"The Monkey's Paw" is a short story written by W.W. Jacobs and originally published in England in 1902.
The tale, in short: A military man returns from serving in India with a monkey's paw, supposedly enchanted and able to grant three wishes. Though there are the usual dire warnings about consequences and such, a couple uses the paw to wish for money to make their final house payment. Shortly after the wish their son is killed in a horrible machinery accident and the sum they receive in compensation is the amount needed for their final payment. After the funeral, distraught with grief, the mother wishes their son back. A short while later, shambling footsteps drag up the front walk followed by a hollow knocking at the front door. While the mother races to open the door, the father, knowing what horror is likely standing on the other side, wishes their boy away again. Although different tellings and adaptations over the years ascribe high minded language about fate and fortune to the story, I've always thought the more direct "Be careful what you wish for" hit the nail on the head. (Or the paw on the palm, I suppose.)
* * * * *
I've written before about how my current job, while something I'm grateful for -- and a place I completely acknowledge where I've grown and changed in big and wonderful ways -- is not anything even remotely close to what I hoped/dreamt for in life -- especially at this age. Having shared that, let me add that I know gratitude is not a homework assignment. I can be sincerely grateful for something, see and enjoy all the good in it, and still have a vision of something different.
In fact -- and this is important for me -- the idea of seeking gratitude for what I have in my life cannot become a club I use to bludgeon myself into some sorry kind of stagnation. It should neither be a way I blind myself from considering new paths nor an impediment to forward motion. (For the record no one ever suggested it should be. It's what my twisty thoughts and gnarly perspective sometimes take away from discussions about being grateful in sobriety. Sometimes in the back of my mind I discover all kinds of "shoulds" and "shouldnt's" with no idea how they grew there. Quietly, I suppose, like toadstools in the dark.) Wanting more -- or even wanting different -- does not automatically equal being ungrateful for what you have. It can mean that, yes -- so it's something to look at -- but it doesn't always mean that.
For me, gratitude is one important way I keep a conscious contact with a God of my understanding; a healthy perspective on what I have and what I've been given rather than a pointless focus on what I lack (and therein lies the true stagnation). But sometimes the itch is to build on the gifts I've been given, not just to appreciate them. Emmett Fox calls it "Divine Discontent" and uses the somewhat cliche but very apt analogy of the caterpillar and the butterfly to illustrate this concept.
* * * * *
I've been praying to God for help with the work thing. Specifically, I've been praying big, open-ended, "get me out of here is this all there is get me out of here throw me a rope throw me a rope throw me a rope" kinds of prayer. I know I have to do the footwork, but in a big Universe full of wild miracles and crazy opportunities I've built a decent track record for knocking on doors and doing the aforementioned footwork to go through them -- but sometimes I need God to reveal the damn door, and my throw-me-a-rope-God's are my way of asking for that. Certainly AA is wise to suggest that I "pray only for God's will for me and the power to carry that out" as it helps me stay away from resentments and expectations of God and how H/She works, but I think praying for, in essence, other ways to use the gifts I've been given lines up nicely with that. (I know, deeply, that I am a whisker's breadth away from some spiritual lawyering there, weaving rhetoric and warping context to bolster my own bullshit, but I don't think I'm quite there. Of course, we never do, do we?)
And my prayer has been answered.
I'm out of the restaurant I've been managing.
And into a different restaurant for the same company. Busier, much more challenging and far less convenient, commute-wise. Full disclosure: There is a modest raise with this transfer, so there is that.
Now, before the kind hearted and well-intentioned of you gently point out that this might count as some kind of endorsement from the top folks at this fledgling enterprise I'm afraid I must inform you that this is much more akin to a battlefield promotion. They're in a mad scramble to fill the suddenly open spots, not truly rewarding/acknowledging jobs well done.
And I confess, once this was laid on me and I had time to digest it, I had a pretty sour, "Be careful what you pray for" bubble up inside. As if a God who gave me the opportunity to save my life would then spend the rest of it punishing me every time I made an honest request; or would turn my open-hearted prayer into a way to 'teach me a lesson.' Truly, that is superstition, not spirituality: Appease the volcano God or suffer the consequences.
* * * * *
So today the challenge on Planet SponsorPants is to keep an open mind -- or rather, to keep prying it back open after it slams shut under the weight of projection and ego and fear (the usual suspects). My years sober help me recognize these things happening to me -- and maybe fluency with the tools of AA allows me to address them more quickly -- but the years don't prevent them from occurring.
