The Small Act

I'm reminded of a story told by the late Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Newly sober, and on a business trip to Akron, Ohio, Bill stood in the lobby of his hotel. He was still shaky, but the one thing he had going for him was his new-found knowledge of how one sober alcoholic could help another simply by telling his or her story. At one end of the lobby a glass case contained a directory of local churches. At the other end was a bar. Hearing the tinkle of ice, and gay laughter, Bill itched to head for the bar. But then, according to the story he tells in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, he thought, "What about his responsibilities—his family and the men who would die because they would not know how to get well, ah—yes, those other alcoholics? There must be many such in this town. He would phone a clergyman."

So instead of going to the bar, he went to the directory of churches. Instead of going to the bar, he wrote down a number. Instead of going to the bar, he went to the phone booth and lifted the receiver. And in that moment, in the lobby of a nondescript hotel in Akron Ohio, millions and millions of lives were saved. By this far-from-perfect man who desperately needed help himself and, by some divine grace, intuited it would come from helping someone else. By this man who, like many of us, would rather die alone than go to the trouble of interacting with the rest of the human race.

I have been a loner all my life. In fact, I've spent so much time alone I'm sometimes embarrassed by it; there seems something shameful about the inability or unwillingness to better adapt to human company. It's not that people don't like me (for your information!); or that I don't like other people; or that I'm not a good friend, which I at least marginally am. For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me that I was alone so much. Then for a long time I felt sorry for myself. Then I started to see that my loneliness is everyone's loneliness, and to quit trying to resist it, or fix it; to see that loneliness has richness and depth, and that Christ is right in the middle of it.

I recently listened to a series of lecture by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and contemplative. Rohr made what struck me as a brilliant observation. He said the opposite of holding onto control isn't—as we tend to think—letting go. He said the opposite of holding on is participating in something larger than ourselves.

I'd never thought to put it that way, but participating in something greater than myself had been exactly my experience in getting sober. Twenty years ago, my own first choice as to how to get sober would have been completely by myself, and my second would have been with people I'd hand-picked to be as much like me as was humanly possible. So when my parents shipped me off to a Minnesota treatment center, and I found myself thrown in with the most random, arbitrary assortment of people imaginable, I just hadn't seen how it was going to work. I'm a lawyer, for God's sake, I was thinking, like this housewife from Iowa is going to have anything to say to me. It wasn't so much that I was snotty as that I was afraid, but whatever the case, and whether you want to call whatever was at work God, or spiritual principles, or the ever-changing group as a whole, these women broke me open. They invited me into the circle, they shared their stories, their joy and pain, their jokes, and they broke me open. They were participating in something greater than themselves; they invited me to participate, too; and somehow, sometime during that 30 days what couldn't have happened, shouldn't have happened, I had no right to have happen, did: the obsession to drink was lifted.

That was the beginning of my coming to see it's not the person who insists upon being alone who's different, but the person who's willing to admit he or she is like everyone else. Anyone can isolate, but to cast one's lot with the rest of humanity requires a kind of radical humility: a willingness to participate even though we can never tweak things or people into being the way we want them to be—and even though participating doesn't assuage the loneliness either. We don't resist the loneliness, but we don't indulge or cultivate it either. We're so afraid of losing our uniqueness, but the world, and my own temperament, make me, for one, quite different, isolated and alone enough.

A lot of the time Mass isn't particularly the way I want it to be, either. My fellow parishioners aren't people I'd necessarily choose for friends, someone's always brought a wailing baby, and it's easy to find fault with the architecture, priest, art and especially music (if I were Pope, the first thing I'd do is ban most post-Vatican II hymns and all guitar Masses). Still, I invariably leave Mass feeling a little more peaceful, charitable, hopeful and trusting than when I arrived. This is my purpose on earth: to put my body, attention, good cheer, and desire to do better, such as they are, into the stream of life, at the service of others: to allow myself to be shaped by others and, in turn, to shape them.

2/4/2011 5:00:00 AM