Watching the other night a visually stunning movie set in another time and place, I had an old and a familiar pang of longing: to be somebody else, born and raised in a different country and in a different century and speaking a different tongue. Such longing was a common occurrence in the past. I had never wanted to be me, to be where I was, to be in the present.
I had altered my name over the years and rejected other aspects of my identity. I had romanticized the past and idealized other countries and cultures. I had been an avid listener of “foreign” music, a devotee of “foreign” films, a student of “foreign” languages and literatures.
This was my own way of responding to a feeling that is said to be common among alcoholics: the sense of being different, of being apart from rather than a part of, of not belonging. It's a feeling that takes many forms. Feeling like a foreigner is one of the forms that it took for me. It was a feeling that I sought to escape, not by trying to blend and fit in or by reaffirming my particular foreignness, but by striving to be different in a different way.
What I longed for the most was to be a different foreigner than the foreigner I was. Or that others wanted me to be, for everybody seemed to want to define me and tell me who I was. I wanted to recreate myself in my own image and so to be in control of my own identity. I wanted to become my own idealized version of the stranger.
The idealist impulse, they say, is also symptomatic of the alcoholic. Bankrupt idealists, the 12&12 says we are (Tradition 6, p. 156). For me that sometimes took the form of a flight into an imaginary past that never existed; other times into an imaginary future that never could. I was always yearning for things to be different, always, as Rilke says, overcome with longing.
So when that pang of longing went through me that night as the beauty of an idyllic countryside seized hold of my imagination, I smiled in recognition. I knew that craving well, the bitter-sweet sentiment and the drinking that always went with it.
But this time the feeling was fleeting. It was immediately replaced by a realization of what my old longing had been. It had been a rejection. A rejection not just of reality and of myself in some philosophical or psychological sort of way, but more fundamentally and more spiritually, a rejection of God. I wished to be someone other than the person God had created. It was a rejection of God’s grace, and of his will for me.
With that realization the old longing was instantly replaced by a new and now an increasingly more familiar feeling. That feeling was gratitude. Gratitude for everything. For the beauty of the movie, for the art and the talent that had made it possible, for my being able to understand a tongue that I loved and that was no longer foreign to me, for my being an alcoholic, for my recovery, for who I had been and was now becoming, for the very gratitude I was feeling.
I realized at that moment that, here too, the promises of the program were materializing. God was doing for me what I could not do for myself. A greater ideal was becoming a deeper reality. An emotion of disaffection and alienation which had marked my character and my personality when I drank no longer ruled my heart. It had been eased out by another.
Longing had been overcome. Or better yet, transformed and restored to its proper object. For longing seems to be a natural disposition, responding perhaps to a sense of separation and alienation from a spiritual reality to which we truly belong and in which we find our true identity and our true home. Gratitude seems to gradually fill the longing, bridging the distance and bringing us closer, enabling us to live more fully in the here and the now. At times even joyously.
[Posted 07/28/14. Image: Henrietta Seiberling's home in Akron, where Bill W. & Dr. Bob had their historic meeting. For a photo of Henrietta, please click on link.]