“Enough is a feast.” — Buddhist Proverb
One rainy afternoon while I sat reading in the den of my home with a warm mug of coffee to one side, and a purring cat on the other, I came across a little gem of a story. It spoke to me about resiliency — the ability people have to bounce back after tragedy or trauma. It was also about Abraham Lincoln, and an account documented in the early years of the Civil War:
A young man living in Kentucky had been enticed into the rebel army. After a few months he became disgusted, and managed to make his way back home. Soon after his arrival, the Union officer in command of the military stationed in the town had him arrested as a rebel spy, and, after a military trial he was condemned to be hanged.
One of Lincoln’s friends from Kentucky explained his errand [to Lincoln] and asked for mercy.
“Oh, yes, I understand; someone has been crying, and worked upon your feelings, and you have come here to work on mine,” Lincoln said.
His friend then went more into detail, and assured him of his belief in the truth of the story.
After some deliberation, Mr. Lincoln, evidently scarcely more than half convinced, but still preferring to err on the side of mercy, replied, “If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned.”
And a reprieve was given on the spot.
There was something about this anecdote that stuck with me. It seems obvious at first . . .We only have one life.
But here’s the rub — everyone knows this fact, but in practice we act as if we are invulnerable, that we have many lives and many more days to come, world without end. So we agonize to mold each day into the sort of day we envision it ought to be for us. The “perfect day” is as only as far as we have the ability to plan and control outcomes to best benefit us.
It’s a tightrope act. We wobble and fidget, trying to capture our balance to move forward. To fall is certain death, or at the very least to become the laughingstock of our peers in the circus audience below.
It’s also a strange, paradoxical mix of our perceived invulnerability and an urgent force compelling us to seize the day, as we would direct it. Evolutionary biology would suggest that this sort of attitude keeps us alive. The human condition dictates that we’re stuck with it, to varying degrees. Like most human behaviors, different people will act differently. Your mileage may vary.
It seems, at least anecdotally, people who are in recovery from addiction suffer from the negative consequences of our temperament, which are many.
After I had been to treatment and was living in a sober-living facility in Saint Paul, I was a basket case. I didn’t have the “fun” that drugs or alcohol provided, so my brain drove me to other avenues of stimulation: I sped too much. I got pissed off waiting in line at Target. I fought with my wife over what type of house we should buy. And I started drinking coffee by the gallon and (ugh!) smoking cigarettes. I did anything to distract myself. I certainly wasn’t grateful for simply being alive.
My behavior was the result of two conflicting beliefs: 1) You must control life; you might die tomorrow! And 2) You will live forever; do what you want!
From what I heard from people who care about me, I was a bear to live with.
The solution I found surprised me. A guy I’d met in a meeting agreed to work with me. He spelled out for me how he believed his brain was wired. I related with nearly every story he told me. “That’s me, too” isn’t a phrase people in recovery say by accident. I asked him what the solution to our common problem was.
“You gotta start with gratitude. It’s about being grateful,” he said. I asked him, “What about the times when things don’t go our way?”
“Like what? When? Give me an example.” I dug up a simple problem for me; one that plagues me every day: “I hate getting up in the morning. I feel like shit.”
“Then you get to feel like shit. You get to have that experience,” he said.
“That doesn’t make any damn sense. I don’t want to feel that way!” I responded.
“Well, maybe you should go to bed earlier! But that probably won’t make any difference. You’re probably not a morning person, but if you want to function in society, you’re just gonna to have to get through it,” he said, and then added, “and I’m telling you… the way you do that is by being grateful—you get to feel that way in the morning. It’s a gift, period.”
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Or the simple principle of gratitude my sponsor taught me. Thanks, Geoff.
The point I want to bring across here is to answer the question: Why gratitude?
Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, is cited in an article in the Atlantic titled Gratitude Without God. Although I’m a person of faith, I wanted to get at what the scientific basis for gratitude was. It’s fascinating what he wrote:
We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people.
Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.
Gratitude, or endeavoring to be grateful, stems from first understanding our origin as dependent creatures. The benefits a person reaps from choosing gratitude over resentment, giving thanks over the need to control, are well documented and many. It’s my belief that gratitude is the solid foundation to build a healthy recovery on.
Daniel D. Maurer is a regular contributor for The Phoenix Spirit. He is the author of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation resource Sobriety: A Graphic Novel and the co-author of Faraway: A Suburban Boy’s Story as a Victim of Sex Trafficking. He lives openly in recovery with his family in Saint Paul.