And the Wisdom to Know the Difference
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The serenity prayer, composed by famous 20th century liberal Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is a mainstay of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. This prayer has been used ritually to open or close meetings for decades. So many people know this simple three line prayer. It is not uncommon for simple pieces like this to be embellished over time and amplified in many ways. Such a simple prayer says so much, it ought to have more words; it ought to take longer to say it. But there it is:
God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
I know it by heart. God help me to have the qualities I need to be in control of my life again. When I was a psychology student in college I remember being fascinated by the section in personality studies about the difference between an internal vs. an external locus of control. What part of the problem do you have control over and what part do you not have control over? And do you have a realistic perspective on that or do you blame others for what is clearly within your control? Or do you blame yourself for things that are really beyond your control? God grant me the wisdom to know the difference. Knowing that prayer as I did, I thought the conversation about internal vs. external loci control was so very familiar.
I grew up in an alcoholic home and by the time I was an older teen, my father, older brother and one of my two older sisters were all recovering alcoholics. I am very fluent with the vocabulary of AA and NA. Easy Does It. One Day at a Time. Keep It Simple, Stupid. All these sayings were batted around our house during the second half of my teenage years. We would occasionally talk about the alcoholism like it was a third party in the room, an entity with whom we must deal with. “That was the disease in him,” we might say. Or, “That was the alcohol talking.” We were trying to sort out what part of the horrible things we’d been through were things we needed to seek forgiveness for and what part were beyond our control that we needed only to acknowledge.
One of the steps in the AA process, one of the 12-steps is to take a fearless moral inventory; to really look at yourself and your history with bare honesty. In that inventory, the recovering alcoholic needs to weigh all the painful and shameful truths and decide: is this something that I did for which I need to make amends? And while it is at some points along the way helpful to divide out a portion of blame for the influence of the drug or the alcohol, ultimately each addict knows that the buck stops with the person.
But addiction is one of those tricky places when we are talking about control. One of the definitions of addiction is that you’ve lost your self-control over the craving and addiction. We Unitarian Universalists prize our capacity to choose good over evil. Here we speak highly of the freedom we have to follow our conscience and to do what we know is right. But this gets muddy when speaking of addiction because addiction is a self-destruction that feeds on itself. As Unitarian Universalists we seek to be whole people, but there is no doubt that one aspect we lift high is the use of reason. Some still call us the rational religion. Yet addiction is not rational. Addiction is often about rationalizing! But it is not rational.
Thus, the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous begins with a leap of faith, a religious conversion experience. The basic outline of the story – and this works for any addiction: drinking, smoking, drug abuse, sex-addiction, over-eating … all of it – the basic outline is that when the addict hits rock bottom they realize they can’t manage it or hide it or deal with it any more. Step one says: we admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Step two is: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. And Step three is: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Steps 4 – 10 focus on that fearless moral inventory I mentioned earlier and the process of confession, forgiveness, and atonement with God and with other people. Step11 is for prayer and discernment while 12 is about witnessing to others about our “spiritual awakening.” But steps 1-3 outline the spiritual awakening – the conversion experience.
As you might guess, there have been many non-theistic versions of the 12-step program that have arisen over the years. For many atheists, agnostics, and humanists it is enough to do the program, work through the steps using what you can and ignoring the rest. But others just cannot work with what feels to them like a thinly masked Christian process of conversion and redemption. Therefore there have grown up around AA several alternatives ranging in theology. And interesting twist to the AA model is a Buddhist take on recovery that mixes the twelve steps with the four noble truths and the eightfold path.
The first noble truth of Buddhism says that all life is suffering. The first step in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous says that our lives have become unmanageable and out of control; that we are suffering. The second noble truth of Buddhism says that the root of our suffering is attachment, our seemingly insatiable craving and desire; our grasping after something we think will give us pleasure but ultimately does not. And the third noble truth tells us that there is a way out of suffering; it is possible to end the craving and grasping. The second step in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous says that there is a higher power in our lives that can lead us out of the addiction and put our lives back into control. The third step is the declaration that we have made a commitment to turn our lives over to the source of this health; that we have decided to turn our selves over to that which can stop the suffering and return us to sanity. The fourth noble truth outlines the decision to follow the path of liberation, to take refuge in the wisdom and community of the eightfold path.
The author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Sogyal Rinpoche) writes: “Basically, the same methods that work against attachment are effective against addiction, but one needs to realize that mental transformation via meditation and reflection can be effective, but it is not an instant-solution.”
The process of recovery, of regaining control of your life that has been devastated by addiction, is to step into a process that is both psychological and spiritual. It doesn’t need to be the traditional AA model – but the basic experience of surrendering your out-of-control life over to a power greater than your own is at the root of all of it. (For more on that thought, skim through the sermon I delivered last month on the paradox of surrender.)
But getting back to the psychological and spiritual mixture of addiction, let me finish the quote from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Sogyal Rinpoche). “We need to realize that addiction is usually a result of underlying problems/frustrations; it is no secret that addiction and depression often go hand in hand, so apart from the physical addiction there is usually a lot of healing needed. …there is usually an underlying frustration or problem we try to forget by absorbing ourselves in something else.”
