WHEN I WAS growing up in Nebraska, I often heard older people say, "You can do anything you put your mind to."
This old saw was apparently one of those things that were easier to say than to prove. Even as a child, I often wondered how it could be true when so many things were going unchanged. We didn't seem to be able to do anything about the drought and the dust storms. The depression had almost everybody in a kind of economic paralysis. When my grandfather became ill with a heart ailment, nothing could be done for it, and he passed away at fifty-six. The conditions of our lives made it clear that either there were some things we could not do, or we were not "putting our minds to" things that should have been done.
Well, despite its shortcomings, there was probably a lot of comfort in our old saying; it may have helped many of us survive some difficult times. But it certainly did me little good in the final stages of my drinking. If anything, it only added to my sense of shame. I could not control alcohol, no matter how much I "put my mind to it." Worse yet, I could not even stop drinking after realizing how harmful it was to me.
My answer, as for hundreds of thousands of other AA members, came through acceptance--not only the acceptance of my alcoholic condition, but also the acceptance of other conditions that seem to be part of my life. I am not a wholehearted advocate of acceptance, and there may have been times when I've thought that the idea was being used as a cover for sloth and avoidance of responsibility. But I know from personal experience that many things must be accepted, at least for the time being. There are other things, of course, that can be changed when we "put our minds to it." The hard part is in knowing the difference. What must we accept, and what can we change?
It's all there for us in the famous Serenity Prayer, which now seems to be popular with people who have never even heard of AA: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." This is the most balanced approach I've ever found to my life situation, and I'd like to offer an interpretation of its component parts.
To Accept: The primary condition I had to accept at the very outset was my alcoholism, the fact that I would be an alcoholic to my dying day. I brooded over this for a while, and occasionally felt a trace of self-pity that nature had made me different from others. But this rebellion did not last long, and I was soon able to accept my alcoholism as easily as I accept the rising and setting of the sun. There is serenity in this acceptance; the issue has been completely settled in my own mind.
Surprisingly, there was a time several years ago when a well-meaning individual wanted to reopen this issue for me. He went to some effort to explain that AA's method of recovery was inadequate. A true recovery, he explained, would permit the alcoholic to resume drinking in a moderate, controlled manner.
I could see that this argument was logical from his point of view. I'll applaud any alcoholic who is able to prove this gentleman's theory in practice. But I am entirely happy with what I have found in AA, and I have no interest in possible ways of becoming a controlled drinker. I am also able to accept the fact that this man considers AA to be an inferior method of recovery. I was even able to accept, with some amusement, the realization that my own prideful zeal in boasting about my recovery may have prompted him to offer his criticism!
But what about other things I cannot change? Here the path becomes difficult. I am particularly susceptible to fears that I may not be measuring up in all things. At times, I make excessive demands on myself and have trouble accepting any kind of defeat or rejection.
To Know: A possible answer to this trouble, I think, lies in the third part of the Serenity Prayer, requesting the wisdom to know the difference between what cannot be changed and what can be changed. I find that most of us tend to be disturbed about things that are beyond our control, if we would only admit it.
We all have to place the past in the category of things that cannot be changed. I spent a number of years in misery and depression, but there is no way of reliving those years. I said and did things for which there can be no real amends. I failed to recognize opportunities which could have been profitable.
I also have to place my physical and mental self in the category of things that cannot be greatly changed. I have a certain kind of body and mind, and each has its limitations. I am only kidding myself if I get into some activity that overextends my physical and mental capabilities.
On the other hand, there are countless ways of turning liabilities into assets. When I want to face it, I have to admit to myself that finding AA and its principles was the greatest happening of my life. It wouldn't have happened without a lot of misery and trouble. This is what people mean when they say that they're glad to be alcoholics. We are not really happy about the past, but we are glad that things turned out so well for us. If alcoholism had bypassed me, it is unlikely that I could have done as much with my life and found as much happiness as the AA program has brought me.
As for my physical and mental limitations, these are problems only when my ego gets out of hand. There was a time when I daydreamed of performing great athletic feats or tried to dazzle people with my knowledge. My worst shortcoming in these areas today is overworking or attempting things beyond my capability. On the other hand, AA has also helped me to use my physical energy and mind in the best possible ways.
