Old school week continues! (Apparently I'm on a kick.)
There's not a sober alcoholic I know who hasn't had some version of this happen to them in their recovery:
There you are, sitting in a meeting, and someone says something -- maybe not the speaker, maybe just in a regular old share, or while they're taking a chip or something -- and it opens you right up. It goes right into your heart -- or your head, or your gut -- with a little >Ping!< and shines a light where a light needed to be shone. Maybe it triggers an insight, or maybe it just lifts your spirit, but regardless of how, it helped you.
And although it did, it felt like a private little thing maybe, or you were too shy to speak to whomever it was that said it, so they don't even know they did that -- that what they had to say was helpful to you.
That's fine. That's totally fine that you didn't speak to them about it. They probably weren't looking for any feedback anyway.
But the thing is, maybe now it's your turn to say something; to smash through your carefully manufactured distance or your studied, defensive aloofness, or your lovingly nurtured low self esteem, or your acute (if somewhat common) fear of speaking up and speaking out.*
If you don't hear what you need to hear in a meeting, for God's sake, raise your hand and say it.
You'll certainly help yourself, and you might even help someone else -- though you may never know it. If you don't hear what you need to hear in a meeting, maybe it's your turn to say it.
*But also, let's not pretend some of us didn't have to develop a stay-under-the-radar thing as a survival mechanism somewhere along the way. I'm not mocking it, I'm just calling it 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.
It is comical, tragic, and positively absurd
the extent to which,
and the lengths we will go,
to try and control what other people think of us.
And it is equally ridiculous and extreme when we declare:
Not at all? Seriously? Humans are hard wired as social creatures.
(There's a reason Tom Hanks' character in "Castaway" had a relationship with a volleyball, after all.)
The opinion of the people I love and respect does, in fact, carry some weight. As it should.
The trick is always this:
I used to care so damn much about what people thought of me that today, when it is right-sized, it almost seems as though I don't care at all.
I do, but now I don't live-and-die by it.
That is a sweet and giddy freedom, that freedom from the "bondage of self."
Now I understand how warped my ego was that I thought anyone was thinking about me at all, really.
Balance. My first experience of it in sobriety (and thus probably my first experience of it ever) was that mysterious midpoint I would quickly pass through as I swung wildly back and forth from one extreme to the other.
Now, on the "oh god what are they thinking about me!" topic I am there often.
A lot even.
Not always, but pretty regularly.
How? A helluva lot of inventories, prayer, meditation, service and meetings.
A lot of meetings.
As he talked
his brow furrowed and his color ran high.
The rant gained momentum.
I could feel him
At its crest his neck looked like a sunburn and
two scarlet dots painted his cheeks:
as we do,
working himself up to a
declaration of sorts.
All the usual cliches about thunderheads apply.
I will not -- no, I cannot -- surrender!
Disinterested in this performance art piece
having seen it many times and performed it myself
to smatterings of applause and
tepid reviews in my out-of-town tryouts.
(Everybody's a critic.)
I will not -- I cannot -- surrender!
It's not who I am
how I roll
what I do
how I goal
I have achieved and purchased and financed and leased!
I have big and important and special and brand!
I have more than you do -- I am more than you are -- than anyone does than anyone is
in that sad circle of chairs.
As is often the case
in moments like this,
the chin is up,
the shoulders back;
a noble tableaux
of delusion and defiance.
Who, exactly, are you rebelling against? I sometimes want to ask.
But then I think how disinterested I am in their answer, and
leave the question
for them to discover for themselves
if they make it.
You will not -- cannot -- surrender?
Okay, then. Don't.
Huh? Wha? Buh?
Then don't, I shrug, already wishing I was
home with a book and a cup and a cat in my lap.
Their defiance was a warm blanket to them but I've never been much for reruns.
And if you win, then congrats and huzzah and my hat is off to you;
I'll send you a card.
And if you lose,
and if you live,
there is a chair for you there,
in that circle of chairs,
reserved for all those who,
had their ass fully kicked until they realized
the fight was in fact over a long time ago.
Confidentially, I said, leaning in,
I lost pretty much right after I stepped into the ring.
All the rest was just the press release my pride tried to issue,
with my face pressed against the canvas long after the final bell.
(Do not ask for whom the bell... aw hell. Skip it.)
He looked so stunned. Apparently my verbal right cross was the wrong line.
I guess I'd gone off book.
He couldn't process this uscripted opposite in his contempt
I suspect I was cast as salesman for the cause or
sympathy for the rebel.
Sadly, I really
suck at those now.
Don't surrender till you know you've lost.
Cliche, I know, but that is then
the first moment when
have a fighting chance.
He sat there, poleaxed, unsure if I mocked or misunderstood
his brave speech.
I left a tip for the waiter and headed home.
There was fresher company
in my book
That's great, and wise, Walt. Thanks for that. I'm a big fan.
Trouble is, sometimes my ego pretends to be my soul.
And my ego is pretty sneaky at what it chooses to be insulted by.
I should absolutely re-examine all I have been told... and keep re-examining it.
But I need to remember that sometimes what my ego wants to dismiss my soul needs to embrace.
And I often need help in telling the two apart.
For me that's not about stuffing, or denying, or even that great old alcoholic standby: silent scorn.
It's about pausing. It's about not letting other people's actions determine my actions.
It's about breathing and understanding that someone else's spiritual sickness does not have to activate my own.