As an active member of Al Anon, I am working my way through the twelve steps. Most of them describe internal, attitudinal changes, so sometimes it’s hard to tell when you have “worked” the step, and are ready to move on to the next one. Writing my thoughts on each step as I go has provided me with a way of marking my progress; this daylog will be about Step Six.

Step Six:Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

A word about the God issue

It is said again and again in Al-Anon meetings, and written in the “Conference Approved Literature”, that Al-Anon is a spiritual, but not religious, program. Part of the introduction read at the beginning of every meeting states that three obstacles to a healthy meeting are gossip, dominance, and discussion of religion, and attendees are encouraged to avoid these pitfalls. That being said, there is a lot of talk about one's Higher Power, and although in a year of attending meetings I have yet to hear anyone mention Jesus, the phrase "(Higher Power) that I choose to call God” is common. I have heard no proselytizing here; members are also fond of the phrase “take what you like, and leave the rest”.

One idea very basic to the Al-Anon philosophy is that as an individual, I only have control over myself; I cannot (and should not) control another person, not the alcoholic(s) in my life or anyone else. Steps One, Two, and Three (1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him) form the foundation of belief in a higher power, a force outside oneself. It is suggested to people not comfortable with the idea of God that they could use the Al-Anon group as their higher power—a resource of support and ideas and hope. This is all well and good, but by the time you get to Steps Six and Seven, some sort of spiritual or celestial being or life force seems to make more sense than a collection of other people. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, I am not bothered by the mentions of God. People bothered by the God issue are free to find a compromise that works for them, or choose a different path.

How this applies to me

I have been working on turning my life and my will over (in my case, to Love, which I may choose to call God) and acting with lovingkindness, even when I really don’t feel like it. I have tried to get in the habit of stopping, when I begin to worry obsessively over something which I have not control, and writing down the problem and putting it in a god box, and then letting go. I knew, however, since all of these behaviors are new to me, that I was going to have to work on solidifying my concept of god until it was a force I felt I could consistently lean on. So I started looking around for models.

When I was a teenager, and even through college, I had a wide circle of friends on whom I felt that I could depend. I pictured them, sometimes, as a trapeze artist’s safety net—an emotional support, if not a physical one. Although I am sure many of these people (as well as my current, smaller circle of friends) could still be counted on if I just called out their name(s), we are now scattered to the four winds and busy with our grown-up lives. Anyway, that’s the feeling I wanted to have towards my Higher Power—a source of solace and support. So I set out to recapture that feeling, to give myself examples of times when I felt safe. Having an Al-Anon sponsor has been a wonderful blessing, a concrete example of unconditional love. Having experienced this from another person, I could imagine it from a higher power. I made a point of noticing times in my day to day life when I felt safe, comforted, protected—during a massage, when surrounded by friends—and tried to project this feeling onto my concept of a source of serenity that was consistently available to me.

None of this happens overnight

I'm very struck by the fact that this whole Al-Anon process, this working of the steps, is something that takes place slowly, over time. I've spent a lot of time in school in my life, and I am used to the feeling, upon seeing the syllabus and course requirements on the first night of class, that if I just had the time I could sit down and read the books and write the papers and be done with it. Sure, sometimes it's not quite that easy, especially if it's a math course, --I don't yet possess the understanding necessary to solve all of the problems yet--but if I just sat down and worked my way through the material, I could get there. The emotional and spiritual growth I am experiencing in Al-Anon doesn't work like that. It's more akin to physical change--more like working out, losing weight, increasing stamina--changes that don't happen overnight and can't be forced, or hastened. I read the 12 steps a year ago, I read the commentary in the literature, but I did not make the connections that I have slowly made over the last twelve months. I'm on a journey--a consciousness raising process--and it can't be condensed or speeded up. This is not a single event, but a slow dawning of new understanding, new awareness. I am not experiencing radical change--very little of it is out loud, most is deep inside me--but I am having my own quiet internal revolution. Step Twelve alludes to a spiritual awakening, and that's what's happening to me. I'm in the middle of it.

About those defects of character

As mentioned in my musings on Step Four and Step Five, that's not my favorite phrase. I prefer character defenses, or shortcomings--learned behaviors that were useful to me at one point, but have been outgrown or are no longer needed. I named a bunch of mine when I made my personal inventory, but it was not an exhaustive list. As I continue to think about my life, read, talk to my sponsor, and attend meetings, there is a slow but steady awakening / shift in perspective / recognition of other traits of mine that have outlived their usefulness. Certainly my ability to see these things is related to my level of security and serenity; the more secure I am , the braver I can be. The more comfortable I feel, the more willing I am to be introspective and entertain the possibility of change.

Even so, I would rather look forward to the positive than dwell on the negative. I found (approximate) antonyms for the traits I would like to rid myself of, so that when I think or pray about them, instead of asking to be less impatient, I can focus on being more tolerant. Rather than dwell on my pettiness / rigidity / arrogance / fear, I can look forward to being more grounded, more open, more at peace. I can hope for a time when I have less of an urge to always be right.

Entirely ready?

There is some disagreement in the "Conference Approved Literature" on this point. One source seems to imply that I have to be entirely ready to let go of all my character flaws at once, and that seems hardly possible. I prefer the view (found in other texts, and held by most of the people whom I've talked to about it) that this whole program is circular, and when I finish my first trip through the twelve steps, I will start again. Al-Anon is not a program one graduates from; it is a collection of tools for living. Since life is always changing and one's situation always evolving, it's good to know that the support of the meetings and the wisdom contained in the literature will always be there.

So this is my take on being entirely ready: when I truly feel that a trait of mine (say, arrogance) has outlived its usefulness, I will do my best to become willing to let go of it. Somewhere, in one of the books, a person wrote about how s/he found it helpful to write that trait a letter, thanking it for having served a purpose, and then say goodbye to it. I'm glad that I have high self-esteem; I am grateful to have had an upbringing that celebrated my strengths. I can now recognize that I took this pride a bit too far, and become willing to let it go.

All I have to do is be willing

According to the steps, I am not trying to change myself. I am merely becoming ready (Step Six) and then asking God (Step Seven)to remove my shortcomings. It's an attitudinal shift that's called for; I have to be willing to let go of my old way of doing things, before new ways will occur to me.

Since I started this program I've been looking for phrases or prayers in the literature that describe what I feel or what I want. I've been using words written by others as I try to talk to my H.P. For the first time, in attempting to work this step, I made up my own words. I had a clear idea of what I needed, what I wanted to remind myself of daily:

God, today I place myself in your hands I trust that you will guide my thoughts and actions. Thank you for everything. Help me to become more open and willing to change.

I think it's working. I feel more comfortable with the idea of change, and more willing to let go of at least some of my shortcomings.

related musings: step one | step two | step three | step four | step five step seven | step eight