• Hazelden Renewal CenterNUWAY Annual Picnic 2019

As Good As It Gets

snowy scene in minneapolis

There are times that feel bigger than life itself. When these times happen, we may be filled with immeasurable inspiration as we escape the usual routines of ordinary living. Many of the tensions of daily stress and world turmoil disappear in the abundance of such special moments.

Some magic moments we never forget — the birth of our first born, the day our beloved parent took a last breath, the day we awoke from a coma after a bad car accident, seeing the panorama of colors of the Grand Canyon for the first time, being reunited with beloved old friends or recalling the day we first met the love of our life. We don’t plan on such happenings, they just occur. These are “Wow” experiences. They get burned into our brains. Often the exhilaration of such special times is beyond compare and indescribable.

Interestingly enough, when life is “as good as it gets” it may not be about spectacular events. It can be about ordinary times with spectacular meaning in our lives, if we are open to such other worldly moments. Otherwise, if we’re not alert, many of us may walk right on by such miracles and be oblivious to their existence. We will not be grabbed by such happenings and miss the value of life. Allow me now to talk about some special “Wow” moments in my own life, not to draw attention to myself, but to see how such experiences may pertain to us all.

Getting saved twice in a Minnesota winter

Probably all of us have a tale of woe about this past Minnesota winter. This is a tale of hope and forgiveness. Because there was a large amount of snow behind my house in the back yard I decided in all my cleverness to hang a tarp to block the snow drifts from my house — and thus prevent the havoc that spring melts can bring. Just as I was finishing the job I stepped on the wet tarp, slipped and fell into a huge snowdrift. I flopped around like a walrus on an iceberg. I never knew tarps could be so slippery. The problem was I couldn’t get up. The more I pushed to stand the deeper I sank into the snowdrift. I tried everything to get up and felt very foolish. Plus I was getting colder by the minute being on a wet snowdrift. And I had no cell phone. Momentarily I was amused and frightened by the cruel irony of freezing to death in my own back yard. Suddenly I remembered the commercial on TV where a distraught woman said, “Help! Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” I always thought this woman sounded pathetic. But there I was in the same predicament!

So I swallowed my pride and did the “Help! Help!” routine. As I reflected on how nice some people can be, I let myself be open to being saved. After 40 minutes a dear woman came by to assist me. She had two small children in tow, who were amused by the situation. The mother said she would bring her kids to the day care center down the street, and get the help of another woman to help me up as she couldn’t do it herself. I blessed her many times over. These two robust maternal women did the job and got me up! I realized that no matter how flawed our current world is there are still many caring people all around us, including perfect strangers. I was in heaven with my new freedom and my more hopeful attitude toward the world in general. I thanked them profusely.

But my salvation didn’t last long. As I ran away from my snowdrift I realized that my car keys were likely buried in the snowdrift. So I did the inconceivable. I returned to the snowdrift and wet tarp. As I was poking around for my keys I told myself, “There is no way I am going down again in this drift.” But I inadvertently stepped on the edge of the tarp and down I went. I felt incredibly more foolish in my misery. So I did my usual 30-minute routine of “Help! Help” and the impossible happened. To my utter surprise my dreaded next-door neighbor who never talks to me came along. He is the neighbor who has been at odds with me since Day One. I was so uncomfortable having him help me. He never says hello to me even when I try to engage him. He never liked the fact that I painted my house a lime green color and grew wild grasses in the yard. His yard is always perfectly manicured; mine is a lot wilder.

When he heard my cries for help he yelled out in his inimical way, ”Oh, be quiet John. I’m coming to get you.” Realizing there is karma in life I accepted his help warmly. He got me up and left. Obviously there was a message in all of this. I realized that even people I am alienated from can have a generous side and that the bad guys are not always as bad as we make them to be. The next day I wrote my neighbor a card of thanks and an apology for not always being the best neighbor to him. I promised to always say hello to him no matter what. I’m not so sure that it will matter to our relationship but it will matter to me to be more forgiving to people I dislike and perhaps more forgiving to the parts of myself that I dislike.

When the shoe is on the other foot

Naturally for the rest of the day I felt awed and grateful for what had just happened. So I went to a coffee shop by myself and mused on what all of this meant. Out of the blue a troubled young man came up to me and asked, “Are you a friend of Bill W.?”  I said, “No, I’m not.”  I wondered why he approached a total stranger like me. Perhaps he is dealing with sobriety issues. I could tell from his body movements that he was in trouble and looking to be connected. Since most of communication is non-verbal I decided to trust my instincts, not brush him off and ask, “Are you looking for your sponsor?” He said, “Yes, I was supposed to meet him here. It’s been half an hour and he hasn’t shown up.” Seeing his facial expressions I felt awful for him and offered to sit with him for 15 minutes before I had to go to work. After all, I had gotten a ton of support that morning. The least I could do is listen to him. The shoe was on the other foot. He welcomed my attention. Well, the 15 minutes turned into an hour and a half. This lovely young man explained to me through glassy eyes that nothing means anything to him and he has no feelings towards anyone, including me. He had only a few hours of sobriety and had cravings to use. He had just lost his job as a teacher due to his drinking. He talked to me like a living dead person. I listened with compassion, said I respected his honesty and bravery for coming up to me. I said a lot of people in the early stages of recovery feel the way he does. He looked at me with longing and warmth. We had established a good beginning.

Next I wondered how much of a danger he was to himself. You have to be ready for the unthinkable when you meet troubled people. He said he really didn’t want to harm himself. I asked what kept him from doing so. His eyes teared up and said his mother is what keeps him alive. He was raised in a Scandinavian family where no feelings were ever allowed. But his mother always accepted him. I pointed out how he is not so cold as he thinks he is, as his mother brings out the best in him even now. His face softened.

I remarked that I have been a counselor for 40 years, have worked with recovering persons for a long time who have taught me what I know and that I write for a local recovery paper, The Phoenix Spirit. He asked me what he should do to lessen his cravings for alcohol. I talked about the amazing discovery of Bill W. who found that when a group of alcoholics get together and get supportively honest with one another, their cravings for alcohol get substantially reduced.

I said you need some brothers in AA and a reliable sponsor that can track with you. I proposed that he go to an AA meeting today and immediately connect with guys in a local half-way house in the neighborhood as they know the scoop on what he is going through.

He welcomed the resource and looked for the address on his cell phone. A house member welcomed him over the phone to come to their house. I offered to drive him to the halfway house and stay with him until he can get help from the recovering men there. He said he was beginning to feel less tense and thaw out. He wanted my help in the worst way. I gave him my card and said, “Could you wait for me to get my car as it is several blocks away?” He said, “Sure.” As I walked away from the coffee shop he followed in my footsteps and asked if he could come with. I said, “Yes.” Clearly he was worried that I would not come back.

We motored over to the halfway house and he was invited in. Before I left him he thanked me and asked for one more favor — “Would you please write this story in The Phoenix newspaper? I want to know this really happened.” I told him would, as his story is about all of us. I gave him a hug and we parted. Once again I wondered how this could be happening to me as this young man had given me a great gift out of nowhere, as he gave himself the gift of self-care. I was left in an emotional tizzy caught between the karmic forces of what happened to me in the morning and in the afternoon with this young man. Clearly my Higher Power was working double duty. I was overjoyed with both experiences. It was incredibly meaningful.

 There are many different ways to interpret these experiences. Clearly, there is a special chemistry between people to have remarkable events occur. Surely, to be saved I had to humble myself and choose love over my personal ego. I had to feel deserving of love, especially when my difficult neighbor was not being gracious in his giving. Also I had to believe that there is a remarkable unseen force between people who want to help others, even to unknown strangers. I had to believe there is value in not being in control of my destiny and that we can receive good things even when we’re not sure how or why they happened. I also had to have my heart open to such happenings and be alert to when they are occurring. Too often I can be asleep in life and not see when someone is trying to care for me or needs care from me. Caribou Coffee has an apt saying: “Life is short. Stay awake for it.”

Correspondingly, we are also called to be there for others in the larger world. After all the most important human need is the need to attach. Love was in the air in all of these experiences. Some of us shun caring for others. We don’t want to be bothered. Actually we are afraid to love. We fear losing ourselves in another or we fear our caring is not good enough for another and we will be rejected. Let us be bold in our acts of compassion and gratitude.

You can learn about the science of human love from the book, A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis. The need to have a purpose in life and give of ourselves to others is indispensable for human happiness. This message is in sharp contrast to the “me, me, me” values of our materialistic society as it drowns itself in epidemic anxiety and depression. Receiving and giving a helping hand is as meaningful and as good as it gets.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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