Sunday, August 21, 2011


The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Koninck Salomon, 1647-49
Al-Anon was founded in 1951 by Lois Wilson, the wife of an alcoholic, to help  the families and friends of alcoholics. Now if you have ever had any dealings with an addict or alcoholic—here, I CAN speak from personal experience—you know the intense frustration, rage, bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow that ensue. The more you try to manage and control the alcoholic, the worse he or she seems to get. The alcoholic becomes our organizing principle, as any obsession or resentment or seemingly unsolvable conundrum comes to be our organizing principle. Imperceptibly, without our knowing it, our entire existence can become a reaction to the alcoholic, an effort to best him or her, to head him off at the pass. We hover, monitor, scold, nag, criticize, complain, cover up for, make excuses for, lie about, live in constant fear, constant high alert, and constant and ever-escalating anger.

Imperceptibly, our goal becomes not how to help, but how to correct, and eventually how to punish. Violence in other words: all forms of violence.

What Lois Wilson, and the group she helped to form, discovered was that the solution is to quit thinking about the alcoholic as the problem and start realizing that YOU’RE the problem. You’re invited to see that the more you try to manage and control the alcoholic, the worse you get. You're invited to quit taking the alcoholic’s moral inventory and to start taking your own. This can come as a very startling and unwelcome suggestion, especially to those of us who do fancy ourselves “religious.” I’ve devoted my life to this person, we think. I have “done unto the least of these” and practically killed myself in the process. And now I’m “at fault?” Now I have to do more work?

When you see yourself as a victim, it’s very very difficult to admit that you’ve come to victimize others. When you’re in terrible pain, it’s very difficult to see the ways you’re causing pain to others. This is precisely the kind of willingness and open-mindedness we’re called to by the Gospels, however. This is "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" [Matthew 7:3]; "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone;" and The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in action, and having tried it myself, however haltingly and imperfectly, trust me, it’s an eye-opener.

take the beam out of thine own eye...
What do I get out of being a self-appointed martyr? I’ve had to ask myself. What hideous fear of being “cast out from the herd” makes me say yes when I mean no and no when I mean yes? To do unto the least of these does not mean that I'm called to become a Pharisee, walk around consumed with anger, and destroy myself in the process.

Here’s how my friends tell me their ideas work in action. Say you’re married to an alcoholic. You start having a Plan B. Come time to go to the concert the guy’s drunk again: you call your girlfriend who’s standing by, happy to go if he can’t. He consistently shows up late; you tell him from now on you’ll wait 15 minutes and after that the date’s off. He starts whining; you say, “That must be hard, I know you’ll find your way,” and take off for your ceramics class. He starts arguing: you say “You could be right!” (refraining from adding But you’re not); or “Hunh, I never though of it that way,” (refraining from adding Because that’s the most moronic idea I’ve ever heard) and go outside to water the plants.

You learn you didn’t cause the illness, you didn’t cure the illness, you can’t control the illness. You learn the better part of love is allowing people the dignity of hitting their own bottom, of suffering the consequences of their actions. The boss calls; you no longer lie and say he’s sick; you say, “Hold on” and hand the phone to him. If he gets fired, so be it: one day at a time. Maybe you have to get a job yourself but at least you’re not sitting around all day like a hand grenade waiting to go off. You love him, you respect him, you’re pleasant, but you detach with love. Not from him, but from taking responsibility for him. Maybe you divorce him but you work that out first between you, God, and your spiritual director. Chances are you love the lug anyway: great, you stay and a little more peace reigns. If you have kids, you might have to get them and yourselves out. If not, you sit them down and explain that it’s not their fault and they’re safe but Daddy has a sickness. You regain control not over his life, but over your own life.

You see you inherited the idea that love is rescuing, saving, fixing, and enabling from your parents, if not generations of parents. You see you’ve been practicing some form of this kind of “love” your whole life.

Honesty comes into the equation. You learn to make boundaries and you learn that your anger was not so much at the alcoholic but at yourself because you didn’t know how to and had never been taught and were afraid to make boundaries. You get to love the alcoholic whether or not he quits drinking.

Of course you don’t do any of this alone. You get together with other people in the same boat who share their experience, strength and hope. My friends tell me this counterintuitive, seemingly small, seemingly extremely unlikely and unpromising solution has transformed any number of lives.

photo: Joseph Herrin
One friend gave me this bookmark, put out by the Al-Anon Family Groups:

Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.

Just for today I will be happy. This assumes to be true what Abraham Lincoln said, that 'Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.'

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my 'luck' as it comes, and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knkows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don't want to do -- just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, criticize not one bit. I won't find fault with anything, nor try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.

Just for today I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.

Pretty simple, pretty brilliant, right?

Imagine my surprise to recently stumble across a document called The Decalogue of Pope John XXIII  which is almost word-for-word the same:

1) Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.

2) Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behaviour; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.

3) Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.

4) Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.

5) Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.

6) Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.

7) Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.

8) Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.

9) Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.

10) Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.

I’m sure there’s some very interesting backstory here--either Al-Anon cribbed from the Pope, or the Pope cribbed from Al-Anon--but that's not the point.

The point is that spiritual truth is universal. The point is that here is a solution that is creative, that is inexhaustibly transformational, that is interesting, that leads to compassion and love, that breaks open our hearts, that gives us hope. The point is fill in the blank for "alcoholic": any scandal, any stumbling block, anything that threatens us, anything or anyone we can’t manage and control. Because this same feeling of frustration, of being disentitled and disenfranchised, of feeling powerless in the face of the behavior of the people we love, or would like to love, must surely be the root cause of war.

We die to our idea of ourselves as people who MUST bend people, places and things to our will. We step out of the way and ask a power greater than ourselves to step in. We become humble enough to realize that we really don’t know what’s best for others.

The Crucifixion was the über creative solution to violence. The Resurrection—and I can hardly think of bigger resurrection than for peace to reign in an alcoholic home—was the proof that it works.

Christ and the Adulterous Woman
("Let him who is without sin"...)
Anonymous from Venice (formerly attributed to El Greco)
Second half of the 16th century


  1. Heather! I just started reading your blog a few days ago. Your story on Fr. Joe, was amazing and have visited your blog daily ever since.

    Only for today is something I need to put in practice. I will print it out and read it daily. Hopefully I will be able to actually do it someday.

    I am married to a wonderful alcoholic, and I am a compulsive overeater, so this can help me with both! Thanks again

  2. Heather, wow, what a parallel, huh? I'm not surprising that this crossing has happened. But thanks for pointing it out to us.

  3. A beloved neighbor is struggling with these very matters, so I'm especially grateful for this post.

    And who's to say I won't need its wise words myself, someday? Thank you, Heather.

  4. Heather;

    Since I'm a hermit, Al Anon only got one shot at me years ago, when I was married to an alcoholic. They pointedly told me that I was the problem, and nothing would change until I did. Not so helpful.

    But I am a reader. And I read an Al Anon book. A woman said she asked her kids, once grown, what they remembered about living with their alcoholic dad. They said they didn't remember so much about the drinking, but they remembered that she yelled a lot.

    Now, that's what I needed to hear! (Same thing the Al Anon ladies tried to tell me, but in a way I could receive it). I decided right then that my kids would be OK if I was OK, and that became my mantra. That mantra, my faith, and the sacraments carried me through those difficult years.


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