He has a thick, regional accent, equal parts Deputy Dawg and Sheriff Andy Taylor. If you're a bitchy sophisticate, as some in the meeting are (working through their issues, one hopes. prays.) then you not only suppress your smile when he shares, but you make sure people see you suppress your smile when he shares. (Some of us are so fragile we pose by reflex, I think, with no more conscious thought about it than the heart requires to beat.) I've watched carefully to see if he's tuned into that but blessedly he seems not to sense it.
He showed up several weeks ago. He says all the right things. Cynical old fraud that I am, I can't help but listen for the baited hook when he talks either one-on-one or at meeting level. Is he telling his truth, or working the crowd for fives and tens?
I gave him money a couple of times. He said he was broke, hungry, homeless and newly sober. (Believe me, he looks the part.) Been in town almost two weeks. Has a sponsor he says. We exchanged phone numbers and have talked and texted -- general encouragement and information, mostly. He is still waiting for housing to come through -- sober living, or one of the homeless agencies (who are, of course, stretched far, far beyond their extremely limited means), and in both those scenarios it's generally about paperwork and waiting lists. And while you're waiting, you are, as they used to say, "living rough."
In years past I might have offered him a couch commitment. Let him crash at my place for a night or two to get in out of the weather. 20 plus years ago I used to offer that quite a bit. Now that I'm older and a little more nested I find my heart slightly more closed on that score, which makes me... sad? guilty? prudent? Sure, one person can't save everybody -- and if you're trying to there's a Program for that (several, actually) -- but I am pretty sure the "can't save everybody" angle can be used to not get involved in helping anybody. I flirted with the idea of more-or-less sneaking him into the empty apartment next door for a night or two -- again, just to get him in out of the weather. But that seemed fraught with more bad consequences than good ones, so I didn't bring it up to him. It made me think about that statistic, though, about the number of homeless people versus the number of empty houses -- it was something crazy like 20-to-1.
I mentioned to a friend I had read that statistic somewhere and he got so mad, practically turning red in the face and attacking me. He said that was an oversimplification, and how we shouldn't give things to people who don't earn them and mocking what he thought my source was. It surprised me, how intense he got. I know there's that thing now where we have so many choices for information that we tend to gravitate towards the news and information sources that reflect our personal beliefs; and how there have been studies done focused on when people have a belief and there is information offered to contradict it then the first reaction is to doubt or attack the source. I look within myself and I see those things operating inside me and I get scared. It's so easy to come from that place.
I'm sure that whatever the statistic was, and whatever I said that set my friend off, there's some truth to the "oversimplification" argument. But then I think about all those people with no place to sleep, and all those empty houses, and I don't know what I believe.
He hasn't pushed, but he has put it out there, in general, to anyone who asks how he's doing. And again, I wonder as I listen, is he sincere, or another in a line of crafty users who blow through sometimes, working the rooms. I've seen my share, over the years. Still, each person deserves a blank slate, right? Just because the last guy might have been a fake doesn't mean that the next one is, right?
I must stay open.
I must be ready to help.
I must be willing.
To work at being those things is the agency thru which I am transformed, yes?
My human nature and my alcoholism combine to whisper in my ear about being a sucker, and naive, and how the world really works, and what ugly things usually happen to people who are open and ready to help. I recognize those inner voices for what they are, but that recognition does not always make them easier to ignore. If every lie is born pregnant, spawning more lies to support the first falsehood, then I think some days that every one of my doubts is born expecting, too; each one containing a tiny seed for the next cynical consideration, chasing each other through the foundation of my faith like some kind of spiritual vermin; rats in the walls of my House of God.
Dreary doubts and ever present fears not withstanding, I've grown to believe over time that service should... not hurt, exactly, but occasionally stretch you a little. It's easy enough to hand him a five, or a twenty even (it was all I had in my wallet one day, and I thought, "eff it, give till it hurts a little, Mr. SP"), but to disrupt your life and open your home is something else. If I had a yard, with a little shed in the back... but no. Stay on my sofa and you are right in the middle of my life. Nowadays that's a giving bar too high for me to clear, I guess.
This essay is not, I hope, an exercise in either justification or guilt. ("Rrrreally, Mr. SponsorPants?" I hear some of you say.) After all, I sit here alone with my cats, typing away, no homeless alcoholic currently curled up on my sofa, living slightly less rough for the next several days.
