“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Perhaps some of you share a malady I suffer from: being directionally challenged. I can drive to a place several times, and still not remember how to be there. Several turns inside a building, and I am no longer able to point to the direction of the front door. This can be a frustrating limitation, especially if I don’t have access to a GPS device while driving.
These days are changing, turbulent times. It is almost as if we are collectively directionally challenged and are at the same time finding that the map itself changes moment by moment.
Not so long ago, had I walked into a convenience store with a mask covering my face, the person behind the counter would have pressed that red button under the register. Today, it’s expected, even required, for public safety. Not so long ago, Democrats and Republicans (at least some of the time) worked together for the non-partisan good of the country. Today, we breathe a sigh of relief when a debate doesn’t turn into a shouting match between eight-year-olds.
Not so long ago, young people had many opportunities to “do better” than their parents… today, many of them can’t seem to launch from the parental nest. Not so long ago, the great global anxiety was that someone in the USA or USSR would push another kind of red button and ecological destruction would be unleashed. Today, we are aware that without some grand changes, ecological destruction is a given. Yes, these are unsure, turbulent times.
How do we move into our future, into the future, during such times as these? When everything seems so uncertain, how do we drive forward? Whether we are seeking to serve the world and the human family, or following the reptilian directive to “get mine,” our choices, and the parameters informing them, seem less clear than ever.
Recovery spirituality offers us a simple but powerful tool: Do the next right thing. This maxim is simple in concept but becomes pretty profound in its execution. Consider the following conversation:
Addict in recovery: “I don’t know what to do… there’s so much going on. Here’s what happening… [Insert your own soap opera of difficulties here], and so what do I do? I feel like everything is falling apart! What do I do??”
Sponsor: “Do the next right thing.”
Addict in recovery: [silently shooting mental darts into the sponsor, lol]
The above can seem less than helpful until we explore what recovery spirituality means by “do the next right thing.” Addicts in recovery—or any human beings seeking a deeper experience and expression of life—come to believe that a Power greater than themselves is at work in them to restore their sanity (or balance, or health, or original nature). Because of this belief, they have become willing to turn over their will (thinking, deciding) and life (actions, choosing) to the care of God as they understand God.
Notice that the phrase is care of God, rather than control of God. Throughout our lives, we retain (and ideally, improve) our ability to make decisions… what changes is not who is making choices affecting the future, but how we make these choices. The typical way we learn to make decisions in our culture is to ask the question, “What can I choose to get the outcome I want?” Whether that outcome is self-centered and small or spiritual and significant, it’s the same paradigm, really: “What choice will bring about what I seek to bring about?” This process is so everywhere that we can’t ever see it until it’s pointed out to us. This is much like the fish who hears that the stuff all around him everywhere is “water” and then is told that there are environments other than water. The fish can’t believe it!
This cultural pattern of ego-driven choice is exactly what the addict in recovery cannot afford and is in fact the exact opposite of having our will and lives under the care of God, as we understand God. The care of God doesn’t mean God now makes our choices for us. What would that even mean? Healthy recovery does not require us to play the Pinocchio story in reverse and go from being a “real boy” (or girl) to some kind of puppet controlled by divine hands.
Rather, it means that our choices no longer become about manipulating people, places, and things in order to achieve what our Egos believe should be achieved. We can edge out the puppeteer of self-will and instead enter a new space of decision-making: doing the next right thing. We become the fish who has grown lungs, no longer weighed down by water, but walking on land, where the sunlight of the spirit is brighter and the matrix around us a lot lighter.
What is this new matrix? What is this “care of God”? In terms of our decisions and choices, the “care of God” means deciding and choosing according to the nature of one’s Higher Power (God). Is your Higher Power compassionate? Just? Merciful? Impartial? Forgiving? Truthful? Well, then, these would be the virtues informing your decisions, regardless of whether this means our Ego gets what it wants.
This is what “doing the next right thing” is all about—we act into the world the virtues of our Higher Power, as we understand this Higher Power. Our context for making choices and decisions becomes the nature and will of our Higher Power (something really big!) rather than our Egos and their list of likes and dislikes or wants and don’t-wants (something really small). Like the fish contemplating a matrix other than water, this can seem idealistic, impossible, even against our biology. None of that is true. With a little practice, with a little risk, and with a little reflection, we can arrive at a place where—more and more—our choices express the values we attribute to our Higher Power, freed from self-centeredness. And these choices tend to be psychologically, biologically, and spiritually sound ones.
Paradoxically, when we begin to decide and choose under the care of God, much of our anxiety falls away… we are no longer obsessed with getting what we want or avoiding what we don’t, which is probably, eventually, what lies at the root of our anxiety. Paradoxically, when we begin to choose under the care of God, decisions become much clearer. Often our minds become clouded because of excessive emotional entanglement in our decisions and choices due to the urgency and craving of the Ego. As the Ego’s part diminishes, the fog or paralysis also vanishes.
When we make decisions and choices based on the care of God, we can’t really make a “mistake.” Life is rarely a Where’s Waldo game where there is one and only one “right” choice amidst a myriad of mistakes. The category of “mistake” disappears as our will (decision world) and life (choice world) become driven by new goals. We become less concerned with getting the right result (results are rarely within our control) and more focused on acting as our Higher Power would act.
And so, coming back to where we began, if a decision or choice moves us away from the virtues or nature we associate with our Higher Power, we don’t take it, even if it would gratify some desire of ours and accomplish what our self-will wants. If a decision or choice keeps us aligned with actions that express how we understand our Higher Power, we make that decision or choice. Yet what if a given scenario would allow for several choices that keep us in alignment with our Higher Power, as we understand that Power? Well, then, any of them would be fine: simple as that.
The presence we bring into the present allows us to move confidently into the future, one decision and one choice at a time. Acting under the “care of God” doesn’t guarantee the absence of pain or difficulties… but to the extent we truly arrive at this place, pain or difficulties will not be turned into suffering (something the Ego is typically really good at doing). And making decisions from the place of the “care of God” doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t have long-term plans. It does mean that we will naturally develop a creativity and plasticity around how our future unfolds since we won’t be holding onto pictures of the future with the same compulsive dread or craving.
Yes, these are changing and turbulent times. Yes, our lives are constantly in flux. And yes, we have one constant—like a good GPS—that we can rely upon: to do the next right thing.
Image: Stephen Burns from Los Gatos, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons