Legends in the Rooms: Chuck C.
Legends in the Rooms: Chuck C.
How do people live in this world? That’s a line from a novel I really love, and it was also the question that ruthlessly stared me down when I first got sober. If drinking was the only thing in my life that I really cared about, what was I going to do now that I had stopped drinking? A New Pair of Glasses rushed into that vacuum and answered questions that I didn’t even know I had.
The book, first published in 1984, is a transcript of six talks given over a weekend retreat by AA speaker Chuck “C." It meant more to me than the Big Book, The Twelve and Twelve, and Living Sober combined. Maybe because it wasn’t “conference approved.”
The general topic of the retreat was “AA in business,” and I think Chuck meant to talk about how we apply the program in the life that we live outside of AA meetings. The secret topic of the talk, I was pretty sure at the time, was how to become rich and comfortable in AA. At least that’s what I hoped.
For me, this concept revolutionized my approach to life. It gave me a way to behave. Love was an action.
At the time I first read A New Pair of Glasses, I was listening in meetings for evidence of my future. I had surrendered to my alcoholism, and the jerk who walked in the door had been given the grace to accept that if his life never got any better than smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee inside of AA meetings, well, that would be just fine. It was better than the horror show he had just left behind by a factor of about a billion.
And yet. What do you do between meetings? How do you support yourself and—let’s be honest—how do you fill your time? It was one thing to be an AA soldier, and it was another thing to be one of the men and women who actually had a life in the aftermath of alcoholism. What Chuck proposed was a very different way of thinking about God and spirituality than I had seriously considered. I was washed up on shore and just grateful that none of the natives were beating me. He gave me ground to stand on. He gave me hope.
First of all, Chuck proposed a vision of Christianity that wasn’t even, to my Catholic mind, Christianity. He said that he believed “the gift of God was made at the foundation of the world.” What he meant by that was that God wasn’t capricious and God wasn’t punishing. God could be counted on the way that gravity or electricity could be counted on.
If I had to name what Chuck was adding to my experience of AA and the Big Book, it was this: the possibility that God loved me in a way that was far beyond just saving my ass and parking it in a meeting. Yeah, I know: The Big Book says all that stuff. “We are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free.” But I basically misread the Big Book, the way that pretty much everyone misreads it. I got it confused sometimes with the Bible, and the subtext of both was eternal damnation. I got it confused with you will suffer mightily but you will survive. Chuck, on the other hand, talked about “helping God’s kids do the things that God’s kids needed to do.” He was pointing the discipline and determination and sense of purpose that I’d found in AA toward a world outside the rooms.
"To talk about love is like talking about humility," he wrote. "You can’t. Action. If you love somebody or something, you do something for them. You just do it and you don’t make a big deal out of it."
For me, this concept revolutionized my approach to life. It gave me a way to behave. Love was an action. If you wanted to get along in the world, you had to help people. If you needed to know what God’s will was, that was easy, too: Do something for someone else.
I can’t tell you how consoling this was. It gave me a way to be in the world.
At this point in my life, I’ve studied pretty much everything that Chuck studied—New Thought, Science of Mind, Emmet Fox—and I have to say that the real power of A New Pair of Glasses was its ability to articulate the deeper structure of alcoholism, the deeper structure of the malignant selfishness and self-centeredness that is at the heart of alcoholism.
There’s a mighty set piece near the end of A New Pair of Glasses. Chuck recounts for us, in his own words, the story of the Prodigal Son. Until I read A New Pair of Glasses, I don’t think I’d heard that story before—certainly not in all its absurd pertinence to my own situation:
And so the father saw the kid a long ways off, and he came to meet him. And the kid started trying to tell him what a bum he was, what a failure he’d been in the business of living. But again, the father didn’t hear him. He didn’t argue with him at all. He didn’t say, “Look, I’ve got the record on you right here, and you sure are a bum, you’re no good. I’ve got it right down here. I know every time you turned right when you should have turned left. Get the grubbin’ hoe and get back on the back forty, and grub out some persimmon sprouts and sassafras bushes. And, maybe, if you do a good job, twenty-five years from now I’ll invite you in for lunch. He didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything. He fell on his neck and kissed him. […] And he called the servants, and he said, “Kill the fatted calf. We’re going to have a party. The boy was dead and now he’s alive. He was lost, and now he’s come back home.”
I don’t know that there’s any way I can express how vexing this story has been to me. The only thing I ever really wanted—as a close second to being drunk—was to be right. Drinking, in fact, made that possible. Drinking pulled my worldview together. I knew who I was: I was a fuck-up. I was a loser. I was a sinner. And the great booby prize of my life was that I understood this, deep in my heart. My sponsor used to put it to me like this: “Never stand between an alcoholic and his misery because he will kill you to get to it.”
When I say that this story was absurdly pertinent, what I mean is this: This alcoholic didn’t want the freedom that this story promises. This alcoholic can barely comprehend the freedom that this story promises. As Chuck himself puts it: “No condemnation, no reprimand, no argument. The love of the father for his child.”
What AA did for me was to implode all of my conviction about myself. I was not only wrong about the nature of my drinking—I was wrong about the nature of myself. I had thought I was a victim of my depravity, but it turned out that my depravity was the gift that had forced me to come home. Chuck explained this to me better than anyone: God wasn’t angry. Worse than that: God didn’t even understand anger.
I had thought that I was a desperado, coming in from the fields, begging for a handout. It turned out that I was a prince, and my father saw me from a long way off.
Daniel Isanov is a pseudonym for a sober novelist.