Something in my meeting this morning reminded me of this exchange with a sponsee from several years ago. I shared about it this morning -- so it seemed only natural to dig it up and share it with you here as well...
SPONSEE: ... and then they said that thing I hate.
Mr. SponsorPants: That thing you...? Ooooh. You mean...
SPONSEE: Yeah. 'Don't drink No Matter What.' It sounded so smarmy and bullshit to me. I swear, I could hear them capitalize it. Sometimes the AA sayings make me want to...
Mr. SP: It's funny.
SPONSEE: What, that I hate that?
Mr. SP: Well not funny Ha-ha. It's just that, when I was new, that really helped me.
SPONSEE: Really? It did?
Mr. SP: Yeah. I used to say it out loud to myself. Looking in the mirror. Or driving. I think I said it out loud a lot in the car, for some reason: 'I don't drink no matter what.' And then I would list all the 'no matter what's' I could think of.
SPONSEE: Wait, a car?
Mr. SP: Yeah.
SPONSEE: I thought you got sober when people were riding around on dinosaurs or something.
Mr. SP: I did. At my first meeting, they didn't give out Welcome Chips, they gave me a Welcome Flint Arrow Head.
SPONSEE: D'oh! That was pretty good. I thought you were going to say 'fire.'
Mr. SP: I used that one already.
SPONSEE: Like what were all the 'no matter what's' you would say?
Mr. SP: I used to say to myself (a lot) 'I don't drink no matter what. No matter how angry or frightened or lonely or bored or horny or frightened or how expensive the wine or how free the beer or how important the occasion...'
SPONSEE: You said 'frightened' twice.
Mr. SP: I was often very scared.
SPONSEE: But it makes me so... so angry. I mean... I have... it's... with all my relapses, I feel like I DO drink no matter what. I don't get how that's supposed to make me... I don't know, what does it... like when you were new, it made you feel stronger? More able to say 'no' or something? Made you less afraid?
Mr. SP: Oh God, no! No wonder it makes you... saying 'I don't drink no matter what' isn't about trying to make me stronger... it's not about helping my will. It's about helping my memory. It's a reminder. Like a little pilot light I could keep burning when that infamous 'curious mental blank spot' would begin to form and the brainfog would start to roll in.
SPONSEE: Oh. Well. I guess I never thought of it like that. I always just felt like everyone got it and I didn't.
Mr. SP: I promise, no one gets anything in any way that you don't -- we all just... it's hard for each of us, but sometimes hard in different ways. But all you have to do is...
SPONSEE: ... worry about not picking up a drink today. Yes, yes. Do you ever get tired of telling me that?
When I got sober, I kept waiting to "want to" do things (like pray, or meditate, or write an inventory, or be of service; you know, little life-saving things like that).
I'm not sure it was a conscious thing, but I had lived my whole life thinking that I should only have to do what I wanted to do. And not do what I didn't want to do. And I may have even believed that was sort of how everyone else was doing life, too. (Nowadays I think we call that "entitlement.")
So I got sober, and that belief, unbeknownst to me, was drifting around inside (so many things, "rules" I had for life, were drifting around inside that I was completely oblivious to it's unreal as I look back), so I still pretty much didn't want to do anything.
But sponsors and shares in meetings and the Big Book and the 12 and 12 all suggested I become willing. (Really, people just went on and on about it. It became pretty tiresome to listen to after a while.)
I'm a pretty solid people-pleaser -- plus I really did want to get sober -- so I said, "Okay! I will become willing!" And sat right down and waited to want to do something.
This approach did not get me very far.
Because as it turns out, when you're so afraid you don't even know how afraid you are, and you're detoxing (first physically, then mentally and spiritually), and simply going to the laundromat induces something like a panic attack (true story!), you really don't feel like doing very much. You don't "want to" do anything but curl up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor and hope some kindly person will bring you pizza and rub your head.
It wasn't until a lightbulb moment in a meeting one night when I realized that "willing" does not mean "want to."
In fact, in some way, it's the opposite.
Now in sobriety I pretty regularly do what I don't want to do, and don't do what I want to do.
(Which sounds like a drag -- to the old me, certainly it sounded that way -- but is in fact how I was set free in so, so many ways.)