The challenge is to keep faith, and not let my spirituality slip into that subtle but simplistic superstition; that is, a loving God will always give me a good result, there is no "monkey's paw effect" at play once I have "made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand God." It is only my head, torturing me again, deciding all is ashes before I've even lit the fire.
I have to work to remember the great AA adage (we probably stole it, but I heard it in AA first), which is roughly this: The worst things in my life never happened to me.
And finally, I have to keep my eyes open to the fact that over and over and over in my life -- and in the lives of the people in Recovery around me -- there is profound evidence that if I can approach each situation as a way for me to give rather than get, as a way to be of service, then my head straightens back out and quiets down and my heart opens back up and the little nuisances in life are just that. Little.
* * * * *
I can get there.
Well, I can get back there. (Not truly there this minute.)
But it's not effortless.
Not yet. (It'll get easier though.)
In the grand scheme of things this is hardly on the same level as bad medical news or unjust jail time or random tragedy striking. I know that. On a basic level it's simply one more time, things are not the way I want them to be. It's just that as an alcoholic sometimes that can be justification for some powerful, foolish, self-destructive decisions. I feel that part of me growling in its sleep.
So I just keep on -- we keep on -- and try not to indulge the worst parts of ourselves; try not to awaken the King Baby of Bridge Burning and Self Destruction, so I can more easily see the miracles which keep coming down the road.
That's my mantra for this morning.
In fact, for me, one of the things I learned in the sexual inventory of my 4th Step was how I used sex to avoid intimacy -- in other words, to keep people from seeing Me.
And to keep me from seeing Me, too.
In my experience, when it comes to how alcoholism takes good, healthy things and twists them to its own service in a never-ending drive to isolate the alcoholic, physical intimacy is not about closeness or truth -- or even fun, really. It's about walls or masks.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
Is there a difference between Resentment and Anger?
All horses are animals, but not all animals are horses, right?
All of my resentments have anger in them, but not all of my anger is what I have come to think of as a resentment.
For me, anger (that "dubious luxury of normal men") is a simple, clean emotion. And, like all of my emotions, it can be healthy and even appropriate depending on what's going on -- it's the actions I take (or don't take) based on my emotions which define my recovery and my character.
Resentment, however, is a much more mental exercise. For me yes, it is born of emotion -- usually my anger, maybe occasionally my fear -- but it's a head thing, not a heart or gut thing. All of that thinking, that toxic stewing... I believe it's sourced by self obsession and fear. It's dwelling on the anger -- reimagining the circumstances which led to it, fantasizing about making speeches or taking revenge, mentally assuming the role of victim or the mantle of martyr -- now we've got a resentment.
Thus, I think of it like this:
Anger + [Fear x Self Obsession] = Resentment.
Is it important to parse that out? To distinguish between the two? For me it can be, since (especially when I was new) I was prone to sorting my emotions into categories: "Good" feelings and "Bad" feelings -- and the bad feelings were things I "wasn't supposed to" have... which led to self judgement... which fueled more self obsession and... dear God, it's busy in there sometimes, yes?
So it was a healthy development to give myself permission to feel angry, rather than bury it under layers of evaluation and mental masturbation about how I felt.
And this also seemed to help me let the anger pass through me; to release it (a little) more easily.
When I was drinking, and well into sobriety, the anger-to-resentment process took all of a nanosecond. The two were virtually indistinguishable. For me that's why writing is such an important tool in recovery, because it slows my thoughts down to the speed of a pen travelling across a page. (Temporarily, anyway). And whether it's resentment, anger, or some sick, twisted blending of fear, self obsession and rage, I am still best served by writing an inventory and looking for my part in the equation.
Hope that helps.
My fear can be as quick as a flash of heat lightning -- suddenly just there, filling the sky -- reacting to a threat, regardless of whether it is real or imagined.
And so, so often, it is imagined.
Along those lines, lately it's important for me to remember that a question is not a criticism, nor is it an accusation. It is a question.
And even if it is a bit of a criticism or accusation, it still serves me best to respond solely as if it is nothing more than a question.
It takes practice.
"At my worst it was like all my ego fears felt like survival fears. I mean, it felt like if I made a mistake or someone thought I was stupid I would be destroyed. The more I think about that the more I see, just... God! That is SO screwed up."
"It took me a long time to understand that saying, 'What you think of me is none of my business.' Now I get it. And when I'm kind of getting worked up over somebody or what I think somebody thinks I just say that to myself and it kind of brings me up short: What they think of me is none of my business."
