It’s now the time of year when everyone seems to be doing recaps of what happened in 2015 and making resolutions or predictions for 2016. I usually like these efforts and look forward to being reminded of all that has occurred and the speculations of what lay ahead. This year, however, is different. Our challenge and my message is that if we’re going to have next year be better than this one, we need to get beyond thinking in terms of a ‘good year’ or a ‘bad year’ and acknowledge that whatever happened or whatever will happen is the result of our choices and commitments. ‘Reality’ is either the ‘raw material’ for creating our future and a meaningful and satisfying life or it is the excuse for having wasted the ever-present opportunity to have a life and a world that works.
I just finished reading a NY Times piece about ‘The Year in Pictures” which revealed that 2015 was one hell of a year, or said more accurately, was one hellish year. Every month we were assaulted with news of terrorism, televised atrocities, human suffering as migrants fled the horrors of the unraveling in the Middle East, mass shootings, natural disasters and unprecedented weather events along with breakdowns in our population’s respect for and trust in our political processes to even address let alone remedy these seeming intractable problems. There seems to be an epidemic of resignation and cynicism and even despair about the state of the world. We seem immersed in a downward spiral of conflict and confusion driven by warlords and demagogues and selfish or corrupt self-interest that is severing the threads of universal human connection, compassion, understanding and even rational comprehension.
If the world were an individual there would be no question that we are insane. We are acting out a nightmarish and self-destructive scenario that it will either destroy us or be the ‘bottom’ from which we might begin to recover our capacity to choose a life worth living. If this sounds like a description of an alcoholic or addict or anyone who has ever lost their capacity for choice and experienced the powerlessness of being trapped in patterns from which there are no escapes, the analogy is intentional. However, I am meaning something more than just an analogy.
Conventional wisdom and experience about ‘recovery’ programs shows us that the problem is never the cause of the condition, but a symptom of something else. In the case of an alcoholic, the booze is a symptom, not the cause, of alcoholism. In Alcoholics Anonymous the condition is deemed a ‘disease of self-centeredness’ in which the individual can no longer distinguish himself or herself from their own thinking and perceptions. They have lost their capacity for choice and are blind (in denial) to there being any possibility or point of view other than their own. Said differently, alcoholics are insane and are trapped in their own worldview. There is no escape.
In the late 1990’s when living in Argentina, I drew a parallel between an individual and the larger society. I postulated:
“The ego is to the individual, what the culture is to the society. They are both self-referential structures and mechanisms that have the sole function of maintaining the persistence of an historical interpretation (story) of the way everything works, the way everything is, what is possible and what is not possible and justifies what has gone before.”
At the time I was attempting to portray Argentina as a ‘self-centered’ culture analogous to the ‘self-centeredness’ that underlies all addictions. I was trying to show that as a culture there was more commitment to the story about ‘the way it is and the we are’ than there was to the possibility of ‘the way we can be’. I even drafted a treatment for a play about an 80-year old fictionalized Evita who’d been living under house arrest since 1955 sharing her ‘story’ at an AA meeting and showing the parallel of an alcoholic’s downward spiral with Argentina’s actual history.
Today I see this as a global analogy. I see that the world is trapped in a ‘reality’ (paradigm) in which the more we try to control and fix our problems, the more they persist and even worsen. This doesn’t mean there aren’t many good things occurring as well. Even alcoholics have many positive attributes and positive experiences. Many alcoholics are ‘functional’ for long periods of time, but the overall drift is in a direction of declining possibility, elaborate and ever more sophisticated rationalizations, a lessening sense of self-worth and powerlessness.
The solution to the alcoholic’s or addict’s condition begins when they recognize that recovery is not possible from within their current way of thinking. Recovery is about more than just not drinking; it is about having a possibility where none exists. It is about creating a relationship with something beyond their understanding – a higher power, a miracle, the ‘mystery’ of life, a relationship with a coach, a loved one or a therapist – anything or anyone to which the alcoholic entrust their lives. It requires an act of surrender as the first step to creating a possibility for recovery.
We can argue that science might save us or we can pray for a miracle or we can continue to weigh positives and negatives and rationalize that things aren’t too bad (yet) or may be getting better. We can become spectators of life and debate our points of view in coffee shops (like in Argentina) or in blogs or in after dinner conversations as if reality is somehow affected by our points of view or opinions. I am always amazed as I listen to the debate about climate change as if the weather is a matter of our agreement or disagreement. This is the kind of crazy thinking that kept me drinking for almost 50 years – way beyond point it was obvious that my life wasn’t working and I had a ‘drinking problem’.
Looking forward to 2016, we will have ample opportunity to make more choices. In my opinion the most positive event in 2015 was the fact that 200 countries were able to reach an agreement on something. It’s proof that a global consensus is possible. There was at least an acknowledgment that climate change is a real problem that transcends our differences and self-interest. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge that many of our problems are philosophical as well as technical or circumstantial. It can also be regarded as a step toward each of us exercising ‘rigorous honesty’ in acknowledging our responsibility and ownership of our past and our future – individually and collectively.
As we move into 2016, I also hope each of us and especially our leaders will embrace a new mindset of ‘enough is enough’. 2015 could be remembered as the year we ‘hit bottom’, at least in the United States. If we can surrender to the idea that while we don’t control most of what is happening we always have a choice in how we relate to our circumstances, then we can begin to accept the facts of our lives and our world without the need to rationalize, explain or justify anything. We can begin to explore the possibilities emerging in the midst of all the chaos and confusion and we will have taken the first step toward creating a future that most of us want — a future that AA would characterize as “happy, joyous and free”.