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A Childlike Sobriety
One of the most powerful texts I read in my early recovery was Bill Wilson’s “Emotional Sobriety.” Just recently I re-read it, and since then I have made it my goal to become childlike. I know it appears that I have set a very low bar for myself, but to achieve this goal is to live life with a sense of wonder and awe.
Children have a great capacity for this. Call to mind the joy you witness when watching a child playing. Though momentary upset is a part of their lives, children return to their play without getting mired down in their thinking about the upset. Like two ducks squabbling on a pond, wings flutter, but the ducks soon separate and life again goes on as before. Adults cling to their thoughts and relive the upset time and again.
And tragically, because adults so frequently cling to their thinking, they experience only their thoughts about reality, not reality itself. Children—and those who aspire to be childlike—experience reality directly. When our happiness comes from an immersion in the splendor of life’s rich textures, we are experiencing a childlike state. When we are dependent on others for our happiness, we experience the childish in ourselves.
Bill W. understood this difference. In “Emotional Sobriety,” published in the AA Grapevine nearly two decades after he became sober, Bill W. reveals his dependency, not on alcohol this time but on approval, security, and prestige.
“Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually,” Bill W. says, openly admitting to his own childish demands.
Bill W. words really spoke to me. Just as a child is dependent on a parent, so was Bill W. dependent on others for his emotional well-being. And so was I.
When I was drinking, I placed tremendous demands on those in my life whether it was my wife, my family, my friends, or my colleagues. But my greatest demand was on life in the present moment. I expected it and all those involved in it to provide me with the joy, the recognition, the admiration, and the security that I sought. When my demands weren’t met, I reacted childishly, not outwardly with tantrums but inwardly with wails of self-pity, jealousy, disappointment, and anger.
Even after several years of sobriety, I was blind to this truth. Blind until a few years ago when I read what Bill W. said in “Emotional Sobriety.” Like so often happens when someone I admire admits his or her weaknesses, I experience a freedom to admit and face my own. Bill W. did this for me. I could finally see how my thoughts of what I wasn’t getting out of the present moment poisoned it. My childish ego always made the present moment not enough.
Expectations are premeditated resentments. And we learn in AA that resentments fuel our addictions, whatever those may be. So it was for me when I was drinking and also in my early years of sobriety. Like my brother Bill W., I became resentful of the present moment because it didn’t satisfy my demands of it. My thinking told me I deserved more.
But only by living life directly rather than living our thoughts about life can we experience true emotional sobriety. When we do this, we remain connected to the present moment, accepting both the good and the bad, holding our thoughts and our stories lightly—even with humor, and pursing those things in our lives that are important to us with our full attention. Applying these principles, developed by Stephen Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, brings freedom from the suffering our thoughts often create.
So it can be for us when we dismiss our thoughts of deprivation and re-engage with the present moment—just as it is. When reading “Emotional Sobriety” the other day, Matthew 18:3 came to mind: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a wonderful connection between living in a childlike state and experiencing the bliss of life. The kingdom of heaven is ours here on earth if we desire it. When we engage in the present moment and accept it as it is, we open the door to a lasting happiness. And we walk, childlike, into wonder and awe.
RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach