(We) Agnostics

I’m just home from a meeting where the topic was “God’s will.”  It is the third step of AA that we turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.  It is the eleventh step of AA that we pray for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

These are not easy concepts to grasp.  I know my understanding has changed through the years drastically.  I came to AA pretty much atheist, and it wasn’t good news to me that only a higher power was going to save me from my fatal condition.

But that was a long time ago.  Thankfully, immediately, I was able to understand the concept that the people and the program of AA were a power greater than I was, and I could go along.  Sort of.  But that’s another story.

Now to me, mostly, “God’s will” can be found by following the steps, still.  I think they contain the wisdom of the ages, and since I’ve been practicing them with varied success, but enough to stay sober for quite some time, they are the form I will stick with.  I still don’t think God is in the details.  I don’t think God cares what shoes I wear or what job I do.  I don’t think God chooses, moment by moment, who lives, who suffers, who dies, or who gets sober.  That’s not my understanding.

I’m pretty much comfortable with not knowing.  Every day we can easily see people who spout all kinds of hate and even physical harm in the name of God’s will.  If they are right, and I am wrong . . . I don’t know.  I guess the last laugh will be on me when I’m thrust down into eternal fire for being gay.

The not knowing, the agnostic aspect of it, is still with me.  I say it isn’t known and isn’t knowable.  I sit comfortably in AA by working the steps, having a guiding principle of kindness at least on a superficial level, and by sitting around church basements talking and listening about such things and trying to get deeper and better at it.

Pretty much, it is a wonderful life.

My Prayer List

I have long tried to follow the advice of the program and pray for people who give me trouble.  I’m also inclined to pray in an emergency, for specific people or outcomes, “if it’s your will,” as I’ve been taught.

Now I don’t know if I’m praying to an external deity or not.  In my mind, it doesn’t matter.  I cannot picture a god who keeps score or changes outcomes based on the prayers of people.  It seems to be a very common or universal human trait to think we can influence the cosmos with the power of our mind, and so maybe we actually can.  But I don’t live like that is possible.  I have two big problems with thinking that can be so.  One, it is incredibly unfair if god changes outcomes by keeping score, when obviously pure and innocent people have no one praying for them, and so cannot benefit from the prayers of others when such prayers could ease their pain.  Second, if god does pay attention to human suffering and change it for the better based on a prayer, then there are always far far more deserving people than me and my piddly situations for god to change, yet god does not.

Where prayer works for me is in changing MY mind, not god’s mind or the progression of events.

So in praying for people who I care about and love, I would pray that they have all the need and most of what they want.  AA teaches me to ask the same for those who cause me trouble.  Yet, I don’t think this type of prayer does anything except maybe work toward convincing me that people I don’t like are the same as people I do like (in god’s eyes), and both groups should be treated equally by god.  It rains on the just and the unjust.  They also suffer droughts and floods.

Going with that, at times I have tried to ask god to give both groups lots of good stuff.  This rings kind of hollow for me though, maybe because of my basic disbelief that it changes anything except my mind.  And it is my mind that needs to be changed regarding the people I don’t like.

There came a time when I made an actual list and I still have an actual list of people to pray for.

The people I’m close to, who are in my family or immediate environment and who I care about and want good things for are on it.

The people who give me trouble and who are in my immediate environment are on it.

People who have died recently and their families are on it.
People who are in my meetings and who are struggling are on it.  After a while, if they don’t come around for some time, I’ll drop them off of the list and hope to add them back in when they hopefully return.  It’s just that after a time, I feel kind of blank just hoping this person I haven’t seen or heard about is doing well.  People who I’ve had a hard time with, but who don’t come up in life or in my mind very often, I usually also drop off.
It’s one of these who is coming back into my life, who I need to add back on to the list after not thinking about him much for years.

Adding this person back, it’s more obvious to me than before that it is my mind I am trying to change when I pray for and about anyone.  I have to consider, why did I have trouble with this person in the first place?  Was it him, or me, the circumstances, or what?

And I wish I could say that I’m feeling the ability to give it a fresh start, but honestly, I’m not.  At least I think I know the ideal version of what I’m shooting at, which is perfect love.  And I know that I need to ask god to change my mind, not to change the other person.  And I know that if god doesn’t directly act on my mind due to my requests, the act of my asking and envisioning the ideal works to do it, even better.