"I'm kind of used to my fear now. After all, it's always with me. It's like having an annoying person in the back seat of the car. You know they're back there and maybe you can't stop them from talking or being annoying or whatever, but you can just stop paying attention to them too. That's what it's like now. Through sobriety I've stopped paying attention to my fear."
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
After [more than 25] years of drinking, I have been attending AA since [last fall] but other than [a couple of weeks over the holidays] I have not been sober consecutively. I am currently [in my first week]. I really struggle with this higher power concept. I know that I can use the group, but really, how do you turn your life and will over to a group of people. I like the meetings and doubt that I could get sober alone, but these steps seem so strange to a logical thinker like myself. Can you share anything that might help me?
Remember, what defines the quality of someone's recovery is not that they drank, or drank more than once, it is that they got sober again. We each have today, and being sober today is your miracle and your triumph. I can tell from your email you're willing and you have a great attitude -- the only two things you have to manage on your own -- so I have absolutely no doubt if you stick close you'll make it.
But your questions are good ones, and not the first (and certainly not the last) I'll hear them either on the blog or in person, so I'm very glad you brought them up.
They're so good in fact, I'm gonna make you a two-parter.
First one first: How do you turn your life and will over to a group of people? Or, to refine that a bit, how do you make an AA group your Higher Power?
To best answer that, I need to show you some things. Take my hand, we're going to travel through Time and Space for a few minutes. Ready?
J: Where are we?
Mr. SP: Ummm, my aim isn't as precise as I like but if I ...
looks up at the night sky, checks the constellations
Mr. SP: Yes, this is roughly the early 1800's, and we're somewhere in Texas. See that old guy over there?
J: By the campfire?
Mr. SP: Yes. He's got something to tell us.
J and Mr. SP wander over.
Old Guy by the Campfire: If you need space by the fire, I can share.
Mr. SP: Thank you kindly.
Old Guy by the Campfire: You two look a might new at this. Remember, if you get up in the middle of the night to take a pee, shake out your bedroll before you get back into it.
J: How come?
Old Guy: Scorpions. They crawl in when you get up, attracted by how warm and toasty you left the blankets.
Mr. SP: Thanks, we've got to get going though.
Old Guy: Suit yourselves.
Mr. SP: Speak up, I can't hear you over the engines!
Mr. SP: We're in a plane over France in... if I got it right, 1942...
J: What the hell...?
Mr. SP: Hang on, we need to listen to this guy...
Points to airman in camo and blackface
Airman: I've done a hundred jumps, and you guys are new, right? Remember, after you jump...
J: We're going to jump?
Airman: Pay attention! After you get your 'chute on, we'll do some recon over the landing site and you can jump when we see the signal. No matter how fast you think you're falling, make sure you do a slow count to 20 before you pull the ripcord... otherwise, your 'chute might tangle in the props, got it?
Mr. SP and J nod.
Mr. SP: Got it. Uh, I mean, Got it, Sir!
J: This is getting... where are we now?
Mr. SP: Florida Keys. Sometime in the '70's I think.
J: How do you know it's the '70's if you're not very good at this?
Mr. SP: All the paisley.
J: What is this place?
Mr. SP: It's a dive school. Shhh, here's the instructor.
Instructor walks up with a class in various scuba gear
Instructor: ... bends, which is basically when nitrogen bubbles, created by pressure at the depths we'll eventually dive to, enter the liquid in your body, and should you rise towards the surface too quickly will be forced out... very painful and possibly fatal. What you need to do is rise at a measured pace, via a schedule which...
Mr. SP: Okay, let's get back.
J: What was the point of all that?
Mr. SP: Okay, if you'd stayed by the campfire that night, back in the 1800's, and you'd gotten up to pee in the night, would you have followed that Old Guy's advice?
J: Well... sure.
Mr. SP: Why?
J: Well, he knows what he's talking about... I mean, I've never camped in a bedroll by a fire and he has so...
Mr. SP: What about the Airman and his slow count instructions? Would you have done that?
J: Sure, although I'm not sure how slowly I can count when I'm jumping out of a plane.
Mr. SP: Me neither, actually. But why do you believe him?
J: Well... he's like, a trained air force guy. He said he'd done like a hundred jumps and so, you know, he's... he knows how to do it. Don't think I can't see where you're going here...
Mr. SP: Indulge me. What about the Dive Instructor, if you were in that class, would you follow the formula he was going to lay out to avoid the bends?
