I used to wonder if it was possible to bank serenity for the future.
It almost seems like it is possible….you can be so peaceful an calm one day, and then chaos can come out of nowhere the next day and sort of take you on this wild roller coaster. Then you can think back to the memory of when things were peaceful the day before and it is at least somewhat helpful….isn’t it?
There are sort of two different approaches that you might deal with in addiction recovery when it comes to stress management: one technique is to try to raise your tolerance to stress and chaos (and thus encounter lots of it without complaint), and the other strategy is to try to lower your tolerance to stress and thus avoid it at all costs.
At different times in my recovery I have tried to use both of these approaches with varying degrees of success. It is my opinion that the better choice is to lower your tolerance to stress and to deliberately remove chaos and misery from your life, rather than to accept the challenge of dealing with these obstacles and becoming a stronger person for it. Avoidance is the better path in many cases, though this is just my opinion.
For example, if you have a job that drives you crazy, you sort of have two choices. One choice is to try to adapt yourself to the job and be OK with the stuff that you have to deal with on a day to day basis. Instead of getting stressed out over things you need to adapt and make the best of it. What is the point of getting all bent out of shape, right? So this is option number one: to realize that it is silly to get upset over things that are beyond your control, and to try to adapt yourself to better fit in with the job that is driving you nuts.
The second choice in that situation is to realize that you have been (quite possibly) stretched beyond your breaking limits, and that you cannot be adapted to the madness and chaos that is expected of you in your position at your job. So you make a decision and say “that’s enough, I won’t do it any more, I am out of here.” So then you take steps to go find another job or source of income so that you can avoid the madness and chaos.
In the first example you are staying at the job and attempting to raise your tolerance to stress, to be able to handle it better.
In the second example you are lowering your tolerance to stress and this is forcing you to make a decision and abandon the chaos and misery that is at your job.
Which path is the right one? This depends entirely on your unique situation and what your own tolerance level is for stress. One way to get more clarity on such a situation is to meditate on a daily basis, though you should realize that this is probably going to push you to lower your tolerance level towards stress even more. What happens is that when you meditate you will be feeling really calm and peaceful, and you will be using that experience as a reference point and comparing to it throughout your day. So then if you are in a stressful situation later in your day and you meditated earlier, then the stressful situation is going to be even more intolerable. And perhaps it should be. If everyone meditated, perhaps the world would be more calm? Who knows. But the key is that you have to find the level of stress and chaos that you are willing to put up with in your life, and then make decisions based on that.
It is generally possible to change your situation (including your job) even if you tend to object that you are stuck and without any options. The decision to change is simply the decision to take action.
Life moves in cycles–eventually you will encounter some chaos and hard times
There is this idea that we all experience ups and downs in life, and therefore if things are going well for us then it is only a matter of time before we are facing a negative situation or a stressful situation. Eventually the tables will turn and our luck will run out and we will have to deal with less than optimal circumstances in life. Things can’t go perfectly forever and we are eventually going to have to face challenges, adversity, and so on.
I am not saying that everyone in recovery has to look forward to a future of complete misery or anything. All I am saying is that life moves in cycles, and eventually we will go through changes. Our situation is only partially under our own control–there are external events and circumstances that we cannot control directly. So eventually we will have to deal with adversity and challenge. The question is not IF this will happen, then question is only WHEN it will happen. Adversity and challenge are a certainty in our future, so long as we keep living.
So the question is: Can you bank serenity for these future challenges?
The answer I believe is both yes and no.
The answer is “yes” because you can actually prepare yourself better for adversity by taking action today. One way is by lowering your tolerance to stress so that you live your life in a different way right now, thus lowering the chances that you will experience negative consequences in the future. In other words, if you are in recovery today then you can take positive action and make changes in order to improve your life situation. I like the saying that people have in traditional recovery about their problems in recovery today: “When they got clean and sober they traded in an old set of problems for a new set of problems.” Their old problems were drunken nights spent in jails, lost jobs, broken homes, etc. Today in recovery they still have problems but their problems are much better than they used to be. Now their problem is that they have to manage their sobriety while dealing with a job, relationships, etc. Reality has hit them square in the face and they have to learn how to deal with it sober.
So one of the challenges in addiction recovery is to change yourself. The other challenge in recovery is to change your life situation. These are two separate tasks and most programs only focus on one or the other challenge without considering the alternative. For example in AA and NA they focus exclusively on changing yourself, particularly your spiritual connection with a higher power. That is the entire focus of the program and they do not make an effort to try to change life situations. That is left as an exercise for the individual, apparently.
I think it is incredibly important to change your life situation in recovery. Why? Because your life situation can lead you back to relapse. This is also like arguing that you can NOT bank serenity for the future in recovery. If you could then you would not need to change your life situation at all, you could just work on your sobriety and your serenity and then you would be able to handle any adversity that might come your way. But the truth is that if you have a lot of chaos and misery piling up in your recovery then that can get overwhelming pretty darn quickly, especially if you are not allowed to self medicate. So why would you not also make an effort to limit the amount of chaos that you are dealing with? Why would you not also lower your tolerance to stress in order to push some of the chaos out of your life?
They give you these tools in recovery to deal with your problems–call your sponsor, go to a meetings, call your peers if you feel like you might relapse. But what about the idea that you might take action in your life in order to reduce the need for these solutions altogether? This is the idea of lowering your tolerance to stress. Find the chaos in your life and get rid of it. Push it out entirely. Say “no” to the chaos and misery. Refuse to even participate or deal with it, if you can. And if you cannot avoid it, then start making plans for the future so that you can find a way to live with more serenity in the future.
