Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Next Right Thing

There's a saying common in twelve-step programs. It doesn't come from the program literature, but it's common wisdom in the meetings. It's the twelve-step equivalent of the golden rule: Do the next right thing.

It's probably so pervasive because by the time people make it to a twelve-step program, they've pretty effectively trashed their lives and just as effectively killed off brain cells and emotional development, so they need something very simple to focus on while the haze clears and the metaphoric chickens of their addiction come home to roost.

When I first heard the phrase early in my sobriety, it seemed a little too pat, a little too pollyanna-ish. Later though, I grew enough to see the wisdom in it, because there are times in life when you find yourself in a situation where there's so much wrong that it's difficult to know where to start and hard to believe that anything you can do is going to make any difference whatsoever. That is where the "next right thing" becomes useful.

You see, in recovery, the first little bit of time, when you sober up just a touch, you realize that pretty much everything in your life has to change, and you're so scared that you want to wet yourself. If you're lucky, you just hang on through it as best you can.

After that, there's the "pink cloud," as it's called, where you're so happy to still be sober and to have not wet yourself that you're euphoric for a little bit. That's when addicts become really annoying, talking about how "grateful" they are, and how their "higher power" is seeing them through.

And then, the third stage is when you're sober enough to see reality and past being so petrified that that's all you can think about, and suddenly your cloud changes from pink to grey, as you begin to see what a walking, talking disaster you are, even when you're not loaded all the time. You realize that the booze or the drugs weren't the "problem" after all--you were the problem. You and your fear and avoidance and self-centeredness, and immaturity, and refusal to face reality on reality's terms--those were the problems. Your chosen substance was just a really poor attempted solution.

That's when your problems can start to seem insurmountable, like there's no reason to stay sober, because there's just too much damage and stupidity to ever come back from. That's when a lot of people with a few months in the program decide to use again--to go back to the same stupid and ineffective solution they've always used. But if you're lucky, when you're in a meeting, you'll share something that shows that's where you are, and someone will say to you that you can't worry about all the past, and you can't figure out all the future, you just have to "do the next right thing."

As a society, I think that's just about where we are right now. There's a lot of people who get just how messed up our world is. I think the financial crisis and our government claiming the right to imprison and murder us without a trial have pushed a lot of people over that line, at least. Some people are still on the pink cloud, where some savior--Jesus or Ron Paul or the Oathkeepers or benevolent ETs or Kalki the destroyer or something--is going to come and fix it all up for us, all tied up with a pretty bow.

But a lot of people have passed that stage too (Ron Paul's son endorsing Mitt Romney took a lot of the fun out of that savior myth). If you're one of those people, right now, you are at that third stage--where you look around and see the magnitude of the problems we've caused and allowed, and see that the cavalry is not riding in, and you look at each other and say, "May I panic now?"

My answer is no. It's not time to panic. It's also not time to give up. It's time to do the next right thing.

Don't like Walmart and the other big businesses making a killing while exporting our jobs and destroying small merchants? Don't shop there. Even if paper towels are 9 cents cheaper. And tell other people why you've made that decision. Who knows? They might be trying to do the next right thing too.

Don't like big Pharma selling us risky, ineffective drugs and lines of BS and bribing doctors to help them get us hooked? Then take responsibility for your own health and stop buying the line of thought that you can eat fast food, frozen pizzas and bacon, sit on your butt 24/7, use and abuse your body in every way and fix it all with a magic pill that the nice man at Pfizer provides because he's a nice man and your health insurance is required to pay for, courtesy of government regulation.

Don't like the big bankers stealing the wealth out from under us regular people? Don't borrow from them, don't let them within half a mile of whatever money you have, and begin insisting, loudly, that those who have done wrong are accountable and are not in a position to do it again.

Don't like the government telling us that we're expendable cattle to be spied upon, put on hit lists, sent to die in their eternal wars and paid food stamps to keep quiet about it? Tell them no. Do whatever is in your power to be non-compliant, and to be particularly noisy about it.

Want there to be less violence, hate and division in the world? BE less violent, hateful and divisive.

Worried about people who are having a hard time? Surely there's some you know or know of. Help them. Hand them a bit of money, or a casserole. Or if you haven't got those to spare, a supportive note or kind word certainly couldn't hurt. If your life is stinking, you'd love to have it fixed, but the next best thing is to know that someone at least is thinking kindly about you.

Et cetera. Each of us may not be able to fix the whole world, but if a lot of people fix their own bit of it, the world will fix itself.

At the same time that we're doing the next right thing, we have to be careful to resist the temptation to recycle old and stupid solutions. For example, we've seen that easy credit and bigger social programs are not the answer to a system that's fundamentally unfair. We know that stuffing our fingers in our ears to avoid hearing about all the butchery committed by our government in our names isn't saving us from decline in the world's esteem. We're becoming painfully aware that all the extra "security" we've bought at the cost of financial solvency and personal freedom has brought us not safety, but living on the perpetual brink of World War Three. We've already tried avoiding the consequences of a lack of integrity and compassion by the 'bread and circuses' tactics of keeping people half comatose in front of a TV, plugged into an I-pad and a smartphone, so we won't notice the suffering of our fellow humans. Those were stupid solutions to our problem of national or worldwide fear, just like getting drunk is a stupid solution for the alcoholic's individual fear. And stupid solutions don't get smarter if you try them more often.

So we need to just leave that stuff behind and each one of us do the next right thing.

I know I'm at odds with just about everything else you might see or read. That information is telling you to: 1) ignore all the evidence that things can't go on like this much longer; or 2) hoard canned goods and bottled water, buy gold, and prepare to defend you and yours to the death, or 3) make a date with a running automobile in a closed garage.

Well, sorry. I'm always the renegade. I can't ignore the evidence, and I'm too stubborn and have too much residual Catholic guilt from my upbringing to take myself out. As for the rest, I'm middle aged, 5'4", 120 lbs, and own two guns: a .22 rifle my hubby bought with S&H green stamps when he was 12 and a .380 pistol that's missing its clip. I'm probably screwed if violence and survivalism is going to win the day.

So I'm going to keep doing the next right thing and figure that if any significant segment of the populace is doing the same, we're all going to be fine.

If I'm wrong:

1) I can always panic later;

2) If I've been nice to people in the meantime, someone may give me a sandwich; and

3) If the saviors do show up, they probably won't mind that I started saving the world without them.

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