News arrived yesterday of Billy’s death. He was just a boy when I met him, probably around ten. Raised with two other siblings in a loving middle-class suburban home, he would grow up to be what most people would consider a successful young man, marrying and starting a lucrative career in a major city’s financial sector. He was still in his 30’s when he lost his job and that career came to a sudden halt. Billy began to drink. Before long his life was reduced to the bottle and his reclining chair, where he would sit and drink and fall asleep, day in and day out, hardly bothering to leave his loft apartment in a trendy section of town. His now ex-wife apparently continued to play the caretaker, while he remained literally paralyzed. One day a blood clot traveled to his lung and he died. The official cause of his death will probably be listed as a pulmonary embolism or whatever the proper technical term may be. But we know what killed Billy. He was only 53.
That was just about my age when I lost a store I had in that same city and began to slip into an emotional relapse after 12 years sober. I don’t know the details of Billy’s story, but I suspect that for him, just like for me, work meant everything. Identity, purpose, meaning, self-worth, all derived from what I could do through my work. The rest was tangential, including my sobriety, though I gave lip service to the idea that it came first. In practice, my time, my energy, and my passion were singularly devoted to growing the business, not to growing me. Family, relationships, and—to the extent that he was now present in my life—God, were but accessories to that all-consuming endeavor.
It had always been that way, and when I got sober, that view of life didn’t change. The way that I saw myself, other people, and my place in the world, and what I cared about and invested myself emotionally in, those things remained the same. My spiritual awakening had been sufficient to get me sober and make enough adjustments to make my life manageable for a while, but not enough to change who I really was as a person. I continued to think, to feel, and to act pretty much as I always had, for those things had the force of habit in me and they ruled me. I only avoided some of the extremes that had brought such ruin in the past.
Having tried to build my recovery on the foundations of a lifeview that had failed me before, it was inevitable—for a power-driver like me who could never stand still and was always grasping for more—that the whole edifice would collapse. And it did. Over the course of six years I lost practically everything except for my physical sobriety. It took an even lower bottom and a deeper surrender experience to shake up the way I saw things and to give a new spiritual foundation to my recovery.
Up to that point the place that work had held in me would be defined in theological terms as idolatry. Work, and especially achievement (it was never about money), was the god that I placed before God and before everything else. In philosophical terms, I had made an absolute out of the relative, trying to find ultimate and lasting meaning in the proximate and temporary. As I now apprehended things God came first, and all value had its source in him.
Whatever our individual understanding, when work and the things of the material world substitute for or take precedence over those of the spiritual, experience shows that we are in for trouble. We might argue over the interpretation, but we can’t argue over the facts. If we sacrifice our family, our relationships, our health, and our recovery for work, there’s always a price to pay. And, in the end, work itself will leave us wanting. We can’t get second things by putting them first.
Work continues to be a problem for many of us in AA long after we’ve stopped drinking. It is often a primary source of our emotional instability and the unmanageability that comes with it. We may talk about it at meetings, admit we are workaholics and read all the books on the subject we can get a hold of, and try to work the Steps. Yet the obsession remains.
It cannot be otherwise. The Steps work to the extent that we practice the principles in them. Those principles are designed to change in a spiritual, God-centered direction, our perception of life and of the things that matter in it. If we continue to see work through the same lenses and continue to give it an inordinate place in our hearts, we will continue to get the same results. Our instinctual and habitual drives for emotional and financial security, for a place in society, for status, recognition, and prestige, will continue to sabotage our sobriety and even to dominate our lives.
We need to see differently, to put work in its proper spiritual perspective. We can do this if we work the 1st Step and practice its first principle of surrender with specific regard to our outlook and motivation, admitting that our vision and the desires and drives that emanate from it and that move us are out of line with reality and that we are powerless to change them, that the way we’ve been seeing things doesn’t work and that we need a new way, a new vision, a new perspective.
Surrender makes the practice of the other principles possible, starting with the virtue of humility, which Bill W. stresses time and time again is a matter of perspective, of how we see ourselves in the larger scheme of things, an inability to admit and to accept our limitations being central to our problem with work and our often overly ambitious attitudes.
Some of us have done a 4th Step inventory on work, but we’ve often focused on the symptoms and ignored the underlying issue of vision and valuation. We will find that once work is put in its proper place, many of the problems associated with it ceased being problems. They matter less, because work matters less.
Some of us come to this place with most of our lives intact. Some of us have to lose much of what we have and hit bottom again. Some of us never come to it, and we live a joyless recovery riddled with tension and stress. Some of us drink, and, like Billy, we die.