This is why you cannot bank serenity for the future–because you have to deliberately create it for yourself in the future by taking action today. Thus you are not really “banking” it for the future, instead you are arranging your life in such a way that you will simply encounter less chaos and misery down the road. You are creating a better situation for yourself rather than trying to soak up all of the peace of mind today and carry it forward with you (which is essentially impossible anyway).
If you want to be calm and peaceful in the future then you need to create that reality moving forward. Don’t try to hang onto a peaceful moment today forever if chaos is coming down the line. Instead, figure out what you can do today that will help to avoid the future chaos altogether.
I have personally experienced this by making long term plans to gain freedom from a job and a career that was stressing me out. I did not care if it took several years for that plan to come to fruition, because what really was the alternative for me? To just stay trapped forever in circumstances that I did not desire. So I started taking action towards my goal and eventually I was able to create healthy alternatives for myself, even though it took several years.
Ask yourself: “What else are you going to do?” Start today. If there is chaos and misery in your life then you should have a zero tolerance for it. Why would you want to keep dealing with it if you could take action and avoid it in the future? This is where most people start to make excuses and say that they are stuck, they are trapped, they cannot possibly find another path in life, nothing is fair, and so on.
This argument is nothing but self defeating excuses. You stay trapped because you are too lazy to take positive action and make changes. When the pain and suffering of staying trapped become worse than the fear that you might have about making changes then you will start to change. But you have to get sick and tired of your current situation. You have to get fired up enough to overcome your laziness and complacency. You have to get a little bit angry in order to take the sort of action that can overcome this sort of trap in life.
If you are unhappy then it is your responsibility to fix it. If you want to create a better future for yourself then stop expecting that nicer future to just be dropped into your lap. Instead, start taking positive action in order to create that positive future.
My great sponsors story about standing firmly on first base
I have a sponsor in recovery (that I rarely talk with, should work on that!) and he has a sponsor himself. Thus I have a “great sponsor” and once gave a speaker meeting that talked about the inverse to what I am saying here.
Instead of changing your life situation, you can also work on yourself as a person. You can work on your spiritual connection and your relationship with your higher power. Doing this is the entire point of 12 step programs.
My great sponsor told a story of a devastating event that he had to go through. This happened about ten years ago and he lost precious loved ones due to this event.
He spoke about how during your recovery there will be times when you are very well connected with your higher power, and then there will be times when you drift away a bit. He said it is a lot like the runner on first base in baseball game who is sort of leading off to try to get a jump on stealing second. There are times when the runner is standing right on first base with both feet firmly planted there, and he is totally safe. But then he will sometimes dance away from the base a little to try to get closer and closer to second, to get an advantage.
He explained that this was just like our relationship with God, that sometimes we drift away from God in our recovery and then at other times we are closer to him and we have both feet on the base.
When this horrible tragedy struck in the life of my great sponsor, he explained that he was lucky in that he had both feet firmly planted on first base. It just so happened that he was really close with his higher power at that time and therefore he was able to make it through that event without relapse.
So in some regards you cannot bank serenity for the future, but you can be spiritually fit to the point that you are better able to handle adversity.
Again it goes back to our idea of the two part approach:
1) Lower your tolerance to stress (change your life situation so that you deal with far less chaos and misery).
2) Raise your tolerance to stress (work on yourself and your spiritual connection so that you can better handle whatever life dishes out at you).
My great sponsor was successful in making it through that tragedy because he had done a lot of work on his spiritual condition. Nothing he did in his life situation could have prevented that particular tragedy. Therefore the only solution for him was to have a very strong relationship with God. Nothing else would have saved him and his sobriety.
No, you cannot bank serenity for the future. You must constantly keep recreating it on a continuous basis
If there is a key takeaway from this discussion it is this:
You cannot bank serenity for the future. All you can do is to constantly recreate it as you move forward by taking positive action.
There is the idea that you have to keep reinventing yourself in recovery, over and over again, and rediscovering yourself as you remain clean and sober in recovery. I think these are appropriate ideas.
The long term killer in recovery that no one talks about (because it is a slipper concept to grasp) is complacency. Some people who are highly active in AA are able to avoid complacency, while others fall victim to it and end up getting lazy and relapsing.
The problem of complacency is not program-specific. Instead the problem is action-specific. If you are not taking positive action in your life then you set yourself up for failure. In order to maintain serenity you have to take action in order to prevent chaos and misery from taking over.
Avoiding stress requires deliberate action in recovery. Many people expect that they can just follow the basic suggestions in recovery and live a passive life in recovery and expect their recovery to go smoothly. This is why people show up to AA meetings every and expect that they can get clean and sober through osmosis. Show up, sit there, and hopefully absorb a new positive life.
But it doesn’t work that way. In order to create a positive future you have to roll up your sleeves today and take action. Perhaps there is a trade off that has to do with your time preference for stress in life. Do you want to be stressed in the future and thus be lazy today? Or would you rather take massive action today and thus lower your stress in the future? So maybe it all comes down to your time preference for when you want to experience the stress/adversity.
I believe that if you can take positive action on a regular basis that this will become your new routine and it will no longer be stressful for you to do so at some point. It will become your new “normal” to take positive action. At that point your life will get better because you will be constantly creating a better life situation for yourself in the future.
The alternative is to do nothing, to expect for a better life in recovery to just fall into your lap, to make demands out of life like a child and simply hope for things to go your way. If you take this approach then expect to be disappointed when reality disagrees with you at some time in the future.