In AA, love is our glue
WHEN I FIRST came to AA, I didn’t know how to love. I still don’t. All I know is that what I am doing feels pretty good. Externally, the evidence is there; internally, I am not sure whether I am feeling the way the songwriters and Hollywood say I should, but it will have to do. I don’t know any better.
If love is blind, so is the knowledge of love. I “love” ice cream, but I don’t know whether I’m enjoying it any more or less than you are. We can’t experience each other’s sensations.
If I’ve learned to love in AA, it’s been by not trying to learn to love at all, but by trying to do something else.
Like many other AAs I’ve heard, I come from a background deficient, not only in love, but in the fundamental intimacies enjoyed in most families. My father was painfully shy and withdrawn; I don’t remember his ever really talking with me as father with son. My mother, on the other hand, was unpredictably emotional. She would fluctuate from fury to tearful kisses, often within minutes, and from the same stimuli. Homelife was a guarded truce; I don’t remember using the words “Mom” or “Dad” from the age of ten on.
Under these circumstances, I grew up not only not knowing what love was, but mighty suspicious of it as well. I retreated into books, into fantasies, and later into alcohol. When I married, I was astonished at the open expressions of affection, the laughter and gentle teasing I saw in my wife’s big and boisterous family. I tried to bring this warmth into my own family, but it was a learned technique, done by rote, in vitro–under glass.
When I came into AA, I was told that if I wanted to stay sober, I would have to learn to love; that in order to learn to love anyone else, I would have to learn to love myself. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I’m not sure I do yet.
The first thing I had to do, as with so many of my other attitudes, was get rid of the hocus-pocus. The trouble with talking about love is that everybody gets ooey-gooey and all dewy-eyed and very soft-voiced, and that makes me very uncomfortable.
I was in a somewhat unusual position relative to the phenomenon of love, because, never having experienced it fully, I was able to view it as an outsider, like a Martian observing humanity’s quaint ways.
It was a relief to me, after some study, to come to the conclusion that love does not really exist in itself; i.e., it is not a metaphysical absolute. Love really is nothing in itself; it is a description of something else. But what?
It was interesting to observe how love defies linear logic. You cannot reason love. If I say I love my wife because she is a good cook, I am not loving her at all. I just do, that’s all, and it must not be explained, at the peril of its own destruction. I love for the best and only reason–no reason at all.
I looked carefully at all the big-time lovers of my acquaintance, those who seem to love everything so easily and talk about it so glibly. It seemed to me that all this matter-of-fact loving was done at a careful distance. It is easy to be compassionate about suffering multitudes or sentimental about an entire high school graduating class. But to love another person, an individual, is life itself and infinitely harder.
When I posed all these earthshaking questions to my fellow AA members, I was told, “Keep the cork in the bottle, keep coming to meetings, work the AA program, and try to help others do the same thing. And if you feel like talking, here’s my number. Call me anytime.”
I compared this response to that of another group of which I am a member, a local running club. Nice people, all of them. Friendly, interesting, helpful, and mutually supportive in our common efforts to improve our physical performance.
But deeply caring, sharing, loving? No. And that is the big difference.
The AA group is a gathering of sharing, caring, loving people. More important, they love each other as discrete individuals, not as members of a group. Why?
Because they need each other and they know it. Further, they are willing to admit it–out loud. To love is to acknowledge their interrelationship, and therein is a mysterious psychic strength.
We think of the tree, the branch, and the bird that flies from it as separate events in nature. But perhaps, in the great scheme of things, they are parts of a single, interrelated whole. If we recognize that the tree and the branch and the bird are related to each other in the performance of nature’s cosmic play, we can see that we, too, are interrelated and mutually dependent in the performance of our roles. In AA, this is made crystal-clear, and this, for me, was the beginning of love.
Freely acknowledged mutual dependence–caring and sharing–was the soil in which my seed of love could grow. Through the Twelve Steps, I was shown how to sweep aside the primacy of concern with self, to discard the selfishness and arrogance that stood in the way. All these were obstacles to love, and as I began to learn to turn my life and will over to God as I understood Him, the first faint glimmerings of humility began to appear.
And with this came, finally, the spiritual awakening that was the awakening, for the first time in my life, of that unique experience we inadequately call love. It was not the “I want everyone to love me and I’ll do anything to get it” love. It was simply “I love you”–without reservation, qualification, or expectation. Love can be offered with a smile.
I don’t stand around on street corners just loving everybody today. But in an AA meeting or any AA gathering, I know I am in the kind of community of love that every therapy, religion, and philosophy desperately seeks. Love is our glue.
When Pope John Paul II visited the U.S., he told a gathering of young people, “I offer you love, which is the opposite of escape.” When Mother Teresa of India, winner of the Nobel peace prize, was asked what she gave the thousands she helped, she replied simply, “We give them love.”
Through AA, I have learned that we are all born with a single set of instructions–to love one another. Our success in this world depends totally on how well we follow those instructions. To me, it is as blindingly and beautifully simple as that.