And this is the point when my sermon is not written only for those who are living with addiction in their lives or in their families. We all have frustrations and problems in life. For addicts the addiction is a problem but it is also a mask. The self-destructive behavior is a cover for the deeper pain the person does not want to really deal with.
There is an interesting connection from the philosophy and history of Alcoholics Anonymous and Psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung was the one who broadened Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis approach through interpreting emotional disturbances through a spiritual and archetypal perspective. Jung claimed, for example, that most emotional problems were rooted in a person’s attempts to find personal and spiritual wholeness. M. Scott Peck tells the story in his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled.
(I have taken this telling of the story from a sermon by UU colleague Mark Worth from 2000 entitled “Thirsting for Wholeness.”)
Jung had a patient back in the 1920s, an alcoholic man who after about a year of therapy had made no progress. Finally Jung threw up his hands and said to him, “Listen, you’re just wasting your money with me. I don’t know how to help you. I can’t help you.” And the man asked, “Is there no hope for me then? Is there nothing you can suggest?” And Jung said, “The only thing I can suggest is that you might seek a religious conversion. I’ve heard reports of a few people who underwent religious conversions and stopped drinking. It makes a kind of sense to me.”
The man took Jung at his word and went out seeking a religious conversion. After about six years he had a religious conversion and stopped drinking. He introduced the idea to an alcoholic friend, Ebby. Ebby also had a religious conversion, and stopped drinking. Not long after that, Ebby dropped in one night to see his old drinking buddy, Bill W. Bill W. said, “Hey, Ebby, have a drink.” But Ebby said, “I don’t drink anymore.” Bill W. said, “That’s impossible. You’re a hopeless alcoholic, just like me.” So Ebby told the story of how he had met a man who was a patient of Jung’s who had undergone a religious conversion and stopped drinking, and how he had done the same. Bill W. thought it was a good idea. Along with his friend, Dr. Bob S., Bill W. decided that the way to fight alcoholism was through a religious conversion and in the company of other alcoholics, who shared “their experience, strength and hope” with one another so that they could stay sober and save each other’s lives. Together Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. founded Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio in 1935.
About twenty years later, once it had really gotten off the ground, Bill W. wrote to Jung to tell him about the role that he had inadvertently played in the founding of AA. And Jung wrote him back a fascinating letter. Jung said he was glad to hear that his patient had done well, and he was glad to have played some small role in the founding of AA. And he was particularly glad to get the letter from Bill W. because, while there were not many people he could talk to about these ideas, it had occurred to him that it was perhaps no accident that we traditionally referred to alcoholic drinks as spirits. Perhaps alcoholics were people who had a greater thirst for the spirit than others, and perhaps alcoholism was a spiritual disorder, or better yet, a spiritual condition.
According to Jung then, some people feel a particular spiritual hunger or craving for wholeness that is unmet. Following that line of thought Tom Brady Jr., in his book Thirsting for Wholeness, contends that some people need life to be more than just what is found on the surface. “These are the thirsty ones,” He writes. “The thirst they feel is not physical, it is spiritual. It is an inner craving for the wholeness that comes through union with others and with God.” Among the thirsty ones we find poets, musicians, artists, philosophers, writers, religious thinkers and mystics – and addicts. Brady, echoing Jung, says that all addictions have their root in spiritual thirst.
You may have just such a thirst. You’re not alone. It doesn’t mean you’re an addict or a mystic – only that you’re attuned to that deep yearning within your soul. If things are not well in your life, if indeed you have caught yourself in that self-destructive pattern of behavior, then I encourage you to reach out for help. You’re not alone in this suffering. If you have already reached out and are recovering, I encourage you now to look again at the pain and the yearning deep within you. May God grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. And remember you are not alone.
Perhaps you’ve heard the parable wherein someone says: I was walking down the street and suddenly fell into a hole I had not seen in front of me. It took me a long time to climb out. The next day I was walking down the same street and I fell into the same hole again by mistake. The third day, I saw the hole ahead of me but I still fell into it. The fourth day I saw the hole and made plans to avoid it, but somehow fell in again anyway. The tale goes on like this until eventual after many times I learn to successfully avoid falling into the hole.
I recently heard a version of this ‘falling into the same hole again’ parable that is delightfully mixed with the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan. It goes like this:
A man was walking down the street and he fell into a deep hole. So he started shouting for help. A doctor walked by, and the man down in the hole yelled out, “Can you help me?” The doctor wrote a prescription on a piece of paper, and dropped it in the hole. Then a clergyman walked by. The man in the hole shouted, “Can you help me?” The clergyman wrote out a prayer on a piece of paper and dropped it in the hole. Finally the man’s best friend walked by, and the man in the hole said, “Can you help me?” So his best friend jumped in the hole with him. The first man said, “Why did you do that? Now we’re both in the hole.” And his friend said, “Yes, but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”
In a world without end,
May it be so.