It hasn’t been very long since we engaged in a Star Wars-themed discussion of mindfulness. In doing so, we explained that one of the key ingredients to mindful living is the willingness to do what one must in order to ensure that their thoughts remain properly curated. Such measures included, above all, a daily moral inventory and the willingness to run our thoughts by those who are closest to us. Of course, we also noted that the most stubborn among us will often have trouble achieving the mindset necessary to do these things. This is a problem that we would now like to address.
Willingness is everything to the recovering addict or alcoholic, as it is only through honesty, open-mindedness and willingness that we are able to stay sober. But how does a person develop willingness? Where does it come from? More importantly, how do we come to terms with willingness in a life of sobriety, which is by its very definition a life without self-will? This may sound like a paradox, but it is much simpler than some might be inclined to think.
How Willingness Develops
It would be wonderful for the addict if willingness were something that we could develop overnight, but this is not always the case. There are certainly many addicts and alcoholics who will undergo a spiritual experience quite early in their recovery, enabling them to find a new and fulfilling life in sobriety that will change them for the better. But many of us struggle with character defects that make this very difficult. We can be stubborn, selfish, and defiant. Many of us are in denial as to the nature of our very problem.
These defects may cause us to be insubordinate, shrugging off the suggestions of our sponsors and trying to carve out a path that does little to benefit our sobriety. We feel as if we can force things. We try to impose our will onto jobs and relationships, and we are left unhappy when these efforts fail. In the best of cases, it is this very defeat that will develop a sense of willingness within us. As unfortunate as it is, failure is often one of the building blocks of humility. Only after we see that our way of life has failed us will we take the necessary steps to ensure future success.
To be clear, willingness is not the same as willfulness. When we are willful, and we impose our self-will upon our circumstances and acquaintances, we often do much to ensure our own failure. In the film Kung Fu Panda, a wise old turtle delivers the following maxim:
“One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”
This is essentially how willfulness works. Say that we are afraid of loneliness, so we try to force relationships with others. But as we become forceful and demanding, we will eventually push people away. Willingness demands not that we force our personality on others, but rather that we are willing to accept them as they are. We must learn gratitude and appreciation for our current circumstances, or else they will likely change in a way that will leave us far more unsatisfied than we ever were before.
Some may believe that willfulness is the path to true happiness, but this is not the case. Consider the following line from the fifth chapter of the AA Big Book:
“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it—then you are ready to take certain steps.”
Those of us who spurn willingness in favor of willfulness are those of us who think we know what we want, but are often focusing our efforts on the wrong things. We develop willingness through the simple realization that we are ready to begin a new way of life. This is often the only way to make these necessary changes. We cannot force it. You might attempt to “fake it ‘til you make it,” but this will often work for only a very limited amount of time. This is troubling, as the results of failure to develop willingness in a natural manner are indeed quite regrettable.
The Life of the Unwilling
The same Big Book chapter quoted above speaks at great length regarding the fate of the person who is unable to embrace a life of willingness. More importantly, it focuses quite intently on the effects of our willfulness on ourselves and those around us.
“Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But, as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.
What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?
Our actor is self-centered—ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays. He is like the retired business man who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation; the minister who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up. Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity?
Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.
So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!”
This lengthy passage is one of the most important passages in the Big Book, especially for its description of “self-will run riot.” But it is not enough to understand that self-will may ultimately be the cause of most of our troubles. It is equally important to understand the life that we might have if we are able to embrace a life of willingness.
Benefits of Willingness
As discussed above, a life of self-will is a life of anger and self-pity. If this is the truth, then it is also true that a life of willingness is one in which we are able to overcome such character defects and negative emotions with much more ease. That is not to say that they will never arise, but they will no longer rule our lives. We will reach a stage of acceptance of ourselves and our condition that has eluded us in the past, and we will find a new form of contentment that had previously seemed impossible.
Willingness also enables us to accept help from others. A blog by fellow treatment center Ocean Breeze Recovery recounts the story of a woman who pushed her motorcycle over a mile to pick up her drug of choice, refusing to accept help after running out of gas. Many of us have gone to extreme lengths to deny help from those who cared about us, be they perfect strangers or even our dearest loved ones. When we enter sobriety, we often must develop the willingness to build a strong support system of people who care about our recovery. If we do not possess the willingness to lean on these people from time to time, then we will surely fall. Not only is willingness integral to relapse prevention, but self-will is often a harbinger of relapse. By accepting help, we are able to stay sober for at least another day.
If the greatest benefit of willingness is that it allows us to avoid a life of anger, resentment and self-pity, then it is truly one of the most profoundly useful tools that we have in our toolbox. We have already lived a life of self-will. If it had worked, then we surely would not have ever discovered recovery in the first place. Why go back to a life that we know to bring us nothing but pain? This is a futile desire, and our willingness to focus on our recovery above all else will deliver us from the pain that we have so often caused ourselves in the past. This is why we must challenge ourselves on a daily basis to increase our understanding of willingness and boost our ability to embrace a new life of contentment through sober living.
Challenge Yourself Daily
The word “challenge” may sound as if we are still focusing on self-will, but this is not the case. When we say that the development of willingness requires us to challenge ourselves, we mean simply that one must not become complacent. We must never assume that our sobriety has reached its peak, as there is always room to further our development through the pursuit of personal growth.
One of the easiest ways to challenge ourselves is to find a service work commitment that will require us to focus our attentions toward others on a regular basis. We may find a place to volunteer every week, or we might accompany our sponsors when they are performing step work. If we ask our sponsors to give us a service work commitment, they will not usually deny us the opportunity. They might give us something simple, such as the responsibility of making coffee before meetings, but this is still something we can do to hold ourselves accountable.
Sponsors who attend a regular home group often have their sponsees show up to meetings at least two hours early to help set up and to discuss recovery with the old-timers. It takes a great deal of willingness to show up this early, but many people in early recovery will begin to enjoy the task over time. It will no longer feel like a chore, but rather a meeting before the meeting. And it is in this secondary meeting that some of us have learned the most about sobriety.
The key to developing willingness is simply to never say “no.” When someone in AA asks you for a favor, one must always answer in the affirmative. If someone asks you to share your story at a speaker meeting, then do it. If someone asks you to help volunteer at an AA convention, then do it. We may be able to think of countless reasons why we cannot or should not do these things, but true willingness teaches us that these excuses are not as valid as we think them to be. We must do away with excuse-making and corner-cutting if we are to remain sober.
Willingness does not come naturally to some of us, but it will come to feel natural over time if we are truly dedicated to the cause. The true challenge is simply learning to tell willingness from far more harmful qualities such as willfulness or self-will. If, however, we are attuned to our conscience and willing to follow the advice of our sponsors and our loved ones, our understanding of willingness will indeed grow. Eventually, we will not need to understand it. We will simply live it.