In a phone call on New Year’s Day, a college professor told me she’d failed my final paper for her course. I could rewrite the paper, she said, correcting the shortcomings, possibly retaining my overall A for the course. Or I could let it go and accept the B average my failure to follow directions had earned.
A student carefully cleans his side of the street
Failure isn’t a word that appears in AA literature that much. I haven’t scanned the Big Book or “Twelve and Twelve” for it, or added up citations. But much of Bill’s writing about the Steps and Traditions addresses personal and group mistakes and misconduct–failures of sorts–and how to manage them: humility, inventory, forgiveness, tolerance.
In reply to the professor, I swallowed my pride, thanked her for the chance to correct my mistakes, told her I’d get back to her about that, wished her a Happy New Year, hung up the phone–and then kicked over the chair I had been sitting in.
What I didn’t do is rage at her or think even once about getting drunk. Considering the fact that, good news or bad, that’s all I thought about for years, I had a lot to be grateful for. And seriously, what difference was a B or an A in some college course ever going to make to anyone?
I had more pressing and useful ways to spend my time than revisiting an academic exercise I’d already worked through. But something was eating me. I was getting As and Bs in all my courses, I’d worked hard on that paper, and I just don’t do F-level work. I’m too obsessive.
My heart was racing, and my head was catching up with fantasies of getting the professor fired. However inconsequential the cause, I cannot afford to turn my back on resentment and self-pity. They tax my serenity, my patience, my concern for others, and they kept me drunk for years. So I had to do something.
One of the most difficult skills for me to learn and remember about living sober is listening, especially listening to criticism. My first instinct is to strike back. Fear and anger always hinder clarity. “Anger is the wind that blows out the lamp of reason,” according to a local old-timer.
Hearing criticism that is to some extent justified, but out of proportion with my behavior, I vacillate between believing it entirely and rejecting it altogether as a personal attack. I can be sure one moment that I’ve been found out, and a phony like me deserves no less than failure and ridicule. And I can be equally certain the next moment that I’m a victim of someone else’s envy and mendacity. I know this because I’ve spent years taking my inventory and sharing with other alcoholics.
With such a volatile and fragile mind, and registering that I’d failed a final paper that had cost me many hours’ work, I needed to sit quietly, breathe, let what my professor said just be what it was, and unpack my AA tool kit.
“It’s a spiritual axiom,” I reminded myself, “that every time we are disturbed . . . there is something wrong with us.” Maybe I hadn’t been treated fairly. Okay, but I was certain from past mistakes that it really wouldn’t help to argue, defend, stonewall, deny, or attack. Balance, I reminded myself. I need balance, and I’ve never been able to find it on my own.
In my drinking days, when I didn’t like what you thought of me, I would shoot back with rage or silent scorn. One negative comment could earn you a place on my list for the rest of your life. And every single night, I could drink myself into not caring what you or anybody else thought about me. My view of others withered with my unwillingness to entertain the possibility I might be wrong, and my circle of friends got pretty small: down to me and my bottle in the end.
The point now isn’t to get the greatest number of people to like me. It’s to live at peace with myself, comfortable in my own skin, without blowing back and forth between self-loathing and blaming others. So I started in on my inventory.
Beginning with fear and pride, everything I wrote down was familiar territory, right down to the final admission of still being childish, grandiose, and over-sensitive–to a degree. With that out of the way, and having shared the situation with several sober alcoholics, and a couple of non-alcoholics too, I set to work weighing the professor’s remarks and evaluations. And I felt grateful to have a faith that works, a step-by-step method to follow, and a simple vocabulary that got to the heart of the matter quickly.
The upshot is that I was able to review my failing paper with the professor, calmly admitting its shortcomings, but also–and most importantly for me–“take due note of things well done.” She heard me out, again offered the chance to rewrite, but refused to change the grade.
I came away knowing that I had acted thoughtfully, standing up for my work without accusation, and without fear or anger in my voice. I didn’t want to drink, didn’t need to make amends, and didn’t need to submit to someone else’s low opinion of me, either. Today, I accept that people can disagree with me and still lead purposeful lives. So can I. And it was time to move on.