Mr. SP: Why?
J: The bends is painful, I know that without all this rigmarole.
Mr. SP: So you would make those guys your Higher Power? Like you'd worship them and stuff?
J: No, not... not worship them, that sounds weird and creepy.
Mr. SP: So in those situations you're turning your will and your life over to them -- meaning you'll seek their counsel and follow their suggestions -- because they have experience in how to survive where you find yourself.
J: Yeah. Okay, yeah.
Mr. SP: So it's not really the individual people you're turning your will and your life over to -- it's not specific people, it's their knowledge and experience of how to survive something. That's what you're surrendering to. It's their experience which is your "Higher Power."
J: ... well... yeah.
Mr. SP: So that's how you do it then.
J: Do what?
Mr. SP: Turn your will and your life over to an AA group. You find yourself in a position equally fraught with danger and potential for pain and fatality today as you might have been in any of those other scenarios. Only instead of scorpions and tangled 'chutes and the bends you're facing addiction and fear and ego. And the people in the meeting have survived those same things... so what they have to tell you has value because it's based on experience -- even if the way some of them say it is colored by their own ego and such. Just because someone's been sober a while doesn't mean they stop being a work in progress. If the Diving Instructor turned out to be an unmitigated ass, it wouldn't invalidate the truth of what he was telling you about what the bends are, how they can harm you and what you need to do to avoid them, right?
J: Yeah, I guess. Yeah.
Mr. SP: Same in an AA group. It's not the people that you're turning your will and your life over to (they're messy and flawed as individuals, and in one way or another they always will be -- the best we get is progress)... it's their practical experience of how to stay sober, and how to apply this recovery and 12 Step information to your life, day in, day out, one day at a time. That's what you are turning your will and life over to. So you simply live your daily routine the way AA suggests you do, and when you hit a snag or have a question or a problem, share about it in the group and take in the suggestions which are offered. Some people might be easier to listen to than others, but on the whole, you'll get good orderly direction. And God knows, when I was newly sober, that's what I needed. What my mind came up with as how to handle things was usually NOT a good plan to follow. The only experience I had to offer myself was how to live a drinking life in active addiction. I needed to follow the plan laid out by people who had experience NOT doing pretty much the only way I knew how to do anything. Following their plan, and asking them for input when I was stuck, was how I first "turned my will and my life" over to AA.
Part 2 tomorrow...
I can convince myself something is going to be difficult armed with nothing more than a crappy, closed-minded attitude and half an inaccurate fact.
I can remember that I don't always know how things will go, and that if things get hard I can ask for help.
I can convince myself not to try something by deciding before it even begins that I will be hugely disappointed, simply by treating the sad movie in my head as if it is reality.
I can remember that things are often okay -- more than okay -- by admitting there are many possible outcomes, and sometimes I like something in spite of myself -- that it's in the doing where joy is found.
I can convince myself that nothing really matters by constantly deconstructing everything into sterile, abstract bits and pieces -- the dark mirror reverse version of the truism "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
I can remember that the ocean is more than just salt and water, a human is more than just blood and bones, and I am always much more than what my fear and addiction constantly whisper in my ear.
I can convince myself that I am separate from everyone around me -- less than or better than they are -- by obsessively focusing on the differences between us, especially magnifying and distorting trivial things until they become symbolic of all humanity and my alienation from it.
I can remember that it is by listening for the similarities, the feelings in common, the universality of human experience with all its messy, selfish fears, its inconvenient, embarrassing needs and its beautiful heart with such a staggering potential for love and kindness -- which all of us share -- that makes me a part of the human family, and that's true whether I feel it in any particular moment or not -- and the great irony is that often what people (especially alcoholics) have most in common is the belief that they have nothing in common.
I can convince myself that all is random chaos -- daily life riven by petty, grinding evils and grave, shocking injustices -- with no evidence of the Divine at all, by constantly looking for where God isn't.
I can remember that at times I have felt a vast Something at work, whether through a feather-light touch on my heart, a gentle inspiration in my thoughts or a powerful, soul-stilling, soul-filling moment of Peace -- and when I stop and breathe and become really honest with myself about those things then no amount of after-the-fact cynicism can erase that truth. And from there I can retire from collecting jaded, pathetic "Ah Ha!" moments of disbelief, to remember that while often it is hard, with my tiny human perception, to see God in the world around me, if I choose to I can always feel God in the world within me.