A man fell down a deep hole.
Shortly after, a doctor happened by.
Leaning over the edge of the hole, the doctor exclaimed, "Oh! You poor man! Here, let me help you!" And he wrote a prescription and tossed it down to the man. "That's good medicine - I hope it helps!"
A short while later a priest came along.
Leaning over the edge of the hole, the priest cried out, "Merciful Heavens! You poor man! Here, let me help you!" And he wrote down a prayer and tossed it down to the man. "That's a beautiful prayer - I have faith it will help!"
Finally, the man's friend happened by.
Leaning over the edge of the hole, the man's friend exclaimed, "Oh my god! There you are! Hang on!" and jumped down into the hole with him.
"You idiot! What did you do that for?" the man shouted. "Now we're both stuck down here!"
"Yeah," replied the man's friend, "but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."
Today I am grateful for all the friends I have -- and sponsors along the way -- who've been down there before, but knew the way out.
I met the Skateboard Pup for an early dinner.
They had been telling me about work, and how unhappy they are there now. After a long string of triumphs business had been going down, and their boss, not a strong leader, was floundering and, in their opinion, communicating poorly. In fact, their boss actually had the nerve to ask the Skateboard Pup to come out of his office and interact with/help the other people on the job! "Not interested." The Pup said, tone flat and lip curled. "Not. Fucking. Interested. I can either do my thing and try and make money for the company, or go out and babysit a bunch of... like I said, not interested." I set aside the observation that this was classic black-and-white thinking. This kind of angry, "I can either do THIS or I can do THAT. Period!" was typically just a construct we use to justify not doing the thing we don't want/are scared of doing. I also set aside -- for the moment -- the observation that when they started this job, the New Sponsee was all eager willingness, and happy to do whatever was asked of them. Now, after having been the rainmaker for a little while, the boss makes a request and it goes through the "Do I Feel Like Doing That" Filter. And thus do mighty egos from little triumphs grow. I also thought I would table for the moment the very direct observation that generally speaking, when one's boss asks you to do something within the general scope of one's job, one does it.
The burning fuse on this pile of dynamite was this last conversation with their boss, which was, they said, confusing. To me it sounded like their boss asked them to do something and they did not do it, but I believed to the Skateboard Pup it seemed that their reasons justified their defiance. (And really, children, don't they always?)
Now they felt like their boss was angry with them, or didn't like them, or had something to say to them that they weren't willing to say. I had been steadily asking questions as they were speaking, each question like placing another log on a growing fire. There was so much anger there I knew it was going to come out no matter what, so I kept asking, kept stoking, kept gently poking so we could get to the heart of it.
He wound down his list of grievances, with the sweet, familiar, triumphant ring of justifiable anger coloring this last declaration: "So I'm going to go into his office and say something like 'We need to talk. Are you angry with me? Do you have something you want to tell me?'"
As they described the imagined start to this conversation -- which of course was going to be a confrontation, if it happened, and decidedly not a "conversation" -- I flashed for a moment on the part in the Big Book where it talks about "we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate, seemingly without provocation..." and how so often we create the very problem we are trying to resolve -- I wanted to be clear on what they were saying, what was happening with them, so I looked across the table and tried to really see him, sitting there, his dinner mostly untouched. He sat across from me but he did not see me. Instead he was transported to his boss's office, his vision full of this imagined scene and as I looked at him I thought of how easy it is for us to slide into these fantasy confrontations, stoking our anger, polishing our resentment, savoring these sad, childish hero/villain scenarios.
I thought of how far this young man had come. What a privilege it had been to sponsor him for these past many months now. And I knew he would not like what I had to say next, but it was time to say what needed to be said. It was time to be his sponsor, not his dinner companion and not his friend. "What's your objective? What are you trying to accomplish with this conversation?" I asked.
They came back to themselves and looked at me as if I was stupid. "Like I said... to... to clear the air."