In Step Eleven (Step Twelve continued)

In Step Eleven we saw that if a Higher Power had restored us to sanity and had enabled us to live with some peace of mind in a sorely troubled world, then such a Higher Power was worth knowing better, by as direct contact as possible.  The persistent use of meditation and prayer, we found, did open the channel so that where there had been a trickle, there now was a river which led to sure power and safe guidance from God as we were increasingly better able to understand Him.

I surely started with the barest of trickles, but I honestly don’t feel a river, nothing like a river.  Since the time I wrote the 11th Step out line by line, I have kept up my reading and writing of the different prayers I’ve found that I like.  I still rotate them in the side bar here as a way of memorizing them over time.

Sure power and safe guidance . . . I don’t feel it.  I don’t know if I am praying to an external, supernatural deity or if I’m simply talking myself into better thinking and better acting.  It matters to me, but I don’t think I’ll answer that question in the lifetime.  Either way, I know that the quality of my life increases as I do more of it, and it works as “money in the bank” toward my sobriety, stored there for a rainy day.

As an example, I often (I feel like it’s often, anyway) have a problem with some strong opinions that I hold.  Some of them I hold dearly, and it distresses me when someone disagrees, most especially someone close to me.  The Daily Word for October 1 contained these words, in part:  “Any tendency to be timid about carrying through on divine understand vanishes . . . I am open to better ways and means of doing my best–for myself and for others . . . being bold in spirit does not mean that I force or coerce others to believe or act as I do.  Understanding and compassion, patience and cooperation flow from Spirit in all I think, say and do . . .”

Now I am a long way from never trying any coercion, but I know I’m better and gentler because I read these things over and over, and try to take them to heart.

The Serenity Prayer

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.

Reinhold Niebuhr

This is the short version of the prayer that has been used in meetings all the time that I’ve been in AA.  Wikipedia says that Bill Wilson brought this to meetings and that the Grapevine has published it.  There is a longer version, and my view of the longer version is slightly colored by my feeling that I have read a political interpretation of it.  It’s hard for me not to see the longer version that way.

This short version, though, is something I gratefully learned almost immediately and it lasts so well and so long because it is oh-so true.

I’ve come to understand that primarily, all I can change is myself, mostly my attitudes.  Just about anything outside of me is off limits.  I influence people, events, and the physical world, to a very very small degree.  I dare say, not in a self-pitying way, that should I be gone tomorrow, my influence would be almost completely gone five years from now, except for the way I’ve influenced my children in the past, and what they go on to do in the future.

I ask God for serenity to accept almost everything outside of me.  Things I cannot change include but at not limited to: weather, politics, the price of eggs, most illness, disease and death, most poverty, time, the past, my physical limitations, your physical limitations, the opinions of most people, war, football.  Google collage of things I can’t change:  the way you feel, the direction of the wind, heredity, increasing age, anybody’s mind, color, what I am, language, THE WORLD.

I do believe I drank because I couldn’t accept the things I couldn’t change.

Jumping to the end, the wisdom to know the difference is imperative.  Nothing like knocking myself out against the same brick wall over and over and over again.  Honestly, sometimes I do realize after a time that my efforts to change someone else will not work.  Usually.  Not always, because some people in some relationships with me are willing and able to change because I’ve asked them to, or better yet, because I have inspired them to.  I’m also willing to spend time trying to have a small effect on a big change, like doing some small part for an election of a candidate I believe in.  Some would argue I can’t change events, but sometimes I’m willing to try a bit.

Courage to change what I can, for me, is mostly courage to change.  Carole and I were reading an AA book by that name until it got too cold to sit outside, and I’ve been thinking of going back to it.  The change that AA brings is fundamental and profound.  I don’t feel particularly courageous about it, because I, like so many of us, had to be beaten to the ground to get up the courage to change in that way.  Change or die, was the choice, and I’m grateful I was able to make that change.

As the years go by the changes are more subtle, I think, but in a way it gets harder for me.  The first changes were necessary to preserve life and freedom.  The first changes brought huge results and profound improvements.

Now I am a law-abiding citizen.  Now I have a job I can do and that, for today, they’re willing to let me keep.  Now my children will answer the phone if I call (usually) and my wife is glad to see me (today).  Now I have a sobriety I can (mostly) easily and (mostly) happily maintain in a way that fits in my life very well.

