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Why do so many disregard the one thing that can help them?
Back when I was in the theater business, I worked with a man — let’s call him “Chris” — who regularly talked his way into trouble. Chris was a good stagehand and a good person. But, as one of our mutual colleagues memorably put it, he “always managed to say the right thing at the wrong time.” Thus, like the cloud of bad luck which follows around Joe Btfsplk, Chris and conflict were rarely all that far apart.
For a lot of years I assumed Chris didn’t know or didn’t care that his words left so many people feeling hurt or sad or bewildered or angry. I assumed that, somehow, it didn’t bother him that he had to spend so much energy responding to complaints. My opinion changed, however, after he and I had known each other for something like a decade. A day came, after all those years, on which the two of us were working together by ourselves backstage in a theater. And, all of sudden, Chris and I had one of those beautiful and mysterious and fleeting moments of mutual understanding, one of those moments when two people are able to tell the truth to one another, one of those moments when artifice falls away and things become real.
Chris looked at me, uncharacteristically quiet and melancholic. “Martin,” he told me, “I have a heart of gold and a mouth of crap.”
I think of that conversation a lot. I think of it, in particular, when I encounter 12-Step Spirituality. Because, through what he said and through how long he waited to say it, Chris illustrated two ideas that are fundamental to the philosophy, the theology, and the practices of Alcoholics Anonymous and of similar programs.
First, it can take a lot of time and a lot of effort to get to the place where we are able to name out loud the thing with which we are struggling. Many folks decide that it is easier to keep on drinking (or doing drugs, or indulging their anger, or expressing their sexuality in a destructive way, or saying things which hurt others) than it is to name their brokenness. To some extent, all of us do the same: my own biggest failures as a husband, a father, and a neighbor come when I choose the lesser effort of putting up with hurt over the hard work of building something fairer with my wife, my children, my friends, or even a stranger on the street. Naming, therefore, is a big deal.
Second, naming your struggle is but the first step. It is far from the last step. If getting over a drinking problem were as simple as saying, “I drink too much,” then alcoholism and other addictions would be a pretty easy matter. If getting over having a mouth of crap were as simple as saying, “I really need to think before I speak,” then a whole lot of us would have spent a whole lot less time in the principal’s office. Naming the way that we are hurt and the way that we hurt others, naming the need to change our behavior: this is where a long and taxing journey begins.
As difficult as this work of naming may be, as difficult as the 11 steps which wait beyond it may be, taking on this work matters. Because, Steve, it is through naming and through what naming makes possible that we are able to pay attention to the one thing that can help us. Notice the second of the 12 steps: we come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us. In the Christian tradition, we believe that we know that higher power through the person of Jesus Christ.
I live in a different town than Chris now. So, I don’t know if he still has a mouth of crap. (If his struggles are anything like my own, the answer to that question is probably “sometimes.”) But I do know that he did something important when he named his tendency to transfer pain to others through his words. In the admission that he made out loud to me, to himself, and to God, Chris began a journey. It is a journey in which you and I share. The steps of this journey will take us back to wholeness, back to happiness, back to service, back to love. Back to the one thing that can help us. Back home.
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