And I should add that, intentions and wishes and musings aside, it's pretty unlikely I'm going to drink over not letting this guy crash here for a few nights.
When it comes to service and sofa commitments and letting people into one's home, be it for only an hour of reading the Big Book or for several nights charity, my first counsel to my sponsees is that you have a right to feel safe in your own home. Yes, we are all responsible for the hand of AA being there for the alcoholic, but that does not mean you sacrifice your common sense and your boundaries for what is right and safe and appropriate for each person to do. If there is a God (and today I vote yes, but with a small "y" not a capital one), then They've got it covered, on the service front. Give till you stretch yourself, but don't stretch beyond what you're capable of.
And then there's the matter of whether I even believe him or not. If he's a con then offering him help is... a waste? Proves I'm stupid? Dangerous, even?
That's what I realize I'm looking for, when I listen to him and try to suss out where he falls on the sincerity scale. Because if he's not sincere then my help is wasted, yes?
No. As I write this I know that that part, at least, is clear. AA -- and many of the best spiritual philosophies humankind has come up with -- teaches that to help others is to transform myself. Thus, I suspect how sincere someone is -- or someone wants to be (survival mode, after all, brings out survival instincts) -- does not matter. What happens to me when I am of service is untainted by whatever the recipient may have going on. To withhold help because I doubt the person who needs it is thinking which I believe comes from the same angry and fearful place my friend was coming from when he got so mad at me as I talked about the homeless and all the empty homes: Fear of a world out of control. Baffled frustration at the scale of our problems. A desperate, panicked need to find a way to make sense of things. A fragile ego reflexively positioning myself as, if not "better than" then at least not "other." It's so easy to come from those places. And that is so scary to me, how easy. And how blind I am to my drivers, sometimes.
Alcoholics Anonymous suggests -- and after all this time I believe it to my core -- that sober alcoholics drink again because they fail to enlarge their spiritual life.
Now, there are a number of ways to do that, obviously, and we're all in different places on what we can, should and are willing to do. But if I want to stay sober and grow then I must keep working to find the right way for me to enlarge my spiritual life. To keep stretching just that little bit past where it is comfortable; even now, at more than 25 years sober.
As I finish this essay I look out the window. We are having some real weather here right now. And I wonder where poor Deputy Dawg is sleeping tonight and I can't help but wish that I was maybe in a different place -- literally but mostly spiritually -- and better able to offer him help beyond a five and a twenty and some encouraging words (though I know there is real value in all those, too.)
I wish that for his sake, as, ponderous self obsessed and insecure spiritual ramblings aside, the dude is homeless. That's just a fact, and if I reached out to him right now and said "Come on over and crash here tonight!" then his life would get 100% better in the time it takes to read a text.
And I wish that for me, too, because although I've done my share -- and continue to try and do so -- I really would like to be a man who is less cynical at times, and less fearful.
Sometimes the road behind me seems long. Sometimes I feel the mileage. Sometimes, as I attempt to keep moving forward after all these years, I feel the cynicism and fear still trying to latch on, still trying to impede me, to grow on me, like barnacles or bed sores, slowing me down and stiffening me up.
Ultimately I want to be even more open and willing. Not as a lofty goal. Not as bullet points to add to my spiritual resume. But because I can sense how that will feel. Because maybe AA has given me a glimpse of what it's like to be even more open and willing as a way to live.
To deeply connect not only to a power greater than myself, but... to everything. And everyone.
I suppose if I keep coming back then someday I'll get there.
No sooner did I click "Save/Publish" on this essay -- I mean literally the second that I clicked the mouse -- than I received a text from my former neighbor, he who had to put all his stuff in storage and "stay with friends" for a while -- the reason there is even an empty apartment next door for me to consider sneaking Deputy Dawg into. He needs to borrow my parking pass for a few hours (city living) and wants to catch up.
I'm always good for a cup of tea and to be an ear, but I guess it also goes to show that if I ask the universe to give me the chance to grow in the arena of being of service there is always, always another opportunity. But I read his text and immediately struggle with what I wrote above: Wondering if there is more to the request than might be on the surface.
But it is not my inner struggles which define me, it is my actions
I pray to be open and ready and willing to be helpful... and another chance is immediately at hand.
And so I attempt to be what I say, to give these writings gravity and reality. To be what I pray: Willing, open, ready; to come from love and not from fear. To be unselfish with my time and my space.
And so it goes...