IS there an alcoholic alive who hasn't wished that he could retrace his steps in life, living through certain experiences again but acting more wisely this time? Don't some AA members often remark, rather wistfully, how much better life would have been if sobriety had come to them sooner? Who hasn't thought, also, how nice it must be for those who grow up already possessing most of the AA principles but without first enduring the alcoholic's pain and remorse?
This desire to live life over on a better basis isn't uncommon, but it can easily become a liability. Reviewing the experiences of the past is useful only if we can somehow profit from it. It should largely be for the purpose of avoiding similar mistakes in the future. Otherwise the past is best forgotten, for time doesn't move back for any man.
In one sense, however, we are given the chance to relive our old situations in a much wiser manner. There is a saying to the effect that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is true of our lives. The problems we meet today are most likely basically similar to problems we faced years ago in other forms. Why did we fail then? What have we learned since that will keep us from repeating our mistakes?
One of our biggest handicaps was in not having techniques and principles for living that enabled us to deal with situations as they arose. It was like trying to work mathematics problems without knowing the principles; when we hit upon correct solutions it was only by chance, and all too frequently we couldn't repeat any successes. Life became one blunder after another, social relationships fell apart, financial and health difficulties arose, and we lived in the pressure cooker of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and remorse.
For many alcoholics, the only surprising thing about their past lives is that matters sometimes turned out as well as they did. Even then--though unsought and unacknowledged--a Higher Power may have been looking out for us.
We should remember, though, that we actually did as well as we could at the time. The regrettable personal relationship, the lost job, the squandered inheritance, the wasted opportunity--all these failures were hardly avoidable under the circumstances. Alcoholism is an illness; afflicted with other illnesses of similar severity we would have failed just as dismally. The same is true of those failures which one meets after joining AA--the personal shortcomings that fed alcoholism are still around and can still bring trouble.
But at least the growth and progression is now in an upward direction. The AA program gives us techniques and principles for the mastery of most of life's problems. Getting along with troublesome people becomes easier, finances and health usually improve, and opportunities can now be used to advantage. It is, in fact, the striking difference between the old life and the new way that sometimes brings this reflection that if today's knowledge could have been applied to yesterday's problems, things would have been so much better.
But that's true of other things in life. The affluent businessman who once scraped and borrowed to get through college would have been more comfortable if some of today's income could have been available to him in the lean old days. The general who bungled in World War I could have won easily if, by a miracle, somebody could have given him a few of World War II's weapons. The artist who now knows the tricks of his trade would have fared better if he'd had his present skills twenty years ago. But these things can't be applied retroactively; neither can AA's ideas for good living.
What is possible is to keep up-to-date on our ability to meet life. Those old problems that once overwhelmed us are still visiting us, though in higher and subtler forms. Our attention should be focused on the problems of the present, and we already have most of the tools for dealing with them in the Twelve Steps.
We also should remind ourselves that mentally refighting the battles of the past may be a convenient way of sidestepping today's challenges. Most of us have enough problems right now to engage our full attention. If we're digging up past troubles to fret over, it may be at the expense of current matters that need work.
The AA program, lived well today, can give us happiness, development of our own powers, and guidance in improving the general conditions of our lives. The case histories of AA members who have found joy and fulfillment through the AA program are so numerous as to border on the fantastic. Yet even those who have traveled far are still only on the threshold of much greater things that can follow with a deeper spiritual life and more vision.
Yesterday carries some important lessons for us, and the AA program wisely provides for clearing up past wrongs. But the past is best mended by living so fully today that its errors have no place in our lives.
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