Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:5-6)
I really liked this passage from Hebrews from this week’s lectionary, and it fits nicely with my topic for today. It’s amazing to me how relevant something written 2000 years ago can be.
Last summer I talked about losing my brother to alcoholism and drug addiction, and I also discussed my own struggle with alcoholism many years earlier. Today, by the grace of God and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ve been sober for over 12 years, for which I’m incredibly grateful. In AA, we stress the importance of maintaining an attitude of gratitude. It’s common for AA’s to share gratitude lists with each other on a daily basis. Not only is this a good way to start your day, but it helps us to stay sober, which is part of our primary purpose.
From a young age, I was taught to be grateful for my blessings in life. To focus on my misfortunes was a disservice to those who were less fortunate than me. My mom had us volunteer at food pantries and write letters to our sponsored children in 3rd world countries. She stressed the importance of helping those who were less fortunate. My family also gave my brother, sister, and me plenty of practical reasons to be grateful. The majority of my family worked in medicine, and many dinner table conversations included detailed descriptions of trauma patients, pediatric diseases, and other ailments we were lucky not to have. I’ve also worked in hospitals for the majority of my career, and I thank God routinely for my health (even if my lower back is starting to get sore in my old age).
This attitude of gratitude also helped me get sober. For a long time, I felt grief about my inability to drink like everyone else. It was unfair that God cursed me with this allergy to alcohol that my friends didn’t have. How could I go through life with such an unfortunate affliction? Eventually, I realized that I had so many other things to be grateful for in life. God had dealt me a really good hand, and just because one card was a 2 of clubs didn’t mean I should fold. Once I had this change of perspective, I started to see a way forward.
Beyond my sobriety, my health, and my first world comforts, I have many other things to be grateful for. My marriage is more than I could have ever asked for. My life has been infinitely more enjoyable and fulfilling from the day Taylor and I moved in together. Everything became much clearer to me. And having a teammate in life has made me so much stronger. The relationship we have today is a product of an incredible amount of compatibility and a lot of hard work. We have regular check ins, we ask for help when we need it, and we listen to each other. No matter what else is going on in my life, I feel so grateful for Taylor.
And we’re expecting a little girl sometime this month! That’s another thing I’m incredibly grateful for. I’ve been looking forward to having kids for a very long time. Poor Taylor had to put up with my incessantly asking her “when do you want to have kids?” for years before she was ready. Luckily, she didn’t run away, and I did my best to tone it down. So far in the pregnancy, everything has gone as well as we could ask for. We’ve been blessed with excellent prenatal care through the San Francisco Birth Center, and we’ve gotten to know many other soon-to-be parents in the city.
I know everyone in this room can think of at least 3 things they’re very grateful for in life. We all have many things for which we could thank God every day. I do have conflicted feelings about my being grateful for my situation relative to the less fortunate. Our own suffering can help us feel grateful for the positive aspects in our life, but the experience of others can help us appraise our own situation. For example, a very small percentage of alcoholics receive treatment, and a minority of those remain sober. And my experience and observations have demonstrated that personal character, intelligence, or morality are not the differentiators. I’ve seen incredibly brilliant people think themselves out of sobriety. And I’ve seen people on the other end of the intelligence spectrum put together decades of sobriety. There is no secret combination of factors that leads to someone’s deciding to stay sober. By the grace of God, there go I, one of the lucky few alcoholics who is able to achieve continuous sobriety. For this I must be grateful.
The same can be said for my gratitude for my marriage and for our pregnancy. Sadly, I’ve seen many unhappy marriages. My parents got divorced about 10 years ago, and I’ve seen many other unhappy marriages. And we know many couples who have struggled with infertility, so we know how blessed we are with our baby girl. I’m not sure of a better way to maintain an attitude of gratitude, but understanding my own blessings through the lens of others’ experiences has worked for me.
Life has not been smooth sailing by any means. I’ve experienced a lot of grief as well. In April of last year, my brother died of an alcohol and drug overdose. I flew to Hong Kong to attempt to console his grieving fiancé, try to explain the disease of alcoholism and addiction to her and her family, identify the body, and bring back his remains. It was one of the hardest and most painful things I’ve ever done. Even though I knew that day was a possibility due to his long history of alcoholism and drug addiction, nothing could have prepared me for it. No more inside jokes, no more martial arts reenactments, no more deep conversations about obscure topics, and no more hope that he may one day get sober. I have moments where I’m overcome with sadness thinking about him and the fact that he’s not here anymore.
I also mentioned my parent’s divorce. That has been incredibly hard on our family, both emotionally and financially. Trips home always feel short because they’re split between mom and dad, and I mourn for the loss of the family, which was its own entity. My dad was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago, and he remembers less and less from the past every time I talk to him. From my brother’s passing, my parent’s divorce, and my dad’s dementia, my nuclear family has completely dissolved. I wasn’t expecting that to be my situation at age 32. I’m envious of my many friends who still have completely intact families, who can enjoy a sense of familiarity, memories, and belonging when they’re together.
I know God has a plan, and he will not forsake me. I believe our many sufferings are often used for good at some point in the future, and I know I would not enjoy my happy moments as much if I knew no suffering. There’s a story by Alan Watts that captures this well:
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse, it ran away. And all the neighbors came around that evening and said, “That’s too bad.” And he said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbors came around and said, “Well that’s great isn’t it.” And he said, “Maybe.”
The next day his son was attempting to tame one of these horses, and was riding it, and was thrown and broke his leg. All the neighbors came around in the evening and said, “Oh, well that’s too bad isn’t it.” And the farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the neighbors came around in the evening and said, “Isn’t that wonderful.” And he said, “Maybe.”
That story helps me to not wallow in self-pity, and to have faith that my temporary suffering may lead to something positive or my being useful in a new way. I do my best to count my blessings even in the face of grief.
Lastly, I want to share with you a passage from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous referred to as “The Promises.” I return to these in times of doubt, and they reiterate the covenant that God offers all of us.
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.