A Gentle Warning to the Reader

One thing that has really held me back in the writing of this blog is a concern, based on regretful experience, that if I just relax and be myself, talk about my life and my thoughts, it will be too much for some. So this is a general “trigger warning.” I am likely to talk about some life experiences that could reopen old wounds. I might shock people by revealing bitter truths in blunt language, reminding them of their own dark past or unhealed hurts. Others may find my self-revelations to be in bad tasted, or suspect me of exposing myself to get attention or to attract readers through morbid curiosity.

Let this post serve as notice: I don’t really want readers. Not yet. Maybe someday. Right now I am not very good at this. I hope I don’t accidentally make someone’s problems worse by saying the wrong thing. So, reader, please feel free to stop reading a post at any time should you feel that it is too much for you right now. Perhaps avoid this blog entirely if you feel fragile or are not up to it. This is a tough time for everyone. I need to write for my own sanity. I don’t know if anything I have to say at this point will be of value to anyone, now or later. Thank you for your forbearance.

Annual Dreary Rehash

Beginning in January 1985 a remarkable series of events occurred that eventually led to my becoming sober on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1985. I had scarcely drawn a sober breath since the preceding August, and by February was bouncing around in a haze acting from mostly unconscious motives, making a shambles of my life. The crazy, serendipitous events of that period will provide material for many future posts, but for now I will say that in my darkest moments rays of light were beginning to pierce the veil. By the time I got sober my memories of those last two months of my drinking were a jumble. Vivid images of people and places and of my own actions and words haunted me, but their connection to each other was incoherent. Of course, in working a program of recovery I had to do my best to make a thorough review for the purposes of self-evaluation and accountability. Nevertheless, every year for the past thirty-four years I find myself in a bit of a funk during this time of year as the memories resurface unbidden. Every year I make new connections between the events and have new insights into myself. I see more clearly the buried motives that fueled my actions. Each year I find myself able to forgive myself a little more, to understand the pain I was masking and running from, and to feel ever more grateful for the deliverance I received. And each year when the anniversary of my sobriety arrives accompanied by the emergence of Spring, I breathe a sigh of relief. Reliving those dark times is never pleasant, but I have no choice in it. The memories come as surely as the snows of Winter.

It Is Time

A few months ago a friend asked me if I had been blogging much lately. The answer was no. She said, “Why not?” I said that the times are perilous, and were I to write honestly about has been on my mind it might upset people. I then proceeded to rant for a while, to her bemusement.

A few weeks ago I heard an eighties tune playing on the radio, and for a few minutes I was viewing today through the eyes of my twenty-five-year-old self. I felt nostalgic for a time long gone, and suddenly realized that I am now that “old guy” who misses how the world used to be. Not that I don’t see and appreciate the countless ways in which things are better now. But I am aware that more of my lifespan lies in the past than in the future, and I think it is time to begin sharing from my direct experience so that my younger family and friends can benefit from a record of what I have lived and learned. That has always been the ultimate purpose of this blog.

Moving forward from here, I would like these posts to be less professorial and more personal. I am an “applied philosopher,” so my stories will either serve to illustrate philosophical principles and methods, or the philosophical methods will help make sense of the stories. My trepidation is lessened by the knowledge that my readers are few and, so far, friendly. So, here goes!

“Happiness” Is an Art

“Most people are about as happy as they choose to be,” said Abraham Lincoln. The word “happy” comes from the old Norse root “hap,” which just means “luck” or “chance.” To be happy, in the crudest sense, is simply to be having a string of good luck: things are going well. But in our time it seems to have a deeper, more metaphysical sense, indicating a generalized sense of wellbeing or contentment. Psychologists came to equate this with being “well-adjusted.” Most religions hold out the promise of happiness as an end state to be achieved by the virtuous, a reward.

How one quantifies this depends on the time frame in question: momentary versus ultimate happiness. While it is impossible to imagine happiness existing without some associated feelings of happiness, mere feelings are not enough for most people. Artificial sensations of joy, contentment, and release can be created by drugs, for example, but when the effects wear off a gnawing feeling of emptiness and remorse can ensue. While Mortimer J. Adler, in his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, makes a reasonable argument for the notion that true happiness is arriving at one’s deathbed with a sense of satisfaction at a life well-lived, it is hard to imagine such a scenario without there having been many happy moments leading up to it.

For what I feel is the best treatment of this subject, I recommend the book The Art of Happinessby His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. This useful book shows how achieving happiness is a skill to be developed over a lifetime, with implications far beyond the individual.

The Wisdom Prayer

Before I continue describing the power dynamics at play in the formation and evolution of language games, let’s take a break and just play one. Without any meta-analysis of the language game I am playing here (“sharing experiences of recovery”) I will just “make a move.”

My father joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1963, when I was two years old. We frequently recited the famous “Serenity Prayer” at the dinner table as I was growing up. Later, when I was twenty-three, I had the “honor” of following his footsteps on a path to recovery of my own. While supplicatory prayer to a deity is no longer part of my daily spiritual routine, I must have said the Serenity Prayer countless times in the first decades of my sobriety. Its most common (short) form is as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For understanding the nuances it helps to see a slightly longer version (also by Niebuhr) which reads:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I have decided that calling it “The Serenity Prayer” is a big mistake: it gives the impression that “serenity” is the main thing being asked for when in fact the crucial element is wisdom. When I know for a fact that something cannot be changed, it is easy to accept it. Likewise, when I am certain that my effort to change something will be rewarded with success, I jump right in without even considering the need for “courage.” But real agony sets in when I just don’t know whether I must accept something or I should work to change it.

And some of the worst suffering in my life has been when I was absolutely certain I couldn’t change something so I prayed and prayed for the serenity to accept it, to no avail. Meditation, formal rituals of surrender, “moving on” to other concerns: nothing worked. I always found myself back in the familiar anguished state of bewilderment, frustration, and despair. When one day it dawned on me that I might be wrong, I found the biggest obstacle to changing my view was the amount of energy I had invested in explaining to myself why I had no choice in the matter. For example, I had dropped out of college in 1983, about two thirds of the way through a B.S. in chemistry. I had long since moved on and made a decent career as an I.T. guy. I was working way more than forty hours per week; I had kids and a mortgage. Surely it was too late for the self-indulgence of going back to college? But the negative effects on my self-esteem took a toll over the years. Even I got tired of hearing my excuses and negative storytelling about how I had missed my chance. Knowing the difference between something that can be changed and something that can’t is wisdom, and it is what I needed.

The same thing applies to situations where I fought for years to change something, unwilling to accept that it was simply never going to happen. Serenity is great. Courage is great. But only wisdom can make the difference that ends suffering.