August 31, 2013
I’ve been browsing the web tonight, doing some research on the Jewish symbol “chai”, which means “life”.
Since I first saw the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”, I have loved the boisterous song, “To Life!", and in my researching tonight, I began to discover why. The chai symbol and the toast, "l’chaim”, reflect the emphasis on life and the celebration of life as a central theme in Judaism.
Indeed, even the laws of Judaism are given and to be followed to preserve and protect life itself.
So, what does this have to do with Step One of the Twelve Steps?
A lot, it seems to me, and I want to make the connection between this ancient Jewish symbol and the idea of the preservation of life and the last part of the first step, the part that states “and our lives have become unmanageable.”
When I first heard the name God, I assumed that everyone had the same understanding of God that I had. (There will be more about this in Steps Two and Three.)
And for years, I thought I knew what it meant for one’s life to become unmanageable.
Now I know that both assumptions were incredibly shallow.
When one’s life is unmanageable, I believed, he or she has become hopelessly in the throes of his addiction to alcohol, drugs, or whatever other substance, practice or person is in the driver’s seat of one’s life. Most likely, the severity of that addiction has led to the loss of one’s family, one’s job or one’s health.
That is what I was told, and I believed and accepted it.
That easy believism didn’t do much for my need to face the facts about the kind of havoc my codependency was wreaking on the lives of my loved ones. It didn’t help me recognize my “unmanageable life” and its rough places because I could always point to the extreme unmanageability of losing your family, your job or your health and say, “I’m not there yet; I still have all of those things that are so important to me.”
(Comparing oneself to another person, either or up down, is pretty much always a bad trip to take. The truth is that I can always make myself feel better by comparing myself to someone whose life is obviously a wreck, and I can always make myself feel worse by comparing myself to someone who has her life, seemingly, in such a state that she can manage it. Either judging myself up or down, I can avoid seeing my own mess or I can keep myself down by comparing my insides to another’s outside.)
A life that is unmanageable can look like this:
-- a deep well of self-hate or self-doubt that hides behind a neurotic drive to success
-- trying to be what other people want to the degree that you lose your own sense of the purpose for your own one wild and precious life
-- being tuned in to caretaking and others’ needs, wants and moods to the degree that you lose touch with what you need, want and feel
-- making a habit of giving up your agenda for the day to take on another’s crisis
-- allowing other peoples’ moods to control how you feel
-- soothing your own discomfort in life with distractions that harm you, such as excessive shopping and spending
-- quaking before your own life challenges and avoiding meeting them by sabotaging your goals and desires and taking up the success of another as your life’s purpose
-- distracting yourself from your life’s mission and purpose by wasting time, frittering away your opportunities and avoiding your responsibility for your life
-- allowing other people to control you
-- controlling other people to the extent that you create conflict, disharmony and resentment
-- lying when the truth is easier
-- making a habit of making excuses for why you can’t do what you say you want to do (In some circles it’s called a “loser’s limp”)
-- making a habit of playing the victim, all in an attempt to avoid rising to the occasion of living your own wild and precious life
-- criticizing other people as a defense against facing your own character defect
-- being so heavenly that you are of no earthly good – and so people avoid you
-- abusing your body by working too hard, eating too much, not getting enough sleep and not getting exercise, all of which generally lead to illness or health crises
-- neglecting facing your own character defect until it not only causes trouble for others, but becomes so strong a force in your daily life that you, too, are miserable
I’m sure you can add to the list, but the general rule of thumb , as I see it, is that unmanageability has some common traits among all human beings, but each of us has our own tipping point when we say, “I have to do something; I cannot stand this any longer.”
That is when life can begin anew – When you know that, by your own definition, your life is unmanageable, it is the first day of the rest of your life.
The truth is that I have reached that point of recognizing and admitting that my life has become unmanageable more than once.
I’ve had to face those moments when the actions or habits I have maintained have led me to a place that I don’t want to be in relationship, in personal health issues, in the management of daily life, and when I am at that place, I also have to admit that I got there because I had avoided, neglected, ignored or simply rebelled against the laws of life that govern everyone else.
In general, we all get to the destination that is at the end of the line of the train we have boarded.
So it is that the “life principle”, represented by the Chai symbol, has come to mean a lot to me.
It represents the reality that God intends for us to live our lives fully, and that to do that, there are certain principles, laws of nature and practices that I must follow in order to have the fullness of life that I want.
Many years ago, a friend of mine told me about her journey out of the darkness of addiction to alcohol and her struggles to stay sober. I knew that this person had an unusual grace and peace that emanated from her, but I had no idea how desperately she had fought for her own life or how fiercely she worked to preserve her life and her sobriety.
“I am 100% responsible for my sobriety,” she told me. “What that means is that I must oversee every part of my life. I have to have the right nutrition, sufficient rest and daily exercise. I have to be with the kind of people who support healthy living in their own lives, and that means I cannot be around negative people.”
"I have to be careful what images I allow into my mind, and so I watch what I read and what I watch on television. Too much negativity sends me on a downward spiral."
She paused for a moment or two, and then she said, “I have to be with people who are choosing life, and not death.”
In that moment, I had two responses. I knew that I had much to learn from this person who now radiated joy and grace, life and love. I also was profoundly grateful that she was choosing to be with me.
And in that moment, I made a decision that I want to be the kind of person whose words and actions are life-giving and full of hope not only for others, but I want to be that kind of person for myself!
I want to claim the life principle in daily life, and that means that I must face the places in my daily life where stuff is unmanageable – my surroundings, my schedule, my moods, my physical state of being, my priorities – and do an on-going assessment to make sure that I have the humility to take on only what is mine to take on, and let the rest go. I must make sure that I mind my own business and stay out of others’ affairs, except when asked and then, with fear and trembling and caution.
For my entire adult life, I have been guided by the words of wisdom from God to the Hebrew people and recorded in Deuteronomy 30:19:
I have set before you today life and death
blessing and curse:
therefore, choose life.
What about you?
What is your definition of “unmanageable”, as it pertains to your life?
Do you ever try to meddle in others’ unmanageable lives? How does that work for you?
In what areas of life do you tend to drift into unmanageable situations or conditions?
What strategies do you have for setting order back in your life?
Do you ever take on other peoples' problems to avoid facing your own?
Do you tend to get pushed off-balance by others’ demands, or by your own choices?
When you are off-balance, how do you soothe yourself? Does that help the imbalance?
What makes your life manageable?
Who helps you keep life manageable, and who makes it hard for you to do?
Where are you most vulnerable in slipping into unmanageability –
in health habits?
in emotional turmoil?
in financial situation?
in managing your anger?
in conflicts with others?
in taking on more than you can do?
in taking on what doesn’t belong to you?
in neglecting to manage your own inner life?
Tonight, as I write this, I think of those of you who read this blog and comment on it, those I do know and those I do not know, and in my mind, I’m making a toast to you all: l’chaim!
To life and all of its fullness!
Grace to you – always –
(Remember Woody Allen's definition of codependency? It is when you are drowning, and someone else's life passes before your eyes.")