The really big challenge, however, lies in accepting other people's attitudes and actions without becoming a fatalist or a pessimist. I've worked out some generally effective ways of doing this. The Serenity Prayer is, after all, a spiritual exercise, and we can accept other people if we do it in a spiritual way.
The way I do it is to remind myself (a hundred times a day, if necessary) that other people are God's business. They have a right to be here, just as I think that I have a right to be here. They have a right to hold ideas that are at variance with mine. I have no right to force my ideas on them or to make them behave as I think they should.
Even if I disapprove of their behavior, it's something that I have to accept. I may think that another person is destroying himself, but there's almost no right way of helping him if he refuses such help. I may think that certain people are a threat to me and to my family, but I must turn this over to my Higher Power. Other people are God's business. He obviously did not assign me responsibility for directing the affairs of others, or He would have given me more love and intelligence than I now possess!
To Change: The second phase of the Serenity Prayer has the most appeal to me, for an obvious reason. It gets back to what my elders used to tell me: "You can do anything you put your mind to." Well, not anything. But it does hint that a lot of changes can be made if only we have courage.
"Courage" is one of those beautiful words that is easily misunderstood. It has often been confused with bravery in war or fortitude in adversity. But it comes from the Latin word cor, for heart. When my elders talked of putting your mind to something, they really meant setting your heart on something.
A dictionary definition, of courage is that it stresses firmness of mind or purpose and the casting aside of fear. In other words, if a person really holds something firmly and deeply in his heart, he is able to rise above fear and reach his goal. Since the heart is also the symbol of love, this relates to another saying, "Perfect love casts out fear."
How does one go about getting the kind of courage he requires to make needed changes in his life? The Serenity Prayer makes that obvious. It is given to him by a Higher Power. If a person does not have the courage he needs, it can come after sufficient prayer and meditation. On the other hand, his prayer and meditation may reveal to him that he is trying to change something that cannot or ought not be changed, for the time being. Then the likely result of prayer and meditation will be acceptance.
This is something the older people in Nebraska didn't tell me when I was growing up. They told me that you could do anything you put your mind to, but they didn't show me how I could make sure that this was always going to work for good. I did set my mind to a lot of things, such as drinking, and it produced no end of trouble. The Serenity Prayer apparently takes this same principle and causes it to work for me instead of against me.
Here are some of the things that I've been able to change or to accept through the AA program.
- General disposition. I always had a quick temper and periods of depression. These have been almost completely eliminated after years of work.
- Jealousy. I frequently receive a few prods from the green demon, just enough to know that he's still around if I want to let him in. But it's been a long time since I felt the paralyzing kind of jealousy that once almost destroyed my life.
- Resentment. I've often been told that we have to accept some resentments. Well, all right, I'll accept a few. But if I have to accept too much resentment, I'm going to be in real trouble, because I just can't handle it. Fortunately, I've learned that most resentments can be swept away if I work on them.
- Sex problems. Perhaps I'm judging everybody by myself when I say that this is the biggest problem of alcoholism. I haven't joined St. Augustine in celibacy, but I can truthfully say that honesty and good judgment have helped me keep sex problems in perspective.
- Education. One of the things that grieved me the most was the formal education I missed because of my early emotional problems and drinking. I was finally able to do something about this. I earned my high-school diploma in 1967 (at age forty-one) and last year received my associate's degree from our local community college.
- Family, community, friends. Persistence in AA has also given me a fine family of my own and, apparently, the respect of the community and many friends. I had managed to become an outcast in my hometown in Nebraska, and for a time I was even blacklisted in some of the taverns. I cannot go back and relive those years of failure and rejection. But it isn't necessary. It is far, far more important that there are order and decency in the life I am living here and now.
I still go back to Nebraska every year or so to visit my mother and stepfather. On one visit, a fellow who had known me "back then" became interested in the new life that, for me, began in 1950 when I was a patient in the state hospital. He listened with interest as I explained how I had gone for years without taking a drink and had remained active in AA during that time.
"Well, I'm sure glad to hear all that," he said, as I stood up to leave. "And your story proves just what I've always said. A man can do anything he puts his mind to."