No Higher Power

29 11 2015


I knew I had to do something, I couldn’t go on like that any longer, so I asked my trusty doctor. Christopher Allen. He’s a treasure. Everything a doctor should be: up to date and informed, doesn’t whip out the prescription pad at the drop of a symptom, makes the patient feel cared about, listened to, and respected. He recommended a counseling practice, so I gritted my teeth and looked into it.

They didn’t make it easy, of course. I had to call and I got an answering service, who connected me with an automated system where I was to leave a message. They called back, and I missed the call, so I had to call them again, and got the answering service which sent me to the place to leave a message. Complicating this procedure was a glitch in their message recorder, which cut me off after about seven seconds, leaving me with a bewildering choice of numbers to press, none of which included “Talk to a Human.” I hate phones anyway. I nearly gave up.

Finally we connected, and I was asked a bunch of questions, which I answered badly because I was nervous and I hate phones. Plus they were awkward questions about why I was seeking help, the answers to which were complicated and difficult. And did I mention I hate talking on the phone?

At last I was able to set up an appointment with an actual counselor. I warned her I was a hard case, had had bad experiences with counselors in the past, and had serious trust issues. She took it in stride, briskly confident, and got down to business. I knew there was hope when she countered my ramblings about mindfulness and CBT with responses that assured me she knew her stuff. She was focused, listened, took copious notes, and actually offered some insights, instead of just letting me prattle on aimlessly while the clock ticked down.

I’ve been three times, and I’m cautiously optimistic. At the last session, she suggested I join AA. She was concerned that I didn’t seem to have a good support system. She had that right. I’ve got an unhealthy tendency to shut down when I’m under stress. I isolate myself, and don’t even recognize that I’m doing it. It’s like leaving a party to run up to your room, slamming the door behind you, and then weeping miserably because you’re all alone.

So, yeah, I need to deal with certain problems regarding alcohol, but the problem isn’t really my own drinking. That’s a symptom. Still, AA might be a good choice except for all that Higher Power stuff. I mean, the whole Twelve Step thing is all about turning our lives over to God because we admit we’re powerless to help ourselves. That just isn’t going to work for me.

“You don’t need to call it ‘God’,” my counselor said. “I don’t believe in any bearded guy in the sky, myself.”

“I could call it ‘Fred’,” I replied, “It still wouldn’t help. I just don’t believe there’s anything out there to surrender to. God, as I understand Him, doesn’t exist. It’s all up to me. I’m the only one who can save myself.”

“And how has that worked for you so far?” she said.

Good point.

And yet, what is my alternative? I just don’t have a sense of any sort of “higher power”. I can admit that I have a problem and that I can’t seem to find a solution, but if I just throw up my hands and admit defeat, there’s nobody else to take control and “remove all these defects of character”, “remove my shortcomings”, and “restore myself to sanity”, all stuff the 12 Step Al-Anon program says I got to pray to God to do. Just isn’t going to happen.

If I turned my will and my life over to some unseen, ineffable, Something, all I’d do is fall. I’d be battered by my inner turmoil, terrorized by fear and crippled by unceasing rumination. I’d be back to hiding under the covers whimpering and, yes, self-medicating. I just don’t have that God-shaped place in my soul that theists talk about. I can imagine what it might be like to believe in the supernatural; in fact, when I was younger, I did believe in all sorts of magical thinking. Then I began to realize it wasn’t getting me anywhere, magical thinking didn’t work, and I was far better off using common sense, compassion and science as my guides.

Let me add that I don’t deny it works for some folks and that’s fine. It’s a little like an opera enthusiast dragging me to a performance and then gushing, “Wasn’t that amazing? How can you not be moved by that?” All I can do is shrug apologetically. He can keep his opera and more power to him. It just doesn’t do anything for me.

So, it’s back to I am the only one who can save me. But I know I can’t do it alone.

Surprise! I don’t have to. And it doesn’t have to be an invisible Power getting my back. My counselor was right about one thing: I need a support system. But why go looking for one? Why reinvent the wheel? As I realized in my previous blog, I’ve got friends.

That’s my Greater Power — visible and tangible.




13 responses

29 11 2015

I was partaking of the sacrament of Confession a couple of weeks ago and the priest told me that I needed to, “let God love me.”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea what you are talking about,” I replied.