Now for me the courage and the will to change what I can don’t come often enough without, still, that wondrous touchstone of growth – pain.

Perhaps One of the Greatest Rewards (Step Eleven continued)

Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of meditation and prayer is the sense of belonging that comes to us.  We no longer live in a completely hostile world.  We are no longer lost and frightened and purposeless.  The moment we catch even a glimpse of God’s will, the moment we begin to see truth, justice, and love as the real and eternal things in life, we are no longer deeply disturbed by all the seeming evidence to the contrary that surrounds us in purely human affairs.  We know that God lovingly watches over us.  We know that when we turn to Him, all will be well with us, here and hereafter.

So ends the Eleventh Step, and once again I’m surprised I’ve come to the end.  Looking back, I began in October 2009.  That is quite a long time!  I did not mean to take this long with these steps.  I could have had a baby by now.  I know Step Twelve is the longest and I can’t imagine how long that will take.

As for the last paragraph, the one quoted, I don’t agree with most of it.  For me, AA is what made me feel I belonged.  That’s where I learned about real and eternal things, and the real goodness of people.  Certainly prayer was a part of that, but the fellowship and society was a bigger part, I think.

Also the bit about “here and hereafter” – to me, this is the hopeful promise that religions give, because no living person really knows, and fear of death is universal and eternal and the most frightening thing people live with.  This even maybe implies a threat.  ” . . . when we turn to Him . . . ” as if not turning to Him might mean things don’t turn out well.  And here, they often don’t.  Hereafter, no one knows.

But anyway!  Over the past nine months I’ve sort of internalized some new prayers.  I have turned to it more often in distress, I know.  I’ve done better with my thoughts first thing in the morning.  I usually remember now to try to figure out how I can be most useful in my day.  That is a hugely positive change for me.

During the nine months, last month, actually, I got to practice prayer and meditation and face a situation which has historically been very frightening for me.  I flew without drugs and mostly without paralyzing fear.  I flew.

So I don’t mean this post and my experience to be negative or down, even though I disagree with the last paragraph in important ways.  I’m sure it’s just that I haven’t evolved to the point where I can accept it totally.  More peace and serenity await me as I continue to practice the step and learn it better.  It is surely a discipline that I’ve dedicated my life to, for about 30 years now.  It’s been well worth it and I joyously look forward to continuing.

All This Should be Very Encouraging (Step Eleven continued)

All this should be very encouraging news for those who recoil from prayer because they don’t believe in it, or because they feel themselves cut off from God’s help and direction.  All of us, without exception, pass through times when we can pray only with the greatest exertion of will.  Occasionally we go even further than this.  We are seized with a rebellion so sickening that we simply won’t pray.  When these things happen we should not think too ill of ourselves.  We should simply resume prayer as soon as we can, doing what we know to be good for us.

Well I’m not brave enough to argue that something that happens to all of us, without exception, has never happened to me.  But I don’t remember being unable or unwilling, so on I go, through the step.

We Discover That We Do Receive Guidance (Step Eleven continued)

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.  Almost any experienced A.A. will tell how his affairs have taken remarkable and unexpected turns for the better as he tried to improve his conscious contact with God.  He will also report that out of every season of grief or suffering, when the hand of God seemed heavy or even unjust, new lessons for living were learned, new resources of courage were uncovered, and that finally, inescapably, the conviction came that God does “move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.”

The hand of God does seems unjust right around now, and I have a daily reminder each time I come into my room to see this kitty cat and his tumor.

And even so I realize that the hand of God is unjust in my favor, and in favor of my cat, who has lead a good life and in his illness has what money can buy him.  The wonders of God include birth, and death.

Today is Mother’s Day and I was blessed with the physical presence of my children one more time.  Their very being is maybe the biggest blessing of my life.  I visited Christy in the hospital and her mother is an inspiration to me.  She has stayed by Christy’s side for 43 days now, literally, and for around 40 years total with no end in sight for her.  The parents of my clients are such powers of example to me.

It is eleven days until my vacation and mother nature has called and I’ve never been so happy to receive her.  I’d just as soon not take her on my cruise.

In AA We Have Found (Step Eleven continued)

In A.A. we have found that the actual good results of prayer are beyond question.  They are matters of knowledge and experience.  All those who have persisted have found strength not ordinarily their own.  They have found wisdom beyond their usual capability.  And they have increasingly found a peace of mind which can stand firm in the face of difficult circumstances.

