The topic was humility; not a stretch for a Friday night meeting in Alcoholics Anonymous. The focus was on Step Seven of the program’s twelve steps. In AA’s book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions the word humility is mentioned thirty-one times. I know this because my sponsor made me count it. A walk down the road of humility reveals a constant awareness of one’s pride, and pride can be lethal for an alcoholic.
So, after the facilitator for last night’s meeting opened up the floor for discussion, there was an awkward pause. I hate awkward pauses. This one seemed to go on interminably. I don’t like being the person to open the discussion. I need more time to formulate my response and I am not one of those brilliants who can be witty, articulate and succinct on my feet. That is why I am a writer; it gives me time to ponder. Second, listening to others’ responses first can trigger my own personal memory or experience related to the subject that may help my contribution to the meeting be more meaningful.
I finally caved in to my self-imposed speaking restrictions and began to recount a brief synopsis of my family’s heritage tour to China, from which we had just returned five days prior. As a matter of fact, this was my first meeting in 4 weeks. Between the preparations for the tour, the fifteen days out of the country, and the recovery from the very taxing jet-lag, I had missed nearly a month of meetings, and was looking forward to the hearing the experience, strength, and hope of others to help refill my own recovery “tool-box.” I thought I could relate this meeting’s topic to the apparent paradox my husband and I had observed in China. The country’s national “religion” is atheism, but her people seem quite godly and humble from an individual perspective. I relayed how they have so little in material possessions, but they demonstrate great joy in their daily lives. Here in America, we have freedom of religion, and if one looks at the surface of our culture through the media, there is an apparent lack of godly behavior and morality, and a constant search for “happiness.” I shared this thought within the constructs of our journey to China with our two adopted Chinese daughters. I also shared with the group that I was happy to be at the meeting, and I was happy to be back in America.
I immediately wished I hadn’t spoken.
A man whom I am familiar with from attending this meeting somewhat regularly (for anonymity’s sake I’ll refer to him as “Joe”) began to respond to my observations.
“The Chinese are a bunch of bastards…” and on it went: A no-less-than five minute dissertation inflected with his ethnocentric value system on the greatness of the USA and Christianity, and his extreme distaste for those who travel abroad and espouse the values of cross-cultural exchange. All of this was based not on the merits of American virtue, but rather on the evils of the Asians. He was off the chain.
I am an American. I love our soldiers. I, too, was happy to be back on American soil in my native culture following our two weeks abroad. I am a political conservative. I am a Jesus follower. I try my best to adhere to the principles and steps of AA.
Joe has a history in these meetings. He is often crass, arrogant, angry, egotistical, judgmental, and he uses objectionable language. I have noted eye-rolling and other distasteful gestures from other AAs when he speaks, but this time, there was a collective gasp in the room and many of those folks in attendance looked at me to see where the volley was heading. He struck me at my jugular.
As the hostility of his words sunk in, my expression metamorphosed from a patronizing half-cocked grin, to astonishment, and progressed to an utter failure to conceal my emotions, no matter how hard I tried to suppress them. It was like trying to sustain a flood-wall whose threshold had been breached. Blame it on the lingering jet-lag, but his words stung like they had been hurled from a sling-shot. Where was my defense? I wanted to hold it together, take it like a soldier and stand my ground; and counter with a retort that would cleverly and conclusively stall his jet, but I was paralyzed.
After at least five minutes of his verbal attack, he finally shut-up, and the guy sitting next to me rose to my defense. He is a very articulate fellow, politically correct with a non-threatening manner… but I still could not hold it together. I had to get up and walk out. I exited this meeting and through tears, blindly made my way to my car. I felt humiliated, even victimized. This was an “open” meeting, designed for AAs and their spouses, partners, seekers, whomever. Joe made a travesty of the meeting and I hoped to God that he hadn’t frightened off any newcomers. A very nice couple followed me to my car, consoled, and extended a degree of humanity toward me that, sadly, Joe would never have the aptitude to experience.
After this bitter experience, here is where I’ve landed: I feel terribly sorry for Joe. Something very awful must have happened to him in his lifetime to make him so miserable. Perhaps he has lost a son in the war. Perhaps he was abused. I know he is an alcoholic, but he is no-where near “recovered.” He is what those recovered folks “in the rooms” call a “dry drunk.” This is an alcoholic who has stopped the obsessive consumption of alcohol, but has not done the work behind changing the behaviors that motivates his or her drinking. I became resolved to pray for Joe, and not let him take up any more rent space in my head. I haven’t the room. It had been four weeks since I had been at a meeting. During these four weeks wine and beer had been passed around in front of me indiscriminately during our time abroad. I had successfully withstood the pressure to drink. I had not wanted to drink. The compulsion is gone. During these four weeks away from a meeting and out of the country, I had also experienced my one-year sobriety date. My very first birthday! I had gone to this Friday night meeting to get my one year anniversary chip, and had allowed this man to get the best of me, and rob me of the opportunity to celebrate my recovery. I left the meeting terribly hurt, wondering where the message was in all of this, and whether I would ever return.
This morning, the morning after, I awoke with a new resolve. I just returned home from my Saturday morning home group of Alcoholics Anonymous. I picked up my one-year chip amidst many hugs and cheers. The irony of Joe’s outburst was that he exemplified the complete loss of humility with a hostile takeover by pride. He doesn’t get it. Some of us are just sicker than others. Yet again, the serenity prayer has rescued me from a place of self-pity:
God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to changes the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.