THE simple act of threading the cap
back on a tube of toothpaste in the morning sounds like
an insignificant accomplishment, yet this little ritual
actually gave one of our friends a joyful sense of achievement
during his first few months in Alcoholics Anonymous.
He couldn't have felt better if he had broken eighty
in golf or put over a sensational sale. It was such
a pleasant experience that he even prolonged it, making
each turning movement with deliberate precision. His
wife wondered if he wasn't becoming slightly balmy.
Our friend wasn't becoming balmy, and
we who had lived some of his previous agony knew why
the ritual of the toothpaste cap was important. It was
symbolic: it stood for the general appearance of order
and sensible action coming back into his life. He was
in charge of himself again, capable of doing jobs the
right way at the time they were supposed to be done.
No longer a driven creature of haste and impulse, he
had a measure of order in his life at last and meant
to have more.
It's likely that many alcoholics are
like our friend, and would actually respond wholeheartedly
to orderly systems of living. In spite of this deep
need, they drink and shirk their duties in seeming rebellion
against the whole idea of order. It's said that order
is "Heaven's first law" and prudent men see
the truth in this. But alcoholics ignore it, and pay
a terrible price for this folly.
In our defense, it should be said that
most of this disorder in our lives was the result of
ignorance. Many of us wanted the self-discipline and
sense of perspective that we admired in others but we
didn't know how to develop these qualities. We had no
way to begin the painful task of learning "order."
Our friend, the gallant conqueror of
the toothpaste cap, found his answer in the three magic
words First Things First. These words are often
parroted meaninglessly at AA meetings, but they actually
give us a way out of the terrible bondage of disorder.
When a person truly understands the meaning of putting
first things first and practices it, he finds that he
can often accomplish what previously seemed impossible.
Many centuries ago this idea of putting
certain things first was phrased in a slightly different
way: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his
righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto
you." Few AA members view themselves as actively
seeking something called the "kingdom of God,"
but the idea is essentially the same. When we are able
to establish priorities in our lives and to put the
practice of the AA principles first, all else seems
We sometimes tend to forget that we
can concentrate on only one thing at a time and do one
thing at a time. Driven by terrible feelings of inadequacy
and overload, many of us frequently set fantastic goals
for ourselves while overlooking more modest goals which
are well within our capability. Frustrated because we
cannot do as much as we want to, we simply give up completely
and get drunk. This sometimes appears on police ledgers
as "drunk and disorderly." It would be more
correct to say, "He was disorderly, so he got drunk."
For the recovering alcoholic, the question
of what comes first in his life is easy to answer. Sobriety
must always come first. Anything that helps him to grow
in his sobriety is helpful and good; anything that threatens
sobriety is pernicious and must be discarded.
Sobriety, of course, is an AA term that
embraces much more than merely keeping the bottle at
arm's length. It includes such AA practices as keeping
one's thinking straight, letting go and letting God,
and carrying the AA message. Seeking a healthier state
of mind always has priority over external conditions,
and it is rule-of-thumb that an AA member must first
take charge of his own thinking when a disturbing situation
arises. If the world falls in shambles around him, he
is still the victor if he manages to remain sober and
in control of himself when challenged by defeat or disaster.
The AA member who faces situations in
this manner is not a Pollyanna nor the boy who stood
on the burning deck but did not take action to set matters
right. He is merely a realist who has learned that he
can be effective only when he has himself under control;
once that is done, he can use his other powers and abilities
to their fullest. In the meantime, he refuses to be
carried away by the panic, tension, anxiety and fear
that often drove him to drinking and still seem to blight
the lives of so many people around him.
It is also important to remember that
only the orderly approach really works in the long run.
One writer, for example, defines sin as an attempt to
get a supposed good to which we are otherwise not entitled.
He might have said just as easily that sin is an attempt
to get a supposed good in a disorderly way. For most
every advantage that men seek through wrong methods
could be obtained in even greater measure through following
correct methods. It could also be retained.
Sinful or not, disorder is at least
Examples of this truth are easy to find
in the experiences of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like most
people, we desired peace of mind and looked for it in
a million bottles and a thousand barrooms. But all we
ever found was a counterfeit of peace of mind. True
peace--which we call serenity--comes only after persistent
and orderly efforts to set one's own life in harmony
with God and other men. We also wanted status in the
community and the respect of others. But we tried to
get these by lying and showing off; in the end we lost
even what meager status and respect we had. Yet we later
found that people gave us status and respect once we
recovered and faced our responsibilities. Many AA members
could easily say that they have found, in Alcoholics
Anonymous, most of the things they expected to gain
from drinking but never truly found.
If sobriety and straight thinking come
first in the AA member's life, what comes second? Is
there any principle that a person can follow in organizing
his life along more orderly lines?
One of our friends has such a principle.
He often says that he puts his sobriety first, his job
second, and his family third. He reasons thusly: "Take
care of your sobriety and you can take care of your
job. Take care of your job and you can take care of
Some people might cry that our friend
has relegated his family to the bottom of the heap in
his thinking, but this is not true. The approach he
offers has made him more able to provide for his family
than ever before. It is simply the common-sense approach.
Such common sense is apparently highly
uncommon. We see so many people who are unable to put
first things first, to observe ordinary rules of common
sense. A man loses his job and lets that be his excuse
for getting drunk. But getting drunk only makes it more
difficult to find another job. Another man broods over
his inability to give his family everything they want.
Such brooding becomes an alibi for a drunken bout that
makes him even less able to support his family properly.
Whatever else such thinking and actions might be, they
are certainly "disorderly" and they indicate
that the individuals involved haven't learned the real
meaning of first things first.
Our other friend, who schooled himself
to replace the toothpaste cap, is not indulging himself
in trifling behavior. He simply perceives that toothpaste
caps ought to be replaced, that this is proper operating
procedure. Order carries the day in other ways as well.
Traffic moves safely on the highways if motorists drive
in an orderly manner. Production moves efficiently through
a factory if the processes have been arranged in an
orderly manner. There is order in everything that is
sound, whether it's an airplane engine or the human
body. Rhythm, pattern, harmony and tempo are words that
describe elements of order.
We should also know that order isn't
only Heaven's first law for man. It also seems to be
Heaven's first law for Heaven. All that we're able to
glimpse of creation is completely subject to laws of
orderly action. Everything seems to function according
to a pattern or a plan: the stars remain on course;
the seasons come and go on schedule, and all creatures
reproduce after their own kind. Let a person consider
this for a time, and he soon realizes that order lies
behind the beauty and glory of the universe.
Our friend knows that his new-found
ability to replace the toothpaste cap was a small victory,
but it's an orderly part of the bigger picture he's
seeing these days. It's thrilling to be able to do things
completely and properly for a change. The toothpaste
cap is a great symbol.
And maybe it symbolizes something else
too--like the day he threaded the cap back on a whiskey
bottle and proceeded, in an orderly manner, to call