29 11 2015
Mary Jolles

I like your Greater Power, although I disagree that it is always visible and tangible. Sometimes that power is staring us straight in the face and we can’t see it because we’re all wrapped up in ourselves. Admitting you can’t make it on your own is the first step, and it also means you admit you’re not perfect, all-powerful or the center of the universe.

I can sort of see where AA is coming from. For some people without friends God is the one entity that they believe can accept them as they are–very sad. I don’t know where the phrases in quotes come from, but for “defects of character” substitute “imperfection;” for “shortcomings” substitute “limits,” and for “restore to sanity” substitute “achieve balance.” Everyone needs a friend or a circle of friends. For what? Help? How about acceptance? Perspective? Encouragement? The truth? Or just a good laugh now and then? The first person you need to be a good friend to is yourself. Accept yourself! Encourage yourself! Help yourself to see yourself in perspective! Be kind and generous to yourself! Give yourself some compassion, cut yourself a little bit of slack! Don’t lie to yourself–friends don’t lie to each other–but stick up for yourself when you find you’re getting beaten up on emotionally. Be loyal to yourself. You don’t have to understand yourself, or explain or justify liking yourself–you’re a friend to yourself, that’s all.

30 11 2015

Wonderful advice, Mary! And an excellent example of how a friend can help, by reminding one of what they know is true but have lost track of. You are so right, I say things to myself I’d never say to a dear friend. There is such a tendency to be harder on ourselves than we are on those we love. For me, at least, loving myself seems synonymous with being self-centered or selfish. But it’s not. It’s essential to mental health. And loving oneself in no way interferes with loving others. Quite the opposite.

Let me clarify one thing: I in no way think of myself as all-powerful or the center of the universe. But let’s face it–all the loving, caring friends in the world can’t make me change my perspective or behavior. I’m the only one who can do that. I am ultimately responsible for me, what I say and what I do. And I don’t believe there is any invisible, supernatural power that can step in an do the job for me. I have to clean my own house. The people in my life may make it easier or more difficult for me, but it’s still up to me.

And those quotes come right out of the Al-Anon 12 Step program as presented on their website. There’s a link to it in the blog.

29 11 2015

“I was far better off using common sense, compassion and science as my guides.” Are you better off?

Higher power does not have to have a personality/being. Prayer, much like mindfulness, you don’t try to make something happen just show up and be present. You also do not need words – just show up and be open to seeing things in a new way.

30 11 2015

Yes, I am unquestionably better off. No doubt about it. And, to quote another commenter, I haven’t the foggiest idea what you are talking about. Listen, I know this business of prayer and belief makes perfect sense to many people. I get that. It makes no sense to me. Period. You might as well be trying to convince me to see the leaves on an oak tree in summer as purple, not green. Assuring me that if I just open my eyes I’ll see how purple they are. Well, maybe with a handful of certain mushrooms, I would see the purple. And that might be an interesting experience. But I don’t think I want to be making important decisions about my life while high on hallucinogens.

Honestly, if I’ve come to understand anything about human nature, it is that we all see things differently and we can’t help but follow what seems plain and obvious to us. I respect your perspective. Kindly respect mine.

1 12 2015
Inanna Arthen

I’m glad you’ve found a counselor that you can work with!

“But let’s face it–all the loving, caring friends in the world can’t make me change my perspective or behavior. I’m the only one who can do that. I am ultimately responsible for me, what I say and what I do.”

That is, in fact, the whole underlying principle of the “surrender to a higher power” thing. It’s more complicated than it sounds. If Twelve Step methods didn’t have psychological foundations that went far beyond the apparent conventional Christian assumptions so common at the time they were invented, they wouldn’t have lasted this long. But I won’t go on about it here.

1 12 2015

There’s no denying that AA and their 12 step program work for many, many people. There is also no denying that, for many people, surrendering to a higher power, however they conceive that higher power to be, is a source of strength for them. I speak only for myself, and for those like myself, for whom the concept makes no sense. Perhaps I just don’t understand it properly, but taking responsibility for controlling myself, and surrendering control to something(one) else, seem utterly contradictory.

1 12 2015

“Surrendering” just when you need to work the hardest for yourself does seem a huge contradiction. I’d not be keen on that, either. Then again, I keep a tight hold on myself (until the reins break, as they do) so the mere idea of giving up that control makes my stomach hurt. Like being in hospital – you may need to be there but FFS, it sucks to not be in control or know what is going on.
I have thought about the ‘higher power’ question myself, as I also prefer logic and science. The only thing I could come up with is love – love makes me do things I don’t want to do or never could conceive of doing when not in love, makes me scream and/or cry, and gives me great joy. So love has power over me, sure. But I don’t know if it would work as AA’s capital-letter Higher Power. Too nebulous, maybe. At the same time – the love of your friends is support for you! Maybe it’s not such a silly idea.

