We All Need a Code to Live By: How Stoicism Became Mine

We All Need a Code to Live By: How Stoicism Became Mine

My last drunk was October 7, 2013. It was a boys’ night out. I was attempting to prove that I could handle my drinking like the other guys. So, I took a cab so I didn’t have to worry about driving. I’d made it home without consequences.

I was sitting at home in my La-Z-Boy. I was only my underwear.  I was drinking. The phone rang. It was the woman I was dating at the time.  I decided to drive over to her place.  She lived 20 miles away. Her exist was a cloverleaf and apparently, I could not find a way to get off the highway. And so, I just kept getting on and off, on and off, on and off — until I ran out of gas.

The last thing I remember, I was home. When I woke the next morning, my girlfriend told me she’d found me on the side of the road and had brought me back to her place. We went to the gas station to fill up a gas. When we returned to my car, I saw that the driver’s side mirror had been sheared off. I must have hit something.

Back home, I put my head in my hands and stared at the ground.  “Oh shit”, I thought. “I have a problem.” What I didn’t know was what to do about it.

My Relationship with Alcohol

I was raised in an Italian American community. I grew up in the 1970s in a middle-class home in New York City. Money was tight.  My family was Catholic – but they didn’t force religion on me.

Alcohol was the way in which the adults around me had fun.  Making wine was an annual event. My first and fondest memory of alcohol occurred when I was around 10 or 11. My grandparents would visit.  We would start by crushing the grapes. We laughed and had fun. In three or four days, the aroma would waft up from the barrels in the garage. One of my chores was to churn the crushing.  And when I did, the aroma would hit my lungs and I’d get lightheaded.  Needless to say, I was never late for this chore.

After 7-10 days, the sugar converted to alcohol. It was my job to scrape the crushing from the barrel after we took out the juice. My father and grandfather would put the barrel on its side so I could reach inside and scoop. The bouquet of alcohol was much stronger.  I was beyond lightheaded. The intoxication would fill my head. I would seek out this feeling for decades, until it finally chased me into the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous[i].

Fear. Pain. Misery. Debauchery. Guilt. Shame. Alcohol cost me my marriage. I knew nothing about Alcoholics Anonymous, twelve-step programs or recovery.  Several months prior to my incident at the cloverleaf, a friend gave me a copy of The Golden Book of Resentments. I never looked at it.

Until that day.  I opened the book. I read “Step One”, and I said, “That will do it.”

I was able to resist the constant call of alcohol for three months. But nothing got better. I swam daily in the sea of fear and shame. The thought of a drink ran through my head constantly. One day, I was talking to a friend:

“I don’t drink anymore.”

“I don’t, either” she said.

“What meetings do you go to?”

“What do you mean, meetings?”

“You don’t go to meetings?” she said. “Do you think you might want to go to one?”

At that point, I would have tried anything to feel better.

I didn’t know that she was in Alcoholics Anonymous.  I called the friend who’d giving me the book. “Someone suggested that I go to a meeting”, I said.  He said, “I think that’s a good idea” and took me.

I raised my hand. “My name is Frank. I’m an alcoholic.” Something shifted. I cried. I felt a sense of relief.

Seeking Spirituality

The obsession to drink began to lift. I went to meetings and found a sponsor who took me through the steps described in the Big Book. The Big Book, known more formally as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, describes the 24 principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the rooms of AA, armed with the Twelve Steps and accompanied by my sponsor, I forged a path that would ultimately turn me into a free person. 

And it was this path that led me to the Stoics. 

On my journey, I was searching for anything that would feed my spirit.  My childhood faith was neither helpful to me nor did I want to pursue it.  Instead, I found some old quotes that began to change everything for me. They were remarkably consistent with what I had been learning through the Twelve Steps.  

Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire? — Seneca, Letters to Lucilius

Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire? — Seneca, Letters to Lucilius

Men [sic] are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them. — Epictetus, Enchiridion

I identified with these sayings.  I looked up Marcus Aurelius.  I discovered that he was an emperor of Rome. But more than that – he was a “Stoic Philosopher”.  And so I began reading the Stoics.

I’d found out later in life that I was born with only a single kidney.  When the doctor told me about my kidney, he also explained the importance of taking care of it. So, what did I do? Just what the Big Book anticipated: as an alcoholic, I could not moderate or stop my drinking — even for a good reason. Happily, I realized this early in my quest for sobriety. It gave me capacity to accept being an Alcoholic, and the drive I needed to begin my journey.

