The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Like most middle-class, suburban Americans, I was raised on a healthy diet of exceptionalism. I believed, without a doubt, that my life had some greater meaning. I may have suffered humble beginnings, but I was certain that in the end, I was going to make it big.

A rock star, perhaps? I was, probably, the best (and only) saxophonist ever to play in a Tool cover band. If you’re not familiar with Tool, that might not sound too absurd, but it’s a bit like playing the maracas for a Norwegian black metal group.

Maybe I should be a politician, I’d think. I had a lot of lofty idealism motivating my thoughts and decisions. I knew, or I thought I knew, what the world needed. I could make it a better place, were I in charge.

Or maybe I’d just be filthy rich, the Scrooge McDuck of my graduating class, succeeding as well in philanthropic pursuits as I did in business. I’d save the world one dollar at a time. Well, every other dollar. I’d need some of that money for my stable of Ferraris, the professional football teams I’d own, and my fleet of gold-plated hot air balloons.

As the years went by, I’m sorry to have to tell you, none of this happened. There was a growing dissonance between what I thought my life should be and what it was. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have my share of bad experiences — severe illness, homelessness, changing schools annually — but I objectively had it better than most. So I’d adjust for more modest dreams — a famous author, a renowned journalist, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I couldn’t appreciate the things I had at the time. My life had meaning, but it wasn’t enough. Nothing ever was.

I couldn’t celebrate the fact that I’d secured a good job months before I’d finished my undergraduate degree. I took no solace in becoming a homeowner at 24. I had nice things, I was able to travel to a lot of interesting places, I was in terrific shape, I had friends and family who loved and supported me. I needed more. I expected more. I couldn’t bear the feeling that there was so much distance between what should be and what was. I wanted to feel on the inside how I seemed on the outside: accomplished. Secure. Serene.

You can guess where I thought I’d found all of that: a bag, a bottle, or a needle. In substance abuse, I thought I’d discovered the missing link: I could actually, finally, have a few moments to myself absent the gnawing feeling that I wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t feeling anything real at all; I was satisfied with not feeling something negative.

My abuse of drugs and alcohol didn’t actually ease my constant and unyielding sense of existential dread, of course. It just let me remove myself from consciously participating in the less exciting parts of existence. I could ignore that sinking, sick feeling that I really didn’t like my life.

As time went by, my indulgences started to yield difficult situations.

My first marriage was remarkably brief — and how better to respond to a divorce than to drown your sorrows? Did I stop for a moment to think that perhaps my drinking and drug use contributed to the alienation that led to the divorce? No, I’ afraid I wasn’t quite yet ready to do any soul-searching.

I didn’t like what I was doing for a living. I found it empty and hollow, and despite being good at it, I had no real interest in it beyond a paycheck. Did I explore my options, look for something more fulfilling, perhaps go back to school while I was still young? Did I ever stop to think that I could find meaning and purpose in something outside of my work?

I didn’t like the way I looked, I didn’t like the car I drove, I didn’t like the neighborhood I lived in. I was mired in negativity, and I’d invented most of it. I could have taken just one constructive step toward remedying any of these insecurity-based problems, but I didn’t. I took the shortcut.

When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some face of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes. (Big Book, page 417)

The fundamental, driving factor for all of my addictive pursuits was an inability to accept. On one side of the equation was the life that is; on the other, the life that I thought should be.

I won’t lament my further substance-inspired failures; at this point in my life, I’m getting pretty sick of reliving those memories. Flagellation doesn’t serve any real purpose. I’ve learned what I can from them.

In the end, it all came down to acceptance. I had to learn to love the life that is. I had to stop expecting the unrealistic. I had to stop feeling that I *deserved* so much, that I didn’t have to work for it, that it was some kind of birthright.

If I’m willing to do the work — and if I’m willing to understand that things don’t happen just because I think they should, or because I want them badly enough — I can close that gap between *am* and *will be*. Not in every case, of course, but enough to really matter.

I think there’s a prayer for that, isn’t there?

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


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