"Ah." I pushed a french fry around on my plate, chasing the last little bit of ketchup there. "Well, in my experience, when I'm really angry and I try to clear the air it usually doesn't get cleared. In fact..."
"What then. What do you suggest I do." As you can imagine, this was not framed as a question. It was framed as a demand. And came it out like a threat. He had made up his mind, he had his plan, and he was merely doing me the courtesy of letting me know what it was. If I was either too stupid or too rude to agree with it, well, that was my problem not his.
"In fact," I continued, unruffled, "although I don't realize it at the time, I am only telling myself I want to clear the air. What I really want is my day in court. I want to tell whomever it is that I am angry, and why I am angry, and challenge them about it."
"Really. Really." I knew the good hearted young man I had come to admire was right there inside this angry alcoholic sitting across from me now. In fact, not to get too fanciful, I could easily imagine that good hearted young man asking me to reach in and pull him out, and help him vanquish this toxic pretender. Would that the process were so direct. Or the toxic parts of ourselves vanquished so easily. "Then tell me, Mr. SponsorPants, what is the alternative? Really. What is the alternative? We had a confusing conversation and now I need to clear the air."
"I think clearing the air is always a good thing. I just can't recall a time when I've been very successful at the attempt when I've been as angry as... well, frankly, as you seem to be."
"Really. Reeeally." Each time he said it he stretched the first syllable out a little longer, and painted it with a little more sarcasm. "Well what do you suggest then, Mr. SponsorPants?" He actually said 'Mr. SponsorPants,' instead of my name. He's known about the blog and my writing for quite some time now, and fueled by rage, he seemed to savor spitting the pen name out at me. (To be fair, with all those "S's" and "P's" it really is an excellent phrase to spit at me. I couldn't have done it better myself.)
"Well, really, what I suggest is that you write an inventory, so that..."
"I don't need to write a FUCKING inventory to tell me I have a FUCKING RESENTMENT against my boss!" The busboy had approached to clear some of our plates, but thought better of interrupting and instead backed slowly away, like one might if they rounded a corner and accidentally encountered a rabid dog.
I kept my tone completely neutral. "Come on now, you know that we don't write an inventory to discover IF we are resentful, or who we're feeling resentful of."
They glowered at me across the table, face as red as a crayon. I could see their affection for me barely muzzle another stinging retort.
I felt not one iota of defensiveness or aggression. I felt deep compassion for what they were going through; the hurt and the anger, and underneath that, the fear. The obstinate digging in of heels and closing of ears, and the reflexive contempt of anything which might help, since that would contradict this beloved, deeply grooved narrative they had inside. A narrative with roots in some very old hurts.
I went on. "We write an inventory to see what our part in the resentment is. So that we can reverse engineer it and find a way to be free of it."
"Oh please," they spat "there is nothing an inventory is going to tell me that I don't already know."
"Okay," I said, my voice quiet, looking him straight in the eye, "I want you to repeat that please."
The request completely did not compute for him. "Huh?"
"Just say that again."
"Say what again?"
I quoted him without imitating his rage, "There is nothing an inventory is going to tell me that I don't already know."
"Look, Mr. SponsorPants," (now he is using my name) "I don't want to play one of your little..."
"Nope. I've earned some cooperation here. Just repeat it please."
He rolled his eyes but with considerably less heat said, "There is nothing an inventory is going to tell me that I don't already know."
"Once more please."
"There is nothing an inventory is going to tell me that I don't already know."
He looked uncomfortable now as he said it, full of neither contempt nor anger, which was most definitely the point.
"Now, let me ask you, do you really believe that?"
He looked down at the table. "Yes. No. I don't know."
"Okay. Well that's a good place to start from. We both know where the bigger issue, what this is really about maybe, is coming from."
"Yes," he said, looking back up at me. "From [Old, old childhood resentment]."
"Yup," I said. "Neither of us needed to get a degree in psychology to connect those dots. You hate -- really hate -- men you think are weak. And you think your boss is weak, and you think you are being asked to save everyone and clean up his mess and..."
