of recovery tells me I must be rigorously honest, and some of my blog-readers have suggested that I might occasionally share more of my own story and struggles here, and so taking those two suggestions together, I want to be candid about one of my worst character defects: self-seriousness, and about what the Twelve Steps and the Christian Faith have to say about that.
So. Lately I have been thinking a lot about happiness, cheerfulness and joyfulness. Not because I always, or even usually, exhibit those traits in my attitude. On the contrary, as I have recently been reminded in multiple ways and by multiple people, my demeanor on a daily basis is often one of intensity, even heaviness. It is as if my whole network of family, friends and co-workers has joined their voices in stereo, even surround-sound, to deliver the message: “Kelly, lighten up. You too often come across as dark and brooding, and in those times you can bring down everyone around you, and even darken our days by your negative energy.” Ouch. Big ouch. But sometimes the truth hurts, and I have no doubt that all of these messengers are people who love and care about me, and that their motive in expressing themselves is one of concern for me. So I have to take this message to heart (I was going to say “take this message seriously,” but since seriousness seems to be the problem here, I’ll go with “to heart”).
Now, I have occasionally been told in years past that I can come across as intense and self-serious, but I always managed to discount these reports, through various kinds of rationalization and denial: “well, I’m just kind of an intense and focused guy,” or, “that’s just my nature,” or, worst of all, “but my life is hard, don’t they know….” And, truth be told, when I received the recent round of hard truth from those who know me well, I again wanted to respond with explanations and excuses: “well, I don’t feel well and my body is sick” (true, but no excuse); “I’m carrying a heavy load professionally, trying to fight for justice for these survivors of child abuse” (at least partially true, but no excuse); “but I am so busy and overwhelmed I don’t have time to relax and lighten up” (simply not true); and, lamest of all, “well, you know I get down and depressed during the long and dark winter months” (well, so what—join the club of everyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest).
And even though in the last few weeks as the truth has been handed to me, I initially wanted to make these excuses, I didn’t. I listened, and I heard hard truth coming my way. Perhaps because I have been working a program of recovery consistently for nearly twenty years now, and am gradually learning that my job in life is to help others and make their lives better, I was able to hear my loved ones this time in a way I haven’t before. Especially when I realized that my demeanor and behavior was actually making life harder for some of the people I love the most, I had to stop and take a hard look at myself, and confess that I was dead wrong and I must change. I mean, it is one thing if I want to drive myself into the ground with brooding intensity and self-important busyness: that is short-sighted and sinful, for sure, but it really is my business, or so I always told myself. But this time, I saw a different side of all this—I sometimes actually make it harder for those around me to enjoy their lives: in short, I hurt them. And if there is one thing I know from the Twelve Step program I follow, and from my faith, it is that I no longer get to live my life in such a way that hurts other people, no matter what.
Thus it is that I have been thinking a lot lately about happiness, cheerfulness and lightness of heart. And I have committed myself to change, to become simply a happier person. So I have been reading about the link between habitual worry and fear and negative energy, about how to change my thinking, about how to put on the habit of happiness. I have even been carrying around a little notebook, at the suggestion of one of the books I am reading, in order to observe my own thoughts, moods and behaviors, and to catch them as they arise, and redirect them. And, maybe most centrally, I have been thinking about what the Twelve Step programs and the Christian Faith have to say about all this.
“We have been speaking to you of serious, sometimes tragic things. We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren’t a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.” Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, page 132.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4.4-7.
“We are like passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain’s table. Unlike the feelings of the ship’s passengers, however, our joy in escape does not subside as we go our individual ways.” Big Book of AA, page 17.
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isaiah 35.10.
Of course, there are dozens more quotations from both the Big Book and the Scriptures about the joy and happiness of being saved. These are just some of the ones that I have tried to take to heart of late.
In a way it is absurd that I should even have to engage in such an intentional process simply and solely to lighten up. I have, after all, so much to be grateful for, so many blessings in my life: good health (temporary problems notwithstanding), terrific family and friends who love me fiercely, meaningful work, faith, sobriety and recovery, and on and on it goes. But somewhere along the way in my life—I suspect it really started in adolescence, during the years in my alcoholic family where I felt helpless and overwhelmed by the disease, though I of course did not then understand it—I became deeply introspective and sad, and that demeanor became something of a habit. And we know what happens to habits unchecked over the years: they become more and more deeply ingrained, unless and until we make a decision to shed them, and to don a new habit.
And so, I am the early stages of putting on a new habit, a habit of lightness and happiness, of gratitude and joy. I often recall the words of my great lifetime friend Steve Hayward—one of the most naturally ebullient and happy men I know—that he realized very early on in his life as a follower of Christ that “we have a Christian duty to be happy.” It struck me as strange at the time that Steve would link the words “duty” and “happy” in the same sentence. But I now know what he meant. It is, indeed, our happy duty—it is my happy duty—to lighten up, to insist on enjoying life. I have no doubt that in the weeks, months and years ahead, I will regress. We are, after all, talking about a lifelong pattern here, and my default mode may always tend toward the more serious side. But both the Twelve Steps and the Christian Faith teach me that I am not stuck in any default pattern. I am free to change, and by the Grace of God and the teachings of my two beloved Fellowships, I will change.
Have a happy day. I aim to.