“We’re all here because we’re not all there.” So said a friend of mine, quoting his wise grandma, at a meeting of one of those many fellowships inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous.
I know about craziness. I saw it on a regular basis growing up, and mostly attributed it to my father, who used to drink a fifth of Scotch a day. His liver, obviously, was prodigious. (In later years he tried switching to wine and would typically drink one and a half gallons a day.) Family life — my “familiar” life — was crazy.
Every child thinks his family is normal (until he finds out it’s not). And in a crazy family, everyone tries to compensate for the crazy-maker, in one way or another, in order to survive.
My particular form of craziness manifested itself in several ways, the most obvious of which were as a superachiever and as a peacemaker. The superachiever part had its upside, especially during my school years, and landed me at a prestigious university and later a prestigious employer. And the peacemaker side had its benefits, too: many people even thought I was a priest.
These traits also had their downsides. The superachiever part of me couldn’t tolerate anything that I perceived as a flaw, in particular anything that would make people fail to respect me. Thus, I was closeted as a gay man for years. The peacemaker couldn’t tolerate conflict, and so I would avoid it at all costs in my personal relations. People would do things that I would feel angry about, but I would never say how I felt because that would upset them. Instead, I stuffed my anger. Or they would do things that frightened me, and rather than confront them, I would avoid them.
Eventually, of course, all these feelings would surface, and then those around me would be bewildered. Whatever happened to our “nice” friend? What set him off? Is he nuts?
He was. My efforts to manipulate situations so that I could find peace of mind are described in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”:
Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But, as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.
What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?
I still try to be that actor on occasion, but when I do, I usually recognize (often after being reminded by friends) that I am doing it. And then I can step back and let people live their own lives, while focusing on mine.
That works a lot better for me. I can stop stepping on people’s toes (or, alternatively, constantly looking out for toes I might be stepping on) and instead take purposeful steps. The unhealthy people in my life, disturbed by this new behavior, have largely drifted away. Other people and things I have had to say goodbye to, in order to make room for what might come along next. And while I might miss them for a time, I am invariably surprised at what eventually arrives, courtesy of God, the Universe, karma — whatever you might call it.
This has allowed me to pursue my creative side, including my writing (and thanks for reading, by the way) and my
The other day, I suggested to a friend who was struggling that he write a Gratitude List. I’ve found it’s a lot healthier to focus
on the good things I have than on what I lack. Here’s a start on mine right now:
- Being cared for
- Close friends
- Having the necessities (food, clothing, shelter)
What are you grateful for in your life?