"Aren't I though?" the rage was back, quick as a flash flood.
Gently I asked, "And the other part of the inventory?
He looked at me, anger and confusion flicking back and forth. Oh, it is so sweet to hold on to that anger, isn't it? Confusion won by the most slender of margins, prompting, "What 'other part'?"
I quoted what is, for me, the key to unlocking so much in the inventory process: "'The world and its people are often quite wrong.' No compassion for your boss? A man who's struggling to stay afloat maybe? Who has his own ego, his own fears running him? No compassion for the responsibility he might feel to everyone in that place to keep you all employed? Or, if you think that's painting him with too noble a brush, then just his own survival fears? His own pride on the line? No compassion for him? No forgiveness for him fumbling and buckling under the weight of all that?"
He looked back down at the table, and everything about him was clenched: Jaw, shoulders, fists.
Now that we had come to this point, I had to go all the way there. I had to say it, even though I knew it would set him off like a Roman Candle. This was about putting the words in his head, and maybe later they would be taken back out and considered. But I knew what hearing this next thought, this next question, was going to trigger. "And what about for [He of the old, old childhood resentment]. No compassion for him either? Ever?"
He had been looking down at the table but as I said this his eyes snapped up, and got very big. An angry red slowly climbed his neck and colored his ears.
I went on. Gentle. Relentless. "No compassion for them? No forgiveness even? Ever? Have you ever prayed to forgive them?"
He jumped to his feet, almost knocking his chair over.
I looked up at him, standing there. In that moment I felt absolute clarity about the words I should say next. And I felt compassion for how hard this was to hear, to take these deep hurts and those old villains and consider what recovery and the 12 Steps really asked us to do with them. "Do you believe that you ever could? Do you believe that if you pray to forgive them you might someday be..."
He threw a twenty on the table. "I'm leaving now. I'm..." He reached out his hand towards me, woodenly, as if to shake my hand, then dropped it and moved half way around the table, his arms raising a little as if to give me a hug, then he stopped. "I'm leaving now."
He turned and left.
I took a long breath and said a little prayer. Finished the last of my french fries and checked my phone for messages.
Sitting on the bus, on the way home, the light did that thing where my window was both mirror and window: I could either see my face or the scenery, depending on how I focused. I watched the city pass by. It was a nice neighborhood, very nice actually, and everything through the window was pretty. I looked at my face, and thought about forgiveness. And God. I let my mind drift to those people I had had to forgive. How hard it was. How invested I was in not doing so. I asked myself as I had at so many times, in so many ways over the years, if I believed in God. Really, truly believed. I looked in my heart and rooted around, again asking did I believe that if you prayed for God to heal something inside of you, to bring forgiveness or allow compassion or even permit a kind of loving understanding of what drove people that those prayers could be -- would be -- answered.
I looked back out the window and considered that this is one of the gifts of service; of sponsorship. These clear, quiet moments -- and sometimes they are just moments -- of deep reflection, which then loop back around to compassion for the process our sponsees must go through.
My phone chirped and I looked at my texts.
The Skateboard Pup: Thank U. Don't want to talk now. Give me a few days. Will wait on talking to boss. Will pray about it. All of it.
I hit Reply: Ok.
I looked at my reflection again. The face in the window offered me a quiet smile. Comfortable. Contented.
Full of faith.
There are more essays like this in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download the Kindle reader app for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone.
I sponsored them probably a half dozen or so years ago. Maybe more. While my auditory memory is exceptional, my linear memory gets a little fuzzy past the five year mark.
We've always been friendly -- even actual friends, I would say, though more the run-into-each-other-on-the-street-and-decide-to-grab-a-coffee-and-catch-up type than the think-to-call-and-set-up-a-time-to-catch-up type.
