Recently, a newly sober friend came to talk to me about her frustrations with recovery. Despite her deep desire to be sober, she felt like she wasn’t getting “it,” and that “real” recovery was somehow out of her reach. I asked what she thinks it looks like to be in recovery.
“Real recovery,” she said, “means always being happy, never making mistakes, sharing profound wisdom in meetings, and immediately getting rid of any defects of character.”
As I listened, my mind scanned through dozens of friends in recovery. I’m 99% sure that none of them, regardless of their length of sobriety, would ever claim to fit this friend’s standards for a recovered life. No wonder she felt that recovery was unattainable—at the end of the day, she associated recovery with perfection. And as anybody who has ever sat in a 12-step room knows, a life of recovery does not equal the impossible idea of perfection.
While we may know in theory that recovery doesn’t include perfection, many of us still live by that unspoken expectation. We can become harsh self-critics if we don’t say or do the right thing at the right time in the right way. We compare ourselves to those who appear to have healed relationships or those with good jobs or people who can quote the big book with page numbers.
Some of our drive for perfection might come from a sincere desire to behave differently than we did in the past, but often, we aim for perfection out of deep fear: the fear that we aren’t good enough, the fear that we will be rejected if we are misunderstood, or the fear that mistakes translate into an inability to have long-term sobriety.
Striving for perfection is an act of self-reliance. It’s an attempt to control our fears and feelings with the false belief that if we behave well enough, we can avoid pain and loss. But mistakes, challenges, pain, and loss are inevitable, and unrealistic expectations of our behavior only lead to guilt, self-judgment and shame.
In truth, recovery is the PROCESS of learning how to be sober, healthy, honest and present. And for better or worse, most of us learn through failures, difficulties or dead-ends more than we do by hitting home runs.
Instead of exhausting ourselves in attempts to avoid failure, we can direct our energy toward enjoying health and freedom by learning a new way of living.
This life of recovery has a significant learning curve for those of us who spent our entire lives trying to change the way we feel. It takes time to untangle the negative self-talk, the addictive patterns and the practice of self-reliance. There is no expectation that we will be Captain Maturity who never faces self-pity or fear. Instead, we learn through practicing honesty and surrender.
God as we understand God does not demand perfection. Instead, our higher power wants us to embrace the journey. Deep change comes as we learn how to face reality, and reality requires us to own our failures and allow mistakes to be our teachers along the journey.
Mistakes can be as much a part of our growth as meetings. Failures can teach us as much as conversations with others in the program. Releasing ourselves from unrealistic expectations allows us to be open to the Divine Love that calls us away from control and self-reliance and reminds us that recovery is about growing, not arriving.
On the true path of recovery, we learn to own our weaknesses and let go of control. It is this spiritual practice that brings light to our journey and allows us to embrace that we are lovable even in our imperfections.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
Yesterday, I found myself lying facedown in some dirt while talking to a group of guys about shame.
We were meeting to explore the various reasons we are resistant to authentic spiritual connection. I expected answers of disbelief or over-complicating prayer or simply not knowing how to connect with a higher power.
But the almost unanimous reason for avoiding connection with the Divine was surprising:
Shame—the snaky, suffocating belief that we’re not good enough. Shame is the hopeless sense that we aren’t valuable, worthy, or even spiritual enough to be capable of love, freedom or connection.
The problem is, our beliefs on self-worth are based on a cultural system of punishment and reward. It’s a black hole created out of humanity’s attempts to make sense of right and wrong. When you do good things, you deserve to be loved and rewarded. When you do bad things, you deserve to be ostracized and punished.
Unconditional love, unmerited acceptance, and unearned forgiveness are counter to the human constructs in which we’ve often lived.So we get stuck in questions.
“How am I supposed to believe in unconditional love and forgiveness and acceptance when I know what I’ve done?”
But spiritual connection is different than other connections. The Source of love doesn’t operate on a reward/punishment system because unconditional love by definition has nothing to do with behavior.
Shame may give us a sense of control and a cheap motivation to change, but it can’t lead us to freedom. Instead, shame leads to hiding, fear, anxiety, rebellion and feelings of worthlessness.
Shame tries to steal our happiness and destroy our recovery.
As the circle of guys spoke more and more about how they didn’t deserve love or connection with a higher power, I finally stood up from my chair. We were meeting outside, circled together around the smoke pit—arguably the grossest gathering place we could have chosen.
I got facedown on the ground under my chair. I could feel the group’s anxiety begin to rise.
“This is what shame looks like. What can I do from under this chair? How can I interact with others from this place? How can I practice recovery or perform well at my job or love my family or repair relationships?”
At this point, a guy stood up, shouting, “Chris! Get up! It’s disgusting down there! The dirt is covered in spit and ashes and ants and cigarette butts! Stand up!!!”
I stayed on my face in the dusty ground.
“I don’t deserve to get up,” I said. “I don’t deserve forgiveness. I’m not worthy to get out of this place of shame. I’ll get up when I’ve earned it.”
The group stared in silence.
Love, compassion and forgiveness are accessible and extended to us at every moment. Yet how often do we say no to new beginnings and second chances because we feel unworthy?
