It don’t take much to see what is wrong with a thing, but it takes some good eyesight to come up with what to do about it.
Let’s get out of the problem and into the solution.
–Twelve Step Slogan
Deliver us, O Lord, from the presumption of coming to this Thy table for pardon only and not for renewal, for solace only and not for strength….
–Anglican Book of Common Prayer
Recently I was in a meeting of recovering alcoholics where, one after another, people talked about what was going on in their lives, especially about what they were struggling with. One man talked about his fear around his rapidly expanding business, about how he is afraid the growth and success won’t last, about how he is afraid to set boundaries with his employees, lest some of the more talented ones might leave, about how he tosses and turns at night worrying, worrying. Another person talked about how she is stuck in a depressive funk, how she cannot get up in the morning, she cannot get motivated to get much done, about the hopelessness she feels about her life. Another talked about his ongoing battles with his ex-spouse, and about how unfair the divorce courts are. And on and on it went. Now, remember that no one comes into a Twelve Step fellowship on a winning streak. People come to AA, or NA, or GA, or any of the other programs because their lives are falling apart, because they are in trouble with the law, or with their families, or because their health is failing because they have abused their bodies for so long, or whatever else is the crisis of the day. So it’s no surprise that there are always plenty of people to talk about the tough stuff.
Great. Glad to hear that people can talk freely about what is really going on, and can forget about looking good in front of peers. I have previously written in this blog about the importance—for Twelve-Steppers and for Christians—of being able to let go of the “look good” and get real with others about our struggles. “You can’t at the same time save your ass and save your face” is how my brothers in recovery say it with their typical light touch.
But about halfway through this recent meeting, as people were going on and on about the hard parts of their lives, one old timer, who has seen more than his share of heartache and of life’s battles, finally thundered out: “Shit. I must be in the wrong place. I thought I was at a Twelve-Step meeting: you know, a place where we come to get answers to our problems, to get a design for living that really works, to get a step-by-step guide through our problems into the sunlight of the Spirit, so that we can be happy, joyous and free and be of service to others. But I guess I must’ve stumbled into some sort of group therapy where the goal is to see who is the most miserable.” Silence. The kind of silence that reverberates when the truth has just been spoken, and found a home.
Now I totally get that there is a necessary place and time for just talking it out, for knowing that I am safe in this place and with these people to admit my darkest secrets, to confess that I am afraid, that I don’t know how, that I am in pain. I have written about this over and over again as one of the most powerful things that make the Twelve-Step programs work, one of the things that, as I have suggested, the Christian churches need to relearn: one of the lessons that Christians can learn from our friends the addicts.
But just as important as having a place to go to talk about the problems is having a place to go where we will be encouraged to live into the solutions. The old geezer is in one sense right: God wants us to be happy, joyous and free, so that we can be of service to others and we can enjoy the incredible gifts He has given us.
Or, as the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it, in a prayer read just after Holy Communion: “Deliver us, O Lord, from the presumption of coming to this Thy table for pardon only and not for renewal, for solace only and not for strength….”
Or, as we say in my daytime job (working with those who have been sexually abused as children), “we want to help you go from being a victim to being a survivor to being a thriver. We don’t want you to stay stuck; there are no answers there.”
But it takes a lot of effort, a lot of footwork, tremendous lift-off energy, to get out of the stuck places, to leave what is familiar, to begin to practice new habits. It is often so much easier to simply wallow in our own self-pity.
And so it is that both the Twelve-Step programs and the basic message of the Gospel is the same: there is a way out, a better life, a Pearl of Great Price, waiting for you. But the way is hard, and narrow, and surrounded with demons and dragons. There are crosses and crucifixions involved. Often it is not pretty. And only you can decide if you want to live differently, if you are willing to do the hard work, the footwork, one step at a time, one day at a time. Only you can decide whether you want to stay stuck in the problem or to live in the solution. Living in the solution is infinitely better, richer, more joyous and free. But it is harder; for sure, it is harder.
Put differently, as CS Lewis once said, “ships are safest when in harbor; but that is not what ships are built for.”