To his credit, he has kept in touch regularly all this time, even after what was an honest, if harsh, bit of feedback from me several years ago when I hit a wall on some alcoholic nonsense and suggested he stop calling me altogether.
I like him. He is smart and funny and very charming. He was a street level hope-to-die dope fiend drug addict alcoholic and now, nearly thirty years later, he is clean and sober and more or less working a program to stay that way. Well... maybe I should say more less than more more, if you follow. While it all starts with physical sobriety, recovery eventually calls us beyond that basic physical abstinence, primarily so that we do not succumb to the mental twists of our addictive thinking and relapse. A side benefit of this process is often that we become healed of a lot of selfish, childish, small-minded thinking patterns, eventually becoming people who are comfortable in our skins and graceful during adversity in a way that we ourselves might never have dreamed of becoming.
It is a slow, subtle, powerful process, but available to anyone who is willing to go the distance.
My friend of nearly thirty years sobriety, however, never quite seemed to be one of the go-the-distance ones, (in my humble opinion) and thus while physically "dry" these many years, has been continually tortured by the same petty, self centered fears pretty much the whole time I've known him.
He called me on the late side the other night, while I was about to make a cup of tea and start a new book I'd been greatly looking forward to reading.
Me: Well hello! This is a pleasant surprise! How's the world traveller?
Him <laughing>: I wouldn't say "world," exactly, but I've been on the road a lot.
He named several nearby countries covering a variety of compass points. I began rooting around the back of my kitchen cabinet for a particular tea I thought I had.
Me: Glad to hear the road is treating you so well. How are things on the home front?
He launched into what was an amusing, if sadly familiar, description of how, while he acknowledged all the bounty in his life -- and he certainly had bounty -- it never seemed like enough, and how he knew on one level that it should feel that way, it just didn't... and he just couldn't... etc., etc.
I "uh huh'd" along, expanding my search for the missing tea by several drawers and now some top shelves. As I stretched waaaay up on tip toe to feel around on the back of the upper part of the cabinet, the cats ghosted into the kitchen, curious as to whether this nighttime pantry investigation might yield anything of interest to them. One soundless leap up to my desktop put them in close proximity to the kitchen counter, and after mistakenly judging me sufficiently distracted, one soft, ginger paw touched gently on the edge of the kitchen counter, which was, as they well knew, Forbidden Territory. "NO." I gently admonished, and the paw withdrew.
Him: No? No what?
Me: Sorry. Sorry. Talking to the cats.
Him: Ah, cool. How are they?
He had known Evil Old Cat and was enough of a pet person to genuinely care how the new felines in residence - who arrived as tiny puffs of fuzz and were now three years along -- were doing.
Me: They're good company. Sweet natured and really make me laugh sometimes. If at all possible when getting kittens from a Cat Rescue get litter mates if you can. I notice a real difference in how they interact because of that. It's a much more peaceful household on the feline front now.
Him: Good! Glad to hear. Evil Old Cat was a handful.
Me: And an earful.
Now he laughed.
Him: True that. So anyway, did I mention I'd asked Southern Charm to be my sponsor?
"Uh oh." I thought. He couldn't possibly be fishing for...
Me: Yes, a while ago, right? I love him. Super guy. I have a lot of respect for his program.
A little awkward silence played out as I deliberately declined to say my next line, which would have been something like, "Oh, so how's that going?" I went back to stretching up to reach the back of the top shelf and my fingertips grazed what might have been a box of tea. I redoubled my stretch, thinking again how I should probably start some kind of yoga practice before gravity and the years combine to require more step stools and less stretching in my life. Or at least in my kitchen.
The silence had made my point that if he was going to try and go down the road I thought he might be, I wasn't going to join him.
Him: So... I'm not feeling really connected like... I mean, I kind of feel he's... well, maybe judging me or is too... I don't know, it's just not...
I had managed to tip the back-of-the-top-shelf box over enough to be able to grab it, and pulled it over the edge. Fumbling to catch it I missed, and it bounced from kitchen counter to desktop, sending my feline audience scattering to observe from a safer distance.
