Each morning as my wife and I brushed our teeth, washed our faces, and fixed our hair, our minds already beginning to spin around the challenges and chances of the day, we were addressed by a small brick-red sticker taped to our bathroom mirror. In bold white letters the sticker affirmed, “You are looking at the only problem you’ll have today.” What does it mean for me to be my own problem? And can I really be the only problem I have?
In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson writes that our problems, our sufferings, come from good instincts gone awry. Our good and natural desires for love, safety, nourishment, and other basics, our drive toward self-preservation, become deformed through our need to adapt to difficult or unhealthy situations we encounter, often in our early years. The patterns we establish as our “options” for dealing with anxiety, disappointment, pain, betrayal, or other negative experiences become ingrained in us, and continue to express themselves as ourselves into our adulthood.
Let’s look at an example. Perhaps Suzy’s parents divorced when she was five. As a young child, she was not able to fully understand this event or how both of her parents could continue to love her even though she now lived with only one of them. She felt abandoned, and this pain was too great for her five-year-old heart. Her healthy instinct toward self-protection—very useful to our primal ancestors who were not too high on the food chain—leads her to close her heart so that she might never experience that pain again. She has begun to build a pattern that, thirty years later, leaves her unable to commit to a loving relationship.
Suzy’s fear of abandonment plays out in her repeatedly leaving or driving away her romantic partners because she is afraid they will eventually abandon her. Better to be the one to end things first and avoid the heartache! This is a problem. The people in her life are not the problem, even if they do in fact abandon her. No, Suzy is the problem; or, more properly, Suzy’s pattern of leaving and driving away others is a problem. Her pattern exemplifies an adult using a five-year-old’s response to an overwhelming situation, and her pattern, called a character defect in recovery language, continues to make her suffer.
Or perhaps Alan grew up in an alcoholic home, where he was encouraged and rewarded by his mother for lying to the neighbors about his father’s behavior and job situation. As a well-rewarded foil to his mother’s codependence, Alan began a behavior pattern of lying whenever a lie would better serve his egotistical plans and desires than would the truth. As an adult, his web of lies, and his constant fear of the consequences should his various deceits be exposed, lead to a chronic high level of anxiety. Is Alan’s anxiety disorder really caused by the people in his life, or is it sourced in the deceit he employs to control, please, and impress these people? He, too, has become his own problem through continuing to employ a broken strategy—sourced in a good instinct—that he took on as a young boy.
Our particular constellation of such character defects becomes, for most of us, what we identify as ourselves. All of us, not only addicts, carry the weight of this constellation. Who would I be without my anger? Or my passive-aggressive sarcasm? Or my bang-the-table style of leadership? There is an old thought puzzle that asks if a ship made of matchsticks has every matchstick replaced, is it still the same ship? The me I experience is a dynamic process; I respond to people, places, and things in certain ways. If I change those responses, have I lost myself? Who would I be?
Jesus claims that, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16:25; see also Lk 9:24, Mk 8:35). Our understanding of the ego-driven self as a pattern of character defects offers a particular insight into this koan-like paradox of Jesus. In the original Greek of this verse in all three synoptic gospels the word for “life” is “psyche.” Perhaps, at least from the viewpoint of 12-step spirituality, we are being asked to lose the behavior patterns we have built up as young children yet still utilize as automatic go-to’s in our adult lives. This psyche, this me, is in a strict sense really the only problem I have. Life might bring me trouble, challenges, even physical pain. But only my psyche can bring me suffering and problems. Jesus is asking me to lose my problem. Am I willing?
Would you allow a five-year-old to drive your nicest car? Of course not. But most of us, unless we engage the step work offered in 12-step recovery programs, are allowing that five-year-old to drive our lives. Our young selves had very few options when confronted with challenging or overwhelming situations. Our adult selves, as we learn in recovery, have many more, and many healthier, options. Life’s challenges never go away; however, as adults in recovery we learn that the root of our suffering is not these challenges themselves, but the stultified and malformed response patterns we use to engage them.
If we choose to “save” our lives—to retain the deformed patterns of response to the world that we have known as me, we surely will lose the ability to live the joyful life promised in the gospel. If, on the other hand, we are willing to lose this handful of harmful patterns, many new options of responding to life’s joys and challenges open up. These new and healthy options not only reduce suffering, but as we shall explore in our next installment, allow us to eventually move beyond the ego-driven lower self and say good-bye to fear, worry, and suffering. As promised in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”), “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.”
Our step work, done with the help of a knowledgeable sponsor, helps us understand our character defects and then to ask God to remove them—not only for our own good, but because they stand in the way of our usefulness to God and to others. Our part is the willingness to “lose our life/psyche” so that a more beautiful reality can unfold within and around us. And so we pray daily, in the Third Step Prayer, “Relieve me of the bondage of self…” because these patterns have a tendency to creep back in if we are not doing “our part” to move beyond them (more on that next time).
After moving our household twice, my wife and I have lost our little brick-red sticker. But each morning, as we pick up the toothbrush or hairbrush, and before our minds get hijacked by some to-do list, we look at the mirror and pause briefly to remind ourselves that each of us is looking at the only problem we will have that day.
Image:MissLunaRose12 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0);This picture was drawn by an 11-year-old autistic girl. The artist had few friends at the time, and spent most of her time writing and illustrating a novel for children.
The Rev. Dr. James Reho is an Episcopal priest, school chaplain, and spiritual director. He is also a devoted husband, part-time gardener, and aspiring fiddle sensation. 12-step spirituality holds a central place in his life, which he tries to live one day at a time.