But, forgiveness and love are vehemently opposed to the concept of “deserve.” “Deserve” is a human concept. And the human systems we use often have no place in divine interactions.
Love and forgiveness offer change, but we have to be willing to take it. We have to be willing to get up.
We’re free to take the gifts of fresh starts and belonging and comfort. Shutting ourselves off from love and being facedown in shame is our choice.
As I live in forgiveness and love, I will be able to repair relationships, grieve the past, and choose to thrive in recovery—things I can’t do facedown in spit and ashes.
Know that no matter what your failures say, the voice of the Divine is always calling you out of the place of despair: “Get up! Shame has nothing for you! You can be free!”
And in faith and hope, stand up, brush off the dirt, and learn how to live in the insensible, inexplicable, unconditional love of God.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
Recently, I led a group in which I gave each person a clear glass stone. As we walked outside in the sunshine and breeze toward our meeting spot, I asked the group to consider why I had given them the stone. After a time of reflection, each person shared his or her insight: “It’s a symbol of our higher power.” “You want us to use it as a grounding tool and a way to be present.” “We can associate it with our regrets and fears and then throw it in the pond.”
Each answer offered a profound angle on the reasons behind holding a simple objet.
We then talked about the question of “why,” verbalizing some of the deeper whys we have held deep within us during our lives: Why was I abused as a child? Why do my children have to suffer from my addiction? Why did my mom kill herself? Why did I get cancer? Why am I an alcoholic? Why me?”
Questions of “why” are normal for those of us navigating pain and loss. It’s the cry of our soul to make sense of defeat and difficulty and injustice.
The question of why needs expression. We need to give voice to the nagging uncertainty and exhausting fears buried in the deep pockets of our hearts. We are not alone in our questions of why. Spirituality has always made room for these questions:
“Why have you forsaken me, God? Why have you left me alone to suffer? Why am I being torn down and crushed?” Coming to God with our whys is the kind of authentic expression our spiritual connection is made of.
But “why” questions can become consuming, sending us into hopelessness and paralyzing despair. They can wrap around our souls, blinding us to hope and light. If we focus on the “why,” the “when” or the “what if,” we quickly lose sight of the present moment where healing is taking place.
The world and well-meaning friends and family want to offer cheap answers to make us feel better: “It was her time to go.” “Your addiction was given to you to help you grow stronger.” “You were abused so you could help someone else.”
The answers are offered in an effort to quiet a staggering pain that doesn’t go away with shallow clichés. Quick answers are often dismissive of our real feelings.
We seek to find answers to why things have happened out of a need for meaning and control. If I know my pain has a deeper purpose, then I can make sense of it. If I believe that everything happens for a reason, it will bring comfort now.
And THEN I can heal.
But sometimes we don’t know why.
We may have insightful theories, but we can’t always be 100% certain of why loss, addiction and pain are a part of our story.
Instead of focusing on knowing why, the group began to see the endless possibilities of healing, change and connection now that the stone was in their hands. Their initial “why” answers offered insight regarding how the stone could bring life. The group didn’t need the “why” answered in order to see the stone as a connecting point with a higher power. The stone offered help in staying present and aiding in emotional processing, regardless of why the stone ended up in their hands.
After we give voice to the “why”, we can choose to ask a better question: “What can I do now that this is a part of my story? Who can I share my feelings with? How can I let go and heal?”
One group member had lost his dad to suicide and was able to be present for another man with a similar story. Regarding the “why,” he said this: “My dad didn’t kill himself so I could relate to someone else’s pain, but because it happened, I had the opportunity to comfort my friend.”
Our “why” questions may be answered in time. It may be farther in our journey of healing that we see, not that the pain or loss was “good”, but how pain and loss don’t have the last word.
Share your raw, frustrating “why” questions while also knowing that healing can happen without definitive answers. Spirituality is an experience, not an informational exchange. So grieve, rest and recover, knowing that even when we don’t understand, we can still experience peace.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
For so long, the majority of us have suffered from deep thirst—the kind of soul-thirst that longs for real peace. But in our desperation to change the way we feel, we’ve often been willing to take whatever love and happiness we can get.
There’s an ancient Jewish story that tells of a group of people who acknowledged God with their mouths, but who lived lives of hate. The rich and powerful were terrorizing the poor. The people as a whole had moved away from their code of love and had become self-absorbed, greedy and cold, executing horrible acts of violence and oppression.
Although their God was outraged by their countless crimes of hate and murderous cruelty, this God also saw that the crimes sprang from a deeper foundational issue. The crimes were intolerable, requiring correction and accountability, but in order to get to the root of the problem, the Divine presence initially dealt with the crimes of their hearts.
They’d become disconnected from their true identity and instead were consumed by self-reliant attempts to get their needs met while rejecting the love of the Divine.
“My people have committed two crimes: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and they have made for themselves jars—broken jars that can hold no water.”