Me: Ah, that's it.
Him: What's it?
Me: Sorry! Sorry again. I was having a helluva time getting something down from a shelf and just managed to knock it down.
I busied myself filling the kettle and such. A bit more silence until...
Him: So...anyway, you know I love talking to you and I really respect what you have to say and...
Me: You listen to what I have to say, you don't really respect it.
Him: Yes I do!
Me: If you did you would... nevermind. Look, where is this going please?
As if I -- or you reading this -- didn't know.
Him: Well, I was wondering if you would consider sponsoring me again.
"Oh, HELL no." I thought.
Me: Oh, HELL no.
Him: Wow, didn't even have to think about it.
I lauged as well.
Him: Seriously, I love your take on things. Come on. Why not?
Me: Listen, I think we do much better as friends than as sponsor and sponsee.
Him: Why? Why can't we be friends and then also you sponsor me? I know you're kind of friends with some of your other sponsees.
Me: True. But... look, we've been down this road before. Let me kind of lay it all out for you and then you tell me if I'm very far off the mark, okay?
Me: Things were great with Southern Charm at the beginning because you brought him your issues and as always you were kind of smart and funny when you talked about them. So he listened, and then he made a number of good suggestions which you really never acted on, or barely acted on for a little bit and then let it fade away. So what you are calling his "judging you" is really him just holding you accountable. Now you want to pull back from that and talk to me about those same things -- which, let me remind you I've been hearing you talk about for years now -- and you think you want my suggestions and input but you really don't, and you're not at all willing to act on them. You'll just use the same byzantine mental filters and justifications as to why none of what I suggest really works for you, and we'll both get tired of hearing you explain why that is.
Half way through this he started chuckling, until by the time I wound down he was outright laughing again.
Him: Well I can't say... listen, I am willing to act on your suggestions now.
Me: Oh come on. How can you even say that with a straight face? Here, let's try this. Without even putting the label of sponsor on it or anything, I suggest that every morning, as you're drinking your coffee or whatever, you write out a gratitude list. You don't even have to call and read it to me or anything. Just sit down and write out ten or twenty things you're grateful for. Are you willing to do that? Try that? And please, for both our sakes, DON'T ask me why I think you should do that.
My kettle came to a boil and I poured the water into my mug, happy for the hundredth time I'd splurged and bought the nicer kettle when I was out shopping for one last year.
I waited, bobbling my tea bag and letting his "Well..." hang there, alone, unaccompanied by further thought or word. After almost a minute I ended his suffering.
Me: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.
This time we both laughed.
Me: Listen, seriously, what do you even think you WANT from a sponsor now? Because it's not direction.
Him: I guess... I don't know. Till you said that I hadn't really...
I could feel the "on a roll" energy begin to surge inside me a little, but rather than quell it I thought, "What the hell. HE called ME, after all..."
Me: You don't want a sponsor. You want someone you can call and talk about yourself kind of endlessly, with a special focus on what you want in life that you don't have, and you want to slap the label of 'Sponsor' on them so you can call them and talk about yourself guilt free. You are nearly THIRTY YEARS SOBER. How many people have you sponsored? Do you even have a service commitment right now?
Him: Well, I just finished being the cookie person for Friday night.
Me: Okay. That's good I guess.
Him: Hey! It was a service commitment.
Me: Yes, it was. And again, tell me please how off base I am to suggest that on the way to the meeting you would buy a package of cookies, get to the meeting shortly before it started because someone was saving you a seat, and you tossed the cookies on the counter and sat down.
Him: I... I...
He laughed again.
Him: Were you watching me or something?
Me: No. Honestly, and I think you're still listening to my little rant now because you know I like you and respect you enough to tell you the truth, all I had to do was imagine the least amount of effort it was possible to put into a cookie commitment and that would probably be how you did it.
Him: Ouch but... come on, nobody wants me to sponsor them.
Me: Oh bullshit. You have managed to build a glamorous and lucrative career, you have asked people on dates, you have put yourself forward in any number or ways in life... YOU don't want to be "bothered" sponsoring anyone. It's not the other way around.
What I had said -- that I like and respected him which was why I was pulling no punches rather than just being polite and inventing an excuse to get off the phone -- was quite true. And over the history of our relationship, whatever label it had worn, he was always willing to listen. The Big Book suggests that if we have the capacity to be honest with ourselves we can get and stay sober. Though he frankly had a shitty program, I would be the first to remind anyone who criticized him in my presence that hey, he was close to thirty years sober and that was no small thing. Yes, he was tortured by a self-centered loop he had the tools to break if he was only willing, but the fact that he could take this candor in and consider its truth was a part of his ability to be honest with himself, and thus, a part of why he was still sober.
Me: So, I'm sorry but... let's just stay friends, and we can talk and stuff but...
Him: But I still don't see why you can't... I mean, I guess you're right, and... you're really making me think about what it is I want from a sponsor now but...
Me: Well, setting aside the fact that my dance card is absolutely, completely full right now, the larger, more important point is that I if I say "Yes, I will sponsor you" then I am taking on a responsiblity to hold you accountable and...
Him: Ummm... you seem to already be doing that.
Me: Fair enough. Call that "Former Sponsorial Privilege." Look, the only difference in me being your sponsor or your friend is that you'll feel like you have taken me hostage -- that you have something like permission -- to go on at length about your problems, and that I sort of "have" to take the call. With the label or without, here's what I think you should do, which, by the way, is the same thing I've suggested to you for going on twenty years now: If you want to be able to appreciate how great your life is, how much bounty you have, how much money you have in the bank, you need to turn the focus away from yourself and towards others. Sponsor people -- not the "cool" people, but real people. Go to [Local Recovery House] meetings and put it out there you are looking for people to sponsor. You'll have three by the end of the night. Get several service commitments and treat them like you do an important work commitment. And...
Him: Enough! Enough!
Me: And write a god damn gratitude list every day for a while.
Him <good naturedly>: Wow. I... well... you've given me a lot to think about, that's for sure.
Me: Oh my god, I want to punch you. I'm not trying to give you things to think about. I'm trying to give you things to DO!
Him: When are you speaking again? I love to come and hear you speak.
Me: Deft subject change, even if the compliment was a little heavy handed.
Him: No, seriously.
I listed off some meetings I had been asked to speak at in the near future. These things usually happen in clumps. Several requests to speak in a short amount of time then a nice, quiet month or two in the mix.
Me: Hey, I'm sorry if I...
Him: No. No. It's kind of why I call.
Me: Are you travelling any time soon?
Him: Only a few local things.
Me: Cool. Well, I hope I see you at that Thursday night Men's Stag. It's still really good.
Him: Oh, I like that meeting. Okay, I'll come by.
We finished off with a few more pleasantries and some thoughts on current movies before hanging up the phone.
The cats wandered back into the kitchen, eyed the counter and then looked at me, the picture of innocence.
I looked down at them, and put my hands on my hips. "I know you jump up there and dance around when I'm not here. You're not the first pair of kittens I've ever shared digs with you know." They tilted their heads in near perfect unison, and gave me the slow blink. "Yes, yes. Me too."
There are more essays like this in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download the Kindle reader app for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone.
I don't know about "anyone," but if you can stay sober, I'm thinking dragon slaying is just what you do on your off hours.
As for the rest... living the principles of the 12 Steps calls us to walk a higher road than our nature may desire, one composed of altruism, humility, love, faith, honesty and acceptance.
Every damn day.
Striving to truly live those ideals is, I believe, perhaps the proverbial Hero's Journey.
When I do it... or even just sincerely, consistently attempt it... most days I really do feel love for the world.
(The other days? I just fake it. Seems to work well enough, as far as the world goes.)