From Spirituality to Stoicism

I wanted to enhance my spirituality. I found the Stoics.

The foreword of Twelve and Twelve states that the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous were borrowed from religion and medicine. This motivated me to enhance my spirituality.  But I felt lost.  I did not believe in the God of my childhood.  I did not believe in any conception of God that I had ever learned about.

I realized, however, that many of the quotes from the Stoics also invoked spirituality. But the spirituality of the Stoics was very different from the God of my childhood. It seemed to be a spirituality that I could understand.

For example, I learned that Marcus Aurelius was a pantheist. I found the meaning of this term in the dictionary:  

  1. A doctrine that identifies God as part of the universe or the universe is a manifestation of God.
  2. Worship that admits or tolerate all gods.

I was immediately reminded of a passage in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions describing how the author – Bill W.— struggled with his conception of God. In the book, Ebby asks Bill, “Why not choose your own conception of God?”  Bill took Ebby up on her suggestion.  Instead of God, he used the words cosmos and universe throughout his Big Book.

At this point, I realized that I didn’t have to be confined to any existing conception of God, or to any single belief about the meaning of God, spirituality, or the Divine.  I was free to create my own version of spirituality. I was free to define who I wanted to be.  I was free to try to find a way to create the person I wanted to become.

This was just the start.  Another snippet from Marcus Aurelius took hold of me:

Resentment, bitterness, and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting” (Marcus Aurelius).

I could not help but see the resonance between Aurelius’ stance on resentment and that expressed by Bill W. in the Big Book, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.  I had many resentments. And I realized how much they were holding me back.

And then Aurelius’ “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts” found its parallel in the Big Book’s “The main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body” (p. 23).  I now realized that I did not simply have to attend to my body; I had to attend to my self.  I could no longer point the finger of blame outward.  In fact, I didn’t need blame at all.  I did, however, need to take responsibility for my future.  Taking responsibility would mean changing the entire way I viewed the world.  I knew I couldn’t do it alone.  I needed help.  I had to find my responsibility through my relationships with others.

I read Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. Robertson’s description of Stoicism paralleled the Big Book’s explanation of recovery. I read books, took courses, and learned more about the Stoics. I moved forward armed with the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, my sponsor, my fellow travelers, and Stoicism.

Begin with Gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all the others – Cicero

I now use Stoic principles as a main guide to my personal growth and development.  The first among these principles is gratitude.

The first book in Western thought devoted to gratitude was On BenefitIt was penned by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca.  In that book, Seneca writes:

Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention…is more disgraceful than the fact that we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits (Seneca, 1953; p. 3)

For Seneca, not all benefits require gratitude.  When we pay for something we purchase, there is no need for gratitude; the debt is paid within the exchanger of money for product. Gratitude is most deeply appropriate when a gift is freely given.  It is this insight that helps us to understand the importance of gratitude in everyday life.  

We don’t actually have to be given a gift intentionally in order to feel gratitude.  It is enough that we see that we are the beneficiary of something that we did nothing in particular to deserve.  We did nothing to deserve being born.  We did nothing to deserve the living in a time of antibiotics.  We did nothing to be deserving of the feeling of being able to breathe, the beauty of the sky, the cool dry air of Spring.  And even when we work hard at something, we cannot claim to deserve the choice of being given the job; on a different day, it could have just as easily gone to someone else.

We can thus find gratitude in every experience — good or bad. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have many different views on gratitude, including amor fati translated as “love of one’s fate”, or the Stoic “reserve clause” meaning, “fate permitting”.  We can feel grateful for the luck of the draw.  When we are able to find something good in the our suffering — we can indulge in being waited upon in sickness – we can be grateful even then.

The Stoics invoke what they called the “reasoned thought or mind”, which calls upon us to cultivate humility.  Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome. Yet, unlike many of our contemporary leaders, he dedicated himself to humility:

Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change — for it is the truth I seek, and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance. The Meditations

The capacity to seek out and find the good with humility and gratitude is central to our capacity to accept who we are, to find joy in the moment, while simultaneously seeking making incremental improvement in ourselves each day.  Before my encounters with the Stoics, I had no idea what gratitude was, or how it worked. I had never heard the word gratitude before I entered the rooms of AA. I could not imagine that I had sufficient good in my life that would warrant the feeling of gratitude. I was wrong. 

[i]  I am not a spokesperson for AA, nor do I hold a position in AA. Although I have been deeply influenced by AA, this is not an essay on AA – it is an essay on Stoicism.

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