Tim Green remembers how he discovered the limits of his personal power–and what lay beyond them.
It happened more than 20 years ago, but I remember the incident as if it were yesterday—and I don’t ever want to forget it.
So I’m flying down the interstate in Connecticut, pedal to the metal, radio blaring, excreting blasphemous nonsense at the top of my lungs. That I’m acting out my macho Indy 500 road rage in a beat up VW Jetta makes the event all the more ludicrous—and pathetic. Whatever influences I was under at that moment were not good. I was a burned-out bond trader, who’d “volunteered” (meaning I was about to go up in flames) to leave Wall Street and escape to an ostensibly safer buy-side-investor job—forsaking mucho earnings and glory—and my life was still falling apart.
I blamed God for everything that was wrong: the scars from years of abuse at the hands of an alcoholic, mentally ill mother and an enabling, MIA father (there was no childhood); a troubled marriage that gave rise to a quarter century of bad behavior; strained relations with my kids; an ever-looming financial armageddon; and an omnipresent, gut-wrenching fixation on feeling inadequate, never good enough, stupid and overwhelmed by life. I was a fraud and sooner or later I was going to be exposed.
Over the years, I had dealt with my shit by becoming a control freak of the highest order. My refuge was power. Head of household. Breadwinner. Professional. Survivor. And if you had my life, you’d drink too. I deluded myself that alcohol empowered and invigorated me, stimulated my mind, inspired my creativity (à la Faulkner and Hemingway), lifted my depression and silenced my demons. In reality, I had surrendered any power I had to alcohol, a depressant, a delivery system for an insidious fatal disease.
It wasn’t until I crawled into the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous in March of 1992 that I began to connect the dots. The first “aha” moment occurred when I encountered the word “fear” modified by “self-centered” in the AA literature. Suddenly it all made sense. Self-centered fear was all about ego. That abject fear had controlled my being because I’d spent my life in my own head. I was a control freak because I was incapable of trusting anyone or anything. I was a bully camouflaging cowardice. Macho was merely an artifice.
AA is littered with signs, banners and posters that spout Readers Digest-y aphorisms, bumper sticker maxims and seeming paradoxes like, “To keep your sobriety, you must give it away.” (Interpretation: recovery is a team effort; AA is a fellowship; it is through helping another alcoholic that one helps oneself.) The touchstone is that to get sober, one must surrender—admit powerlessness over alcohol—and become willing to turn one’s will over to a power greater than oneself. Because AA is a spiritual program, not a religious one, that outside power is generically named a Higher Power. For the majority who choose to call that Higher Power, “God,” there is an important qualifier: it is a God of our understanding and definition, not the robed, formidable, punishing God of our youth
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology who influenced the early foundation of AA in the 1930s, believed that, “we are psychosomatic creatures who must attend to matters of the spirit as well as the body….our psyche is not our own. It is connected to others….Life goes well when the links are open. Flow brings a sense of purpose.” Spiritual connectedness is fundamental to being human. Jung went on to argue that the goal of recovery from alcoholism and addiction is not a cure, but acceptance of the human condition. Of his patients, he wrote in 1937, “They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, and thus were reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is almost like what used to be expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God.”
As any alcoholic or addict can attest, turning one’s will over to a higher power is not a passive event; it is a conscious, deliberate act, a struggle we face on a daily basis. We alcoholics are a willful, controlling bunch, so this act of surrendering does not come naturally. But by doing so, we gain the strength to fight for recovery. Our power is derived. Twenty years into recovery, I still get road rage impulses, but I don’t act on them, and I certainly don’t blame God.
William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, who also influenced AA in its infancy and was a peer of Jung, is quoted: “Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.” I love this double-entendre. Generically, a worthwhile life depends on acceptance of life on life’s terms and surrendering one’s willfulness. Additionally, for this alcoholic, the quality of my life is a function of my sobriety—my spiritual, mental, physical, physiological (manifested in a healthy liver) well-being.
 Mark Vernon, “Carl Jung, part 7: the power of acceptance,” guardian.co.uk, July 11, 2011.