My Meeting

“Why is there evil in the world?” the Zen Master was asked, and answered, “To thicken the plot.”

In Santa Monica I attended a Sunday evening Al Anon meeting.  Al Anon is one of a spectrum of meetings based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and it’s specifically directed to those of us who are involved with either recovering or practicing alcoholics or addicts.  One may be involved by family, marriage, friendship, work or other circumstance, but the involvement is what qualifies each of us for the meeting and brings us to it.  It’s what we talk about, in a variety of ways as great as our numbers.

Often the meeting begins with everyone–in this case twenty-five or thirty people—standing in a circle and reciting what is known throughout the Twelve Step programs as the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

For many of us the reason for our attendance comes down to the idea that we can control the behavior of another person, or somehow surmount that behavior.  This idea can bring on difficulties.  Al Anon recognizes behavior of our kind to be as great a disease as alcoholism or addiction.

As a child and then well into adulthood, the actions of other people that I considered wrong affected me in a personal way—as if, on some level, it fell to me to straighten the matter out.  But this feeling could devolve into a sickened sense of betrayal.  During the high 1960s, a young man dressed as a hippie took up a station in the well-traversed area between Cinema I and Cinema II on Third Avenue in the midtown shopping district of Manhattan.  I encountered him for the first time one afternoon when my wife Gailyn and I, both recognizably hippies, passed him.  In those days, I should say, there was a kind of gentle confederacy among the long-haired and colorfully dressed, and whenever we encountered one another there was a brief interval, a moment in which we recognized and wished one another well, if only with our eyes.  That first time we passed, the young man approached us and abruptly blurted “Spare change?”—which wasn’t common in those days.  No, sorry, I said almost apologetically, acknowledging the young man’s hippie attire, if nothing else, since he’d forgotten the usual amenity.  When he approached us just this way two or three more times over the course of several days, it dawned on me with something close to nausea that the young man didn’t recognize Gailyn or me, no matter the number of times we’d passed, and that he was using the hippie garb strictly as a gambit to grease his palm.  In other words, he was hawking love, peace and happiness as a way to get people to give him money, and he had no actual interest in his compatriots.  It was several months later that the New York Times ran a story on the young man, who was hauling down $100 or more a day, working the panhandling trade with a gimmick.  A garden variety hustler.

From my current vantage, it’s hard for me to fathom my response to this soulless but rather routine entrepreneur: suffice to say that I hated him, and he effectively ruined the day for me, if not several days.  How could he do that? I brooded.  Today it strikes me that I was, if anything, more nuts than the young man.  Then too, my thinking reflected an ivory tower world view that needed the leavening of broader social experience, which would arrive with time.  Still, the disease carried on.  I had a problem with letting go—with riding loose in the saddle of life, to paraphrase a prescription from Robert Louis Stevenson I found in a daily meditation book.  My immediate thought on reading this, by the way, was: Didn’t he die young?

As we learn in the program, any behavior such as ours had its validity once upon a time, in the recesses of childhood.  I was the son of two charismatic figures who periodically, routinely, blew me away with their dynamic, cunning, deeply interesting personalities.  Mom, and then Dad; Dad, and then Mom.  And then, in the heat of what quickly devolved into battle lines, as they married and divorced twice each by the time I was eight years old, I began to be, so to speak, unseated in myself—to scarcely know, that is, who it was I myself happened to be.

It was in my later teens that I began to take notice of my own condition and initiated a kind of psychological retreat from the world, as a conscious strategy to shore myself up.  In my case, this involved my saying no—first to one parent, and then to the other, in the interests of my own survival as a human entity, rather than a merely ventriloquil fixture who could be depended upon to reliably recite one party line or the other.  Mom was great, and Pop was bad, or Pop was great, and Mom was bad, depending on which figure had hold of my heart and mind at that moment.

