Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Day for the Cursed to be Blessed

Some years ago, while I was in the middle of the titanic struggle to get sober and was going to AA every day--sometimes two or three times, depending on the need--one of those osmosis moments that my old friend and mentor Tom Shirley used to talk about happened to me.

I was in my second meeting on this particularly difficult Sunday, one where the urge to drink was pulling hard and the demons were telling me nothing mattered, so I might as well just get drunk. This was a discussion meeting and somebody brought up the topic of gratitude. Every time gratitude is the topic in AA--in my experience--there is a groan when it's introduced and a lot of people pass quickly until somebody says something that sticks. It is a difficult topic for people who are in the midst of a war for their lives. But, when we think about it and talk about it, we start to understand that there's nothing threatening about being grateful.

On this day a guy I'd known for a long time broke the ice. "Let's just look at the concept," he said. "Let's not do a litany of things we're grateful for. That's easy, it's perfunctory and it's recitation. It doesn't mean much. But the concept of being grateful--no matter what the circumstance--means a lot."

"You mean we need to be grateful for the things that hurt us?" I asked, breaking in on his time, an act severely frowned upon in AA. I wanted to know. I had a feeling about this topic on this day and I wasn't about to let tradition, form and etiquette get in the way of something that could be important.

"That's exactly what I mean," he said. "Those are the things we have to be most grateful for if we are going to change the way we look at the world and the way we look at what we are and why we're that way. All of this is an attitude. We can be full of pity for ourselves for what we lack, or we can celebrate what we have. What we lack may not even be important; we often give it importance it doesn't deserve. What we have is real. We have sobriety in this room right now and that's something to celebrate."

Yes, it was. It certainly was. It was what I'd wanted for years and what had so consistently eluded me, mostly because I couldn't frame it, couldn't understand that there was an alternative to what I was doing to myself. And here was a guy telling me how to do it in simple, accessible terms: be grateful.

Tom Shirley later told me--again putting all this in a perspective that I couldn't approach alone--that I was fully responsible for everything that had ever happened to me, for every thought I had, for everything that ever would happen to me in the future. Good or bad, I could lay it at the doorstep of no other human being. I rebelled. "But what if ..." I blurted. Tom was adamant: "No buts, no ifs," he said. "It's all yours, nobody else's, no exceptions. When you finally accept that, you have the beginning of freedom."

And so it was. Gratitude. Responsibility. Acceptance. All elementary. Each elusive. All gaining momentum. At that very moment, the urge was gone and it hasn't come back in nearly 15 years. Everything's changed. It started that day, though not dramatically. I remember thinking how slow the process was at first, then looking back after a few weeks, a few months and marveling at how rapidly, how dramatically, how miraculously everything had changed.

Gratitude. A time of gratitude. A day of thanks. A day of giving. A day for me. A day for all those of us so cursed and so blessed as to know gratitude and thanksgiving.

("OK," my wife said upon viewing this, "so what's the connection with the picture? It's a fishing float hanging in a tree. The fish would be grateful, but what about you?" "It doesn't really mean anything," I said, "except maybe what you want it to. Your decision." When I shot the photo, it meant one thing. Today it's something else entirely.)

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