I can’t go a year without watching It’s A Wonderful Life. Just the right touch of darkness with a powerful and indistinguishable glowing light to always carry us through. In many ways it is the perfect recovery movie. My heart goes out to those who are experiencing their first holiday in recovery. I know the families may be breathing a sigh of relief to have your loved one back. But for the person newly in recovery this time of the year can be tough. For some, really tough. What they need the most is some idea that everything will get better. And, that they deserve to have that – no mattter what they have done they have not surrendered their opportunity to be part of the community.
Every year, I take some time to reflect on my first holiday season in recovery. I was young, my father had relapsed with late stage alcoholism, and I was scared of life. I had no real idea of how to live as an adult. I was incredibly immature, riddled with insecurity, and full of anger. I was lost. But I had a resource I had never had before and, quite frankly, a resource I could not have imagined actually existing. A place where people came together for one hour and took the risk to tell the truth as best they could to one another. So incredibly simple, yet so incredibly hard. I was wrapped in the security of people who told me: “It will get better.” For some reason I cannot really take credit for, I believed them. Probably because like so many of the lost souls who wander into those rooms, I had a deep desire for life to be good – we just have no idea how to go about it or how much we are in the way of it happening. In my heart of hearts I really wanted life to be wonderful!
Fast forward and twenty-one years later a lot has changed. In many ways, I have the life I could not have even dreamt of when I first got into recovery: beautiful family, published author, beautiful home, true friends, a sense of purpose, an ever-increasing sense of who I am and an ever-increasing sense of inner peace. I still have that God-sized hole we all talk about in the rooms. I still experience loneliness. I still question myself and decisions I make sometimes. I still feel the tug of other people’s wants and need versus my own. But my life is a gift of Grace and I know that in the core of my being. You can always find something to complain about and you can always find something for which to be grateful – which of the wolves are you going to feed? Which of the wolves am I going to feed? My life is a gift and I am blessed beyond all merit.
It has taken a lot of work to get me where I am. Work that I absolutely never could have done on my own. I have to laugh at the people who think they have really done anything on their own. It simply is not possible. We are so immersed in the web of connection that we very often do not even see it. But the person, who alone, takes credit for their recovery? Beware. Left