Getting What We Want.
At my men’s meeting last night, the topic of discussion was “not getting what we want.” Alcoholics in general (though not universally), and me included, are great big giant babies. We want what we want when we want it and we throw tantrums when we don’t get it. We manipulate, lie, cheat, steal, and most importantly we rationalize in order to get the things we want. We can find almost any self-serving reason that justifies taking what we desire, with little or no thought to how that impacts other people. Or worse, despite having thought very carefully, and having a thorough understanding, about how it hurts other people.
I have myriad examples of this in my own past, of course. From taking the last piece of pizza to deplorably unchivalrous behavior towards women to neglect of my family to finally being willing to let everything burn down as long as it meant I could have one more glass of bourbon. We alcoholics are wretchedly selfish. And it’s a chicken-egg problem to determine, for most of us, if the selfishness preceded the alcohol, or the alcohol drives the selfishness.
Not me. My first words were: “NO! MINE!”*
And so I spent most of my life, especially my 20s and early 30s, being an entitled, privileged, drunken little shit. On the outside. On the inside, I was ashamed, depressed, and took degrading pleasure in hating myself. That was my internal schism: vacillating from disgrace to vainglory. Nowhere was there anything like humility; I had no sense of where I belonged and what my place in the world was, where I could contribute and also be happy with the things I received from others.
When I sobered up, I slowly and painfully learned, with plenty of mis-steps and deliberate asides, to accept that sometimes I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, and that that’s ok. Not everyone is going to like me. People who disagree with me are not necessarily stupid or uneducated. Just as I am not required to adopt anyone else’s agenda, nor are they required to adopt mine. I might want people to agree with me and see the world as I do. I’m not always (hell, not often) going to get it. That’s ok.
And so, for us alcoholics, not getting what we want can feel dangerous, and we can use it as an excuse to drink. That’s why in early sobriety, we spend so much time talking about surrendering our will to a higher power. Our will tends to get us drunk and evicted and imprisoned and dead. But when we learn to surrender our will either to a concept of God, or to some other higher power, or whatever (I’ve heard many times: “The only thing you really need to know about God is: you ain’t it.”), we find that we don’t need to drink over things that don’t go our way. Because that’s just life. And acceptance of life as it is, in all its baffling majesty, is the first step toward the kind of serenity that finally quells the riot of shame and ego driving us to destruction.
But lurking on the other side of this is a different danger. In sobriety, for so many of us, things start to go really well. When we work on our emotions, our behaviors, and our relationships, we start to find that good things happen for us. We get good jobs. We find romance. We earn the respect of our peers. We become, in short, useful and productive members of society.
Because we are who we are, at our cores, we can be very tempted to take credit for this. I look around at my life: great position with a renowned institution; brilliant and beautiful girlfriend; community of people who (mostly seem to) respect me. Haven’t I worked hard for these things? Haven’t I invested time and effort and energy and sweat in achieving the things in this life that I’ve wanted? Of course I have. But have I earned these things? Maybe. Do I deserve them? I don’t know.
Am I entitled to them? Absolutely not.
But there is the deadly end of the logic. Even in sobriety, where years of evidence has taught me that I am entitled to nothing, where I have watched better men than I am assume title to their desires and stumble and burn and drink and die, where I know that my entitlement only leads me to desolate bar stools and bleeding in bathtubs, even here I am tempted by my ego to claim right to my whim. And it is a small set of steps from “I worked for this” to “I earned this” to “I deserve this” to “I’m entitled to this”. And that’s where I lose it.
More dangerous still is that I am occasionally tempted to apply that same progression to my sobriety. To see it as something that I did, that I earned, and that I’m in control of. Stepping down that path leads pretty inevitably to misery, likely to drunkenness. I am not sober because I won the battle with alcohol. I am sober because I lost it. I didn’t earn sobriety. I have worked hard, yes. But all I have achieved is a reprieve for today.
Today, I don’t drink. Today, I am comfortable and happy in my sobriety. Today, I must do the things to maintain the condition I’ve cultivated, that allows me to face today without intoxication. I must reject my sense of entitlement, recognize my many fortunes, and embrace the uncertainty in the world. All I can do is try to give the best I have today. And if I do that, then I probably won’t feel the need to drink tomorrow either.
*This, sadly, is true. If you believe my mother.