This is what I’ve been trying to increase and cultivate in preparation for flying, and really for everything that causes me fear, anxiety and stress.  For some time now I’ve been praying the prayers, writing them, thinking them and studying them in an organized and formal fashion, much more mindfully than I’ve ever done before.

I’ve gained knowledge of the prayer, prayers, and some sources including poets, authors and the Bible.  I can’t really see how this increases my wisdom, but I hope it does.  It does increase my peace of mind.  I really hope it can stand firm in the face of difficult circumstances.

I think that in the past, when I faced flight and fear, I was much more confident in the program and the words of the program, though I have less reason to doubt it now than in the past.  I think that might be part of getting older, with that increased sense of vulnerability, or it may be the fact that now I’ll be flying without children to care for.  Or both.  But that deserves its own post.

Of Course, It Is Reasonable (Step Eleven continued)

Of course, it is reasonable and understandable that the question is often asked:  “Why can’t we take a specific and troubling dilemma straight to God, and in prayer secure from Him sure and definite answers to our requests?”

This can be done, but it has hazards.  We have seen A.A.’s ask with much earnestness and faith for God’s explicit guidance on matters ranging all the way from a shattering domestic or financial crisis to correcting a minor personal fault, like tardiness.  Quite often, however, the thoughts that seem to come from God are not answers at all.  They prove to be well-intentioned unconscious rationalizations.  The A.A., or indeed any man, who tries to run his life rigidly by this kind of prayer, by this self-serving demand of God for replies, is a particularly disconcerting individual.  To any questioning or criticism of his actions he instantly proffers his reliance upon prayer for guidance in all matters great or small.  He may have forgotten the possibility that his own wishful thinking and the human tendency to rationalize have distorted his so-called guidance. With the best of intentions, he tends to force his own will into all sorts of situations and problems with the comfortable assurance that he is acting under God’s specific direction.  Under such an illusion, he can of course create great havoc without in the least intending it.

Thankfully I have not met many people in AA who are like this.  Or if I have, they have hidden it from me sufficiently not to bother me much.  It reminds me of a certain kind of political or religious conservatism that I cannot tolerate.  It’s what I think of first when I know that I have to increase my tolerance in general.

I don’t know if any human being actually gets specific answers to specific questions right from God.  I don’t, and I don’t know what that would look like.  I’m more inclined to think that if people who I consider to be “good” people, and especially the people of AA, are pretty unanimous in telling me something specific, they are probably right.  That’s what I would call God working through people.

Even so, I can imagine at times that groups of people, AA or not, are so influenced by times or events or circumstances that they can, as a group, be wrong.

To my understanding, I will not get definite answers to specific requests.  It’s that complicated, and that simple.

As the Day Goes On (Step Eleven continued)

As the day goes on, we can pause where situations must be met and decisions made, and renew the simple request:  “Thy will, not mine, be done.”  If at these points our emotional disturbance happens to be great, we will more surely keep our balance, provided we remember, and repeat to ourselves, a particular prayer or phrase that has appealed to us in our reading or meditation.  Just saying it over and over will often enable us to clear a channel choked up with anger, fear, frustration, or misunderstanding, and permit us to return to the surest help of all–our search for God’s will, not our own will, in the moment of stress.  At these critical moments, if we remind ourselves that “it is better to comfort than to be comforted, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved,” we will be following the intent of Step Eleven.

It was because I remember being desperate, trying to get sober, and saying the prayers of my childhood, because I had memorized them, not because I believed them, that I set out to memorize new prayers and work with them in a way that will make them part of my being.  I do often turn to a quick prayer.  When I’m angry, it’s likely to be, “Make me a channel of Thy peace.”  When things are tense and longer lasting, I’ll read or write an entire prayer in long hand.

When I need to make a decision, and for some reason it’s difficult or tense, I try hard to buy time to think about it and let it settle so I don’t have to react.  If I don’t have time to buy, I usually try to go with what the other person wants.  I try, if I can, to say yes.

I can see how the well-worn phrases and thoughts turn my attention at least a bit from the turmoil to serenity.

But I have on complaint.  I cannot think about the fancy smancy words of the Third Step prayer without thinking that they are goofy.  Why, oh why, did he write it with wilt and Thy and Thou?