These people had previously experienced life-giving relationships and freedom through connection with the Divine. In relying on God, they had the opportunity to find contentment, joy and security. However, as these people moved away from God, they took matters into their hands, attempting to control, harm and use people to gain the power and security they wanted. They rejected the fountain of provision, instead trying recklessly to make jars—broken jars that couldn’t bring enough soul-provision to offer any kind of peace and joy.
They rejected peace and were drowning in destructive attempts to gain what could never bring peace.
I’ve spent most of my life searching for ways to change the way I feel. I’ve used my gifts, personality, insecurities and intelligence to try and get what I thought I needed.
And I’ve made countless broken jars.
Even when the broken jars failed, I kept relying on myself, trying harder to achieve lasting happiness. It was my hope that if I could only be good enough or sober enough or smart enough that the jar would do what I wanted it to do.
But the solution isn’t found in learning how to make better jars—the solution comes as we admit we are powerless and cannot take care of ourselves. We were made to receive. We weren’t made to make jars—we were made to be jars—jars that receive the acceptance and love of a Power greater than ourselves.
As we turn our lives and wills over to the God of our understanding, we will be met with an unending supply of the hope, new beginnings, forgiveness and strength that we need—we can receive from the fountain that which brings life.
This divine love and guidance is available whether or not we feel we deserve it or even when we feel broken beyond repair.
Even when we try to escape, even when we’ve exchanged real love and acceptance for counterfeit and temporary relief, the spring of water is still there.
Broken jars have sharp edges. I’ve caused myself significant pain by holding on to pottery shards. I’ve not only rejected healing and real acceptance, I’ve also endured unnecessary grief.
The pain I’ve tried to avoid has only increased. The shame I’ve tried to fight has only grown. The rejection from which I ran has become suffocating.
Broken jars don’t work.
Our hands need healing. Our shattered hearts, skewed perspectives and hurting souls need the provision that comes through frequent encounters with a God of our understanding.
Self-reliance doesn’t work because it wasn’t made to work. Instead, our Higher Power invites us to turn over our lives and wills. We can experience peace as we allow ourselves to be filled. We can experience guidance, comfort and love as we connect to the spring that never stops giving.
Chris Gibson, MDiv
Velcro Shoes and Living
My friend Jay wore Velcro shoes every day for five years straight. He assumed he’d never be able to tie his shoes again after a work accident took his right arm five years prior. When he was taken to the hospital, he was unresponsive with no pulse, but by some miracle, he lived.
After the amputation, Jay, a strong man with years of recovery, sat in a chair with a pistol by his side for a month, debating whether he wanted to live or die. Then one day, Jay sensed God say, “I saved your life for a reason.”
So Jay put away the pistol, got up, and decided to live.
It wasn’t an easy road. He struggled with the psychological and emotional ramifications. He had to navigate the social difficulties—knowing that people saw his arm before they saw him. He faced unemployment when potential employers were unable to look past his disability. He dealt with the neurological challenge of trying to open a door with his right hand and the shock that it was no longer possible.
There were countless moments of deep discouragement.
One night, Jay stumbled across a YouTube video of a little girl demonstrating how to tie a pair of shoes. As he watched this girl’s determination, he realized that she only had one arm.
He was again face to face with the choice of moving forward or giving up.
He watched the video over and over and over again, and the next morning, he bought a pair of shoes—this time with laces.
Jay is a survivor. He’s not only survived death and significant emotional and psychological pain, but he’s also survived the slavery of addiction.
Yesterday, Jay pointed out to me that all of us in recovery are survivors: “How many times do we have to pick ourselves back up? Chris, God let us live.”
Jay is a picture of both determination and surrender. He can’t change what has happened. He can’t fix his permanent loss. But he doesn’t have to live within the confines of what could easily be a consuming limitation.
In the same way Jay practiced tying his shoes with one arm over and over and over again, we can practice new recovery behaviors. We don’t start our recovery journey with 10 years of experience and completed step work.
With God’s strength, we can learn a new way of life, realizing we aren’t limited by what we lack or what we wish we had. We can be happy, joyous and free. And we don’t need an ideal past or present in order to experience peace.
We can learn to rely on a Power greater than ourselves. We can learn through honesty, openness and willingness how to live every day in light of the reality that we’ve been spared death. Others may not be able to see past our former addictive behavior, but we don’t have to buy into the shame and fear of outside opinions.
“The only things I’m afraid of,” Jay says smiling, looking at his prosthetic limb, “are woodpeckers and termites.”
Jay has decided to live, despite his addiction and despite what others might consider a deal-breaking limitation. He kept applying for jobs. He kept practicing new ways of living life. And his thinking has changed.
Sometimes it takes our weaknesses to put us on the path to real life, a life that can only be lived as we let go of self-reliance and turn our wills and lives to the care of God.
But we must allow ourselves to be taught. A video of a little girl tying her shoes showed Jay what was possible. In the same way, our friends in recovery show us what’s possible. They, too, had to learn a new way of being and fight the urge to give up.
But we are survivors. We’re alive for a reason.
This truth can shift our thinking away from self-pity and toward a God who is for us.
And even in the midst of struggles, we can practice a new way of life, even if it means learning to tie our shoes.
-Chris Gibson, M.Div