This from Thomas Merton, in a section entitled “Humility” from the book, “Seeds”*:
“Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.
In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. But because our own resources inevitably fail us, we are all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair.
Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that He is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.
But the man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”
Ouch. Don’t hold back or anything, Tom. (And the italics are Merton’s not mine.)
In only about a million places AA warns against self obsession as fuel for alcoholic thinking – and if the problem for an alcoholic centers more in the mind than in the body, then this is not some idle “be a better person” sentiment, this is critical to preventing relapse.
For me, sadness is … sadness. AA, recovery, a spiritual path, whatever you’re on, I don’t think it’s about pretending not to feel sad, or angry or afraid. But it is the addition of self obsession that is so toxic to our spiritual development. Sadness + Self Obsession = Self Pity (or despair, as Merton expresses the idea). Anger + Self Obsession = Resentment. Fear + Self Obsession = Lack of Faith (for starters).
The antidote for the above? Humility. Which is not about being “less than,” for me it is more about being right-sized in relation to God and the world around me.
As AA’s book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” (commonly called The 12 & 12) puts it, humility is another word for perspective. When I despair, when I wallow in self-pity, am I not saying that I know better than God? Aren’t I leaning into the idea that whatever is happening to fuel my self-pity is “wrong” or “unfair” or “shouldn’t be happening to me”, and isn't that assumption a form of arrogance -- which is a form of playing God? (There is a subtle yet profound difference between the thought "I would like things to be a certain way" and the thought "Things should be a certain way.") Of course things look unfair in the world – please ask anyone living in any of the countries that although it's the 21st Century still seem locked in the Old Testament, or the innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting, or … or … of course the world looks unfair. The world, to my limited perception, is unfair. (However, most alcoholics are not despairing over the state of the Third World, they’re despairing that things are not the way they want them to be in their own personal King Baby kingdom. When I'm not spiritually fit I think the state of the world is unfortunate, but the state of my life is TRAGIC!)
There’s a paragraph in the Big Book, in the chapter “We Agnostics,” which basically expresses the idea that I must let go of having a logical explanation for everything in the world if I’m going to begin to have any kind of faith (and AA will work for you with, literally, any kind of faith).
When I make my peace with the idea that a) I’m not in charge and b) things are not now, nor will they ever be, exactly the way I think they should be – fair for others or, more usually, fair for me, and c) that I will never find a faith that is not strained by circumstances in the world, then I have stopped playing God and I am open to a shift in my perspective – that is, open to humility.
But as Thomas Merton put it, in words far more eloquent than I am capable of producing (his writing makes my synapses crackle), I move away from humility when I “turn my back on all help.”
To develop my humility I must ask for -- and eventually accept -- help. And when I develop my humility I move away from the self obsession which feeds the pride (which goads me to choose misery over happiness), since all things and events are not measured solely by how they impact or satisfy me.
I am working with an alcoholic who I fear is lost in despair. And just as the Big Book describes it, the one thing we have to do all on our own is develop the quality of willingness. In this case, I believe, the willingness not to turn their back on help. Help is available to all of us – help from God, help from each other – but if we don’t turn to accept it… then the people who are offering the help can do nothing but watch and pray, I guess.
In AA we talk about “working” the Steps, and working on our recovery -- believe me, watching and praying can be the hardest work of all.
*Just to further complicate the attributions issue (I feel pretty strongly about the credit-where-credit-is-due thing), the book “Seeds” is a collection of Merton’s writing selected and edited by Robert Inchausti. The quote at the top of the post originally appeared in Merton’s book “New Seeds of Contemplation” published in 1972.