The Things We Can Not Change
When I first came to AA, I thought the serenity prayer was pretty hokey. It was just one of a number of things that turned me off to the 12-step programs. A didn't like the aphorisms, the inability to address each other directly, the ritualism and most significantly all the Divine language. Not that I am an atheist -- my faith isn't even that solid; it is the idea of a personified G-d who gives us things when we ask for them and if we behave in a certain way that strikes me as self-serving .
Admittedly my religious provenance has been pretty eclectic. Growing up Jewish in an all-Catholic neighborhood, the beliefs of the Christian majority attracted me. After all, Jewish services are 2-3 hours long and conducted in a language that few American Jews understand. Observant Jews don't shop, cook, write or use electronics on Saturdays and cheeseburgers are prohibited.
Against that landscape, the accessible religion of my neighbors drew me in. When they weren't informing me that I had personally murdered their Savior or asking why my family didn't celebrate Christmas; they invited me to church. Mass at Queen of Heaven was a revelation: unlike my synagogue, the church was decorated with affecting images, the service was conducted in English, and there was an organ with a choir.
When at 8 years of age, I announced to my very liberal parents that I was converting, they did not object so long as I waited until after my Bar-Mitzvah. (Well-played Mom and Dad). This launched a lifetime of seeking that eventually brought me full circle, back to Judaism with a progressive, communitarian twist. In addition to the 614 commandments that Torah scholars have gleaned from the Jewish canon, there is one in particular that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind: the commandment of Tikkun Olam.
Loosely translated Tikkun Olam means to heal or repair the world. It is our job as faithful human beings to continue the work of creation: to make the world a better place. This reminds me of the AA's injunction to do service. In the context of AA service is broadly defined; it can mean anything from making coffee or setting up chairs to chairing meetings or being a sponsor. But service, like tikkuning, can also be quite subtle - a smile or kind word, taking someone for coffee or trusting a meeting enough to share one's feelings. These too are service; they help to heal our fellowship and ourselves.
I admire people of faith, but my own religion involves a radical humanism, a belief more interested in the god that resides in each of us than the One who sits on high. It isn't G-d who redeems my addicted brain, but you, the recovering folks who listen but do not judge, who love without reservation, and who offer and accept help in equal measure. This is restoration to sanity for me.
But what of insanity? My mind in active addiction never had any good news. Then (and in early recovery) I was hypercritical, self-pitying and clung to the conviction that life chose me as a victim. Such "victim scripts" serve to keep the addict using while reinforcing the notion that they are helpless: "nothing works so I might as well get high." It took scores of meetings to alter that belief system, to crack open the door enough to allow a ray of possibility to illuminate the nihilistic gloom. Faith in others gave me the courage to attempt the AA steps; it gave me the strength and hope that ultimately saved my life.
Nihilism is constructed from innumerable past injuries. It is a one-way membrane that allows in only pain in the mistaken belief that we will develop tolerance. But there is no tolerance to psychic pain, only avoidance and subterfuge. It is a smiling mask that thinly veils despair. None of us is completely free of regrets, but in sobriety we do not erect monuments to them. We do not pour over our hardships like a sacred liturgy. We learn to let go of the past, not bury or reside in it.
The serenity prayer offers a simple formula for discovering hope in a wilderness of despair: accept the immutable past, shift the unsettled present, and wisely choose where you direct your energies. Religion offers us an invitation to change the world; AA asks us to change ourselves, and the Serenity Prayer proposes a simple method of doing both.
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