Making promises we cannot keep leads only to greater guilt
THE GRAVITY of the offense is measured according to the dignity of the one offended. So said an old philosopher. Guilt is sometimes defined as remorse felt over one’s commission of a real or imagined offense. Sometimes, I define guilt as the result of wishing that some action hadn’t been performed or that some event hadn’t taken place or that one hadn’t been caught. When we try to wish away something that just won’t go away, we feel all-consuming remorse and grief, which seems to have no end and contains no solution for the problem.
Countless times, the alcoholic experiences this feeling to the uttermost depths of despair. No matter how he tries to resolve his guilt, he may end up thinking that he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. To add to his sense of failure and frustration, there is the progressive nature of his illness, sealing him in forever, he thinks, cut off from forgiveness.
How often the alcoholic promises that he will do better, that he will cut down on his drinking. He makes these empty promises to himself, to his spouse, to his children, to his boss, to his friends, and even to his favorite bartender. How often these fruitless promises are forgotten only seconds later, when the next drink is sucked up with gusto.
These are all human beings that he makes these promises to, all important people in his life. Little does the sick alcoholic know that it is as impossible for him to keep such promises as it is for him to pick himself up by his own bootstraps. He has lost all sense of the relationship between cause and effect–the effect being his change of personality and the cause being the booze.
Let me illustrate with an incident that happened in my rectory. I am an alcoholic priest. Within a very short time after my arrival at this parish, people with alcoholic problems of their own or in their families found out that they might be able to get help. One day, a man came in with his mother, his wife, and their three small children. He looked very sorrowful and obviously saw the impossibility of fulfilling what was being demanded of him. They had brought him to the priest to take the pledge.
Imagine the feelings of this man! As I found out later, he had made all of the aforementioned promises to cut down or stop his drinking. All of them had been of no avail. Here he was, being forced to make a promise to God that he would stop drinking for a long period of time. This family’s faith was deeply entrenched in their heritage. A promise to God would have to be kept, or one would be cursed forever. In the alcoholic’s poor, sick mind, he must have been convinced that no forgiveness could be expected if this vow was broken.
The scene reminded me of a man who entered a rectory in the mid-1930’s and asked the priest to let him take the pledge. The priest turned him down and told him that he should just pray and let it go at that. The priest had known countless cases of such people trying to help themselves by promising God that they would not drink. Each person eventually drank again, and in each case the breaking of the pledge was followed by a heavier burden of guilt, a feeling of hopelessness, and a deeper plunge into the bottle. That was why he turned down the man’s request. I am familiar with the scene because the man was my father, who later died a sudden death.
Now, in my own rectory, I found myself facing the same situation. But, in talking with this man, I had confidence based on my own personal experience and the experience of hundreds of others who had shared their courage, strength, and hope with me. When I asked his relatives to stay in another office and invited him to come in with me, everyone showed signs of surprise. The relatives wanted to witness this pledge-taking ceremony.
When he and I were alone, I said that I didn’t believe the pledge would help in his case. But something had happened since that incident forty years ago: I had something to offer in place of a pledge. With all confidence in my God-given gift of sobriety, I began to identify myself as an alcoholic and to tell him about AA. If ever one could actually see the grace of God working, this was the time. A look of relaxation came over the man’s face, and he promised to come to an AA meeting at our school hall. That was five months ago. Today, the man and his family have a new hope and a peace of mind that they never thought could be possible again.
If we assume that the guilt of the alcoholic is measured by the dignity of the person offended, and that God is infinite in the minds of most men, the only conclusion can be that the guilt flowing forth from a broken promise to God must take on infinite proportions and thus lead the sufferer into the deepest pit of despair–possibly, into a whirlpool of alcohol which he may never survive.
Let me offer this plea for myself and my colleagues: May we have the strength to avoid further burdening the sick alcoholic by unintentionally providing the circumstances which will increase his fear and guilt. Amen.