It took a year or so of attending Twelve Step meetings before the major event occurred for me: the inauguration of a Higher Power, the program’s non-sectarian denomination for God.  As a child, I used to pray from time to time, although I never attended church or Sunday school regularly.  My father’s father, Armenak Saroyan, whom I’m said to resemble physically and perhaps to take after, was a Presbyterian minister.  My father himself was a kind of Christian anarchist who loved to visit churches of every variety, usually on impulse during walks, but scarcely ever sat through a service.  My mother, Jewish by birth, had a Catholic foster parent, and her main religious focus was on Christmas, with detailed attention each year to a beautifully decorated tree, a survival—or perhaps a dream—from her own childhood.

The matter of a Higher Power, then, was not a natural for me, but it was crucially helped, I see now, by the regular recitation, at the beginning of each meeting, of the Twelve Steps.  The First Step goes: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.  In the late eighties, on the Southern California freeways, I’d come across bumper stickers with the single word “powerless” on them and wondered what was up with that.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the crux of the program involves this giving up.  The third step goes: We decided to turn our will and our lives over to a Higher Power, or God as we understood him. Where’s my Higher Power? I would wonder during that first year or so.  In a sense the first step, the surrender of one’s will, is what allows the Higher Power to materialize, perhaps on the principle that nature abhors a vacuum.  When you have a dyed-in-the-wool control freak letting go—”Let Go and Let God” another bumper sticker reads—well, there’s a lot more room in the room at that moment.  And one day I just discovered it was there, the Higher Power, or perhaps the discovery was that I wasn’t there.

I don’t know that I’ve made any more wonderful or profound discovery in my life.  Years ago, I read that the singer Pat Boone, not in my own immediate pantheon, had remarked about a certain crisis in his life: “Let the Lord handle this one,” and felt pleased and relieved by the remark.  The Lord, I thought—why not let him/her take care of it?  What I discovered when the Higher Power did occur for me, a year or two into the Twelve Step program, was that, unequal as I was to the task, I myself had been the deity up to then.

There are two primary ways, I find, in which the recognition that I am not the deity works.  First, with people in my life whom I might be inclined to try to fix or control, I back off—with love, as they say in the Program—and let the person deal with their own issues in their own time.  After all, I am not the Higher Power, not even for myself, and have no business behaving as if I am.  A corollary is that every single person has his or her own Higher Power, too.  So there’s a double hazard in taking on another person’s problems.  Not only is the activity based on the misunderstanding that one is equal to it, but such activity can also come between that other person and their own Higher Power.  The only exception that comes immediately to mind is the role of parenting when a young child needs moment-to-moment guidance.

The second primary way that Not-Being-the-Deity works—and the most beautiful part for me–is the dawning sense that, if I’m not in control, then moment by moment what comes my way is life itself, and, in its own myriad of ways, a gift of God.  In other words, I no longer have the job of screening and vetting the universe and can let go to it and see what happens.  I used to worry about virtually every action of my professional life, for instance.  Was it right or wrong?  Should I have spoken to someone else?  Should I have used a different tone of voice?  What did she mean when she said that?  The fact is, as I see it these days, none of this is important—and there may still be time for a walk.

As for evil—of course, it exists.  I’ve seen it and known it, in myself as well as others.  Usually it’s part of a larger mix, and other elements help to mitigate the damage.  Every man has his poisons, my father used to say.  And there may even be a kind of homeopathic tonic in allowing the poison to come into play from time to time.  On the other hand, there are also monsters out there, although in truth the monsters I’ve known have proven all-too-human, as if some single element was allowed to hold sway over the whole mix, like a soup that goes sour with too much salt, or rancid with too much sugar.  Alcohol or drugs, maybe.  Too bad, we say.  And Get out of the way. I’m not the Higher Power.

So one goes to a meeting, finds a chair, and listens to the stories of the regulars of their week, and usually a newcomer or two—which is always interesting.  All of it is interesting, every time.  Eventually there are regulars one knows by name.  Every so often it may occur to me that perhaps someone dislikes me.  On occasion I have my own aversion.  None of this is very meaningful or long-lived.  One night, when I was called on, I said that the meeting had become a kind of church experience for me, which remains true.

At the end of the meeting, we all stand up again, form a circle, and  recite “The Serenity Prayer” for the second time:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

This time we hold hands.

Aram Saroyan’s most recent book is Still Night in L.A, a detective novel.