In soliciting blog topics today, I was asked whether I have a mantra. I realized, I’m not even sure what a mantra is, in the true denotative sense. So I looked it up. Originally, it was a Hindu word or syllable, chanted as an invocation or prayer. In the vernacular in English, it is simply a word or phrase, often repeated, often as a truism. In the former sense, of course, I have no mantras that I use, though I suppose I did utter a few during my yoga practice which has fallen by the wayside during the clement weather. But I felt silly about it, and didn’t connect with any mantra in a meaningful way.
In the latter case, though, AA is full of mantras. Little aphorisms which help us focus on the right way to do things throughout the day. “Do the next right thing.” “First things first.” “Easy does it.” We have a lot of these that remind us how we need to think about our condition and our circumstances to avoid putting ourselves in a position where a drink seems like a good idea. Simple, straightforward, daily progress. In fact, one of my favorite of these mantras, which comes from chapter five in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, is, “Progress not perfection.” I will never be perfect. But I can take three steps forward for every two steps back.
One of my other favorites would probably be a little too long to qualify as a mantra, but I use it almost daily: “I got where I am by doing the things I didn’t want to do.” I have a really nice life right now. Sure, my future is uncertain. I wish I had one of those jobs that didn’t depend on luck. Where I could just show up, do my job, and be assured that I would have a job as long as I did it well. But I don’t. But in general, I have a great life. I do science. I do engineering. I have great colleagues. I have a home and a yard and a tiny parrot.
But I couldn’t have those things while I do what I want to do. Because what I want to do, naturally, is to drink every day, from about 2 hours after I get up until I pass out, which will generally by about 14 hours later. That’s not exactly conducive to living a good, useful, healthy, happy life. That’s what I mean when I say I was a suicide drunk. I drink in a way that precludes me from being able to do anything else.
And in general, left to my own devices, I’m lazy. I would rather watch TV than study. I’d rather read in the bathtub than sort through data. I’d rather sit on my sofa than go running. I’d rather drink than live. I keep a slow, quiet, anti-social, inebriated life when I do what I want to do, in the moment. So how did I get this wonderful life that I have? By doing the things that I didn’t want to do.
For a long time in my life, I was good at that. I studied in high school and college. I worked hard at after school jobs. I had a good work ethic for a long time. But after I started drinking, around the time I was 22, I became more complacent. It took several years for my drinking to become truly disruptive to my life. But once it did, it was extremely difficult for me to force myself to do anything productive.
So, the first thing I had to do, which I didn’t want to do, was stop drinking. Don’t get me wrong. I deeply wanted to stop drinking. But I did not want to stop drinking. I wanted to put alcohol into my body. I just didn’t want to suffer any of the consequences I suffer when I do that. Sadly, that’s not an option for me. If alcohol didn’t make me useless, indolent, sick, aggressive, isolating, anti-social, dangerous, self-righteous and indignant, I’d still drink. I like drinking. I like the effects produced by alcohol. Because I’m an alcoholic.
But I don’t have to suffer alcoholic misery. Because I know how to do the things I don’t want to do. And as time goes by, I find myself wanting them more and more. But I’m still lazy. And so I repeat to myself: “I got where I am by doing the things I didn’t want to do.” And that musters the energy to run in the 100 degree heat. Or step up for a session of madwriting. And I go forward. My grants go out. My papers get submitted. Life moves forward.