2 12 2015
Mary Jolles

I think the word “surrender” is loaded with hidden meanings for many of us–chief among them is “give up.” I think AA does not mean “give up” so much as it means “you are not the ultimate power, admit it and accept that you’re not perfect, and accept help and encouragement from others.” For me, the “higher power” is the incredible universe, of which I am a tiny part, and the marvelous mysteries and discoveries to which I knuckle my forehead in respect.

3 12 2015

This is a very interesting conversation! I usually take a walk after dinner with my two boys, Max and Alec (not really boys anymore, actually) and we have some great conversations. Last night we got onto the subject of “loyalty”, and what it means. Alec had started out expressing his bafflement at why people have “brand loyalty” and we got discussing logical reasons to be favorably disposed to a brand (Ben and Jerry’s was an example) but he argued that this was a rational choice based on evidence, and not the same thing (he was thinking of “Bud Light is the best beer” or the like, based on advertising or even it’s just what your peers drink). Ultimately we began analyzing just what the word “loyalty” means. Is it rational or irrational? Virtuous or not? It can be blind or reasoned. Etc., etc.

This discussion about what “higher power” means and what “surrender” means is much the same. We are teasing apart the meaning behind the words, trying to relate our personal experiences and applying our powers of reason to the process. I must say I am delighted that my blog has attracted readers who enjoy using their critical thinking skills in this way (indeed, delighted to know people who have such skills at all; given the rhetoric of so much public discussion, especially political, it leads one to despair).

5 12 2015
Mary Jolles

As I was plodding uphill through the snow behind my house a few days ago, marveling at the beauty of the day, I pondered the many ways in which we use the word “gift–” another loaded term. If life or the world is seen as a gift, it implies the existence of a giver, leading to the belief that a “giver” exists with powers beyond your own, i.e. a spirit, demon, goddess, etc.

The idea of a giver led one group of people into the cul-de-sac of believing that the giver gives only “good” things, that is, good for them, or that the giver dishes out all the bad stuff to their enemies. Other religions posited the idea that there are different “givers,” each of which bring gifts according to their nature. For instance, some spirits bring life and fruitfulness, while others are the bringers of death and destruction.

I tend to see what I appreciate around me as a “gift,” but since I am also aware that others don’t see things that way, I have no trouble separating my consideration of life as a gift from the idea that something or someone “gave” it especially to me. In fact, I consider myself more like the mouse in the air filtration system in my car, who took a napkin I had crumpled and left on the car seat as a “gift” to make his snug little nest! Not intended as a gift, but clearly taken as one!

6 12 2015

Wow, that is a interesting thought. I’ve always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the use of the word “gift” in some contexts, such as the ones you mention. To be alive, if one thinks about it in the right way, is indeed something we can feel deep gratitude for. But there is the implication that there is someone or something we are grateful to. If one does not believe in the supernatural, then life is just something that naturally occurs, and we happen to be the fortunate recipients. The joy we feel is very beneficial to our emotional (and, current medical research is discovering, physical) health, even though it is somewhat irrational.

And I do wonder if your little mouse really thinks in terms of “gift”, or just thinks, “Hmm. Useful thing. Will use. Good.” I don’t put much credence in the cognitive power of mice (not a terribly bright move to build a nest in your air filter), but absolutely do not question that they can feel happy or afraid, and can experience suffering. Thus we use Have-a-heart traps even though we know deep down we are only postponing the inevitable for them.

6 12 2015
Mary Jolles

Did you ever read Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Two Bad Mice?” It is an absolutely delightful, imaginative tale about two mice, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, who trash a doll’s house looking for things to eat or carry away. Beatrix Potter’s water colors of the two little mice carrying the doll’s mattress down the stairs of the dollhouse to their mouse hole is so cute!

I was anthropomorphizing about mice, more as a comparison of myself to the universe, i.e. I see myself in this way as humble and insignificant. What scares me are people who do believe that the universe was made just for them, that the Almighty is their special friend who will always protect them, etc. They would have a hard time imagining themselves as mice!

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