I suspect the rest of the world has been doing that since they grew up.
As an alcoholic I've never really gotten very far on the "growing up" thing,
(I suppose you could call it "maturity" but that's a word which always gave me night terrors. So just for today let's not call it that, please. Thank you.)
In the book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" (commonly referred to as the 12&12), it states on pg. 40, in the essay about the 3rd Step:
"... it appears that there are certain things which only the individual can do. All by himself, and in the light of his own circumstances, he needs to develop the quality of willingness."
A good sponsor can help motivate you, but motivation just makes being willing easier -- I would suggest that it is not actually willingness itself.
It feels to me, on occasion, that on this point the 12&12 just sort of leaves you hanging -- so many other places in AA literature offer clear cut instructions as to not only what needs to be done (as in this particular case, the need for the individual to become willing) but also how to do it.
Involving the help of a Higher Power -- whatever that may mean to you -- is likely a critical component in this process -- and the discussion of the 3rd Step in the 12&12 is all about giving yourself over in that way. But in reading this essay recently with someone, when we got to this paragraph they asked the very pointed question, "how, then, if I'm supposed to do it all on my own, am I supposed to 'develop the quality of willingness?'"
I started to make a flip answer along the lines of, "Well, you need to start doing things differently. If you want different feelings you have to take different actions." And yes, that's true -- very true, in fact. To put it in Fischer Price terms, healthy actions bring healthy thoughts and feelings, sick actions... you get it.
And over the years I've heard this truism expressed in a number of ways: "Esteemable acts bring self esteem" is one of my favorites, for example. You might even extrapolate this point out to a cornerstone of how AA itself heals me. As I've both heard and shared in meetings, I have never been able to substantively change my thinking with other thoughts -- I've only been able to change my thinking with actions. In fact, trying to change my problem thinking with more thinking might be viewed as trying to use the problem to fix the problem -- not generally a successful strategy. (Isn't there an Albert Einstein quote on that?)
It struck me that in some ways the willingness to do something precedes the new action. And from what we just read in the 12&12, it sort of felt like the literature was, in this passage anyway, saying, "Ok, kid, this part is key. Critical! But... you're on your own. Good luck with that!"
So I gave it some thought, and sipped my coffee (ah, caffeine, boon to my inspiration!).
After some thought, I spoke a little about this:
I think that for me, developing the quality of willingness has been predicated on developing an open mind. I have to be open to the idea that this new thing/behavior is actually going to work before I become willing to give it a go. It's not wholly a mental exercise of course, there is a "just do it" element, too. An "if you want what we've got, do what we did" thread running through this when we're new to AA.
But still, for me, an open mind has been hand-in-hand with my willingness.
Now the good news is, developing an open mind is actually fairly easy. There's only one word I've ever needed to do so, and even if I use the word grudgingly, or dripping with scorn, or laced with sarcasm, it still seems to work.
The word is maybe.
If I try to embrace that word, however falteringly, it can allow needle-thin shaft of light to penetrate the tightly shuttered darkness of my closed mind. (How writerly! Metaphors. Images. Fancy!)
Embarrassingly, at those times in my head, it can look like this:
Maybe I'll feel a little better if I try -- God knows, I couldn't feel much worse.
Maybe this won't completely suck.
Maybe at least one thing here can help me.
Maybe one of these people will finally say something useful.
(In that last one, the word "people" is not the word I probably used.)
If I can get to maybe, I have opened the door a crack.
And once I open the door a crack, I can reach through and grab hold of a tiny piece of willing.
From there, for me, that's how it builds.
My life has been transformed not with blinding white light experiences (although I genuinely believe some people have had such things). No, for me, my life has been transformed most often by these tiny, infinitesimal, almost grudging, shifts in attitude -- and then eventually, consciousness.
How I talk to myself -- my internal words -- shape my thoughts. My thoughts are how I choose my actions -- then my actions reach back and change my feelings and my thinking. It's a powerful process; and as with anything powerful, I can use it to help myself or harm myself.
But I don't have to be fully motivated at the outset. When I start, I don't have to believe 100% in the power of this process to change me.