by the Rev. Seamus Doyle, member of the Addiction Recover Ministry
Recently I was half-listening to an interview on NPR about the stress and strain of the past year on people old and young, professionals, etc. In the course of the interview, the interviewee told of a doctor who told one of his patients: “I wish I were like you folk. You don’t seem to let anything worry you, or stress you. You have a way of life that I wish more people had.”
The doctor in question was talking to a person in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step of the AA program states: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” What that means is that the alcoholic reaches a point when he or she does not know which drink is the one that will cause them to drink. In other words, the person has every good intention but, on this particular day, gets intoxicated. Some days later, he or she will have one or perhaps two drinks and stop. However, over a period of time, those days of an ability to stop are less frequent. The individual, however, has a belief from his or her early days of drinking that “I can stop anytime I want.” This was true, but it is not longer a truth. The person has become powerless over knowing which drink is the one that leads to a night of drinking.
Since the beginning of the program of AA, the Steps have been adopted by others to deal with food, smoking, and other addictions. Those who do not have addictions have utilized the 12 Steps to deal with life on life’s terms; powerless over people, places, and things.
A mother is powerless over a child from the day of conception. That new life is making changes and the mother can’t stop it. After birth, the parents, like the church and society, will use fear and guilt to attempt to control the child/teenager/young adult. They may elicit appropriate behavior but they still have no control.
Sickness is a wonderful lesson in powerlessness. Try and control bowel movements when you have had food poisoning. Will power does not. COVID-19 has been a lesson in powerlessness over that past year (and for a year to come). Where is it? Who has it? What do we do about it? How does one stay calm in a pandemic? How does one stay calm when the house is on fire? How does one stay calm when…….?
“I am powerless” God help me. With powerlessness comes the human attempt to take charge, to take control. Not drinking. Fasting. Abstinence. All sorts of behavior modification and mental gymnastics come into play to control what it is we are powerless over. In our attempt to control, our life becomes unmanageable. We overcommit or under commit; get over involved or isolate. We pray or we blame God. We go to church or we avoid it. Others are blamed for our mistakes. Eventually we have to pay the consequences for our behavior which may result in a separation or divorce; the lost of a relationship or the loss of employment.
Sooner or later, by intervention, a nod from God, or a nudge from a judge, the individual has to come to grips and admit “I am powerless. My life has become unmanageable.” Life is not fair.
There are those who understand this from birth. They take life as it comes. They know they are not in charge and so they easily step back, breathe and relax. In my forty plus years as a therapist I have talked to many individuals many of whom who have never gone to church or attended AA In conversation, I have learned that they learned either from life, or from another, that they had to find a balance in life, to set boundaries, know their limits, trust in a Higher Power, and leave the things over which they have no control alone.
This is not to say that these individuals do not have their “bad day.’ What can trigger a “bad day” is getting “too hungry, too angry, too lonely, too tired.” [STOP]. When we allow ourselves to get too________, one affects the other and, before we are aware of it, we are off-kilter and need to rebalance ourselves. Learning to have balance in our life is not always something we learn on our own. For this reason, Benedict introduced a vow of stability into his monasteries, so that one could learn about oneself by seeing themselves in the other. As a wise old person once said: “What I see and like in you, is also in me. What I see and don’t like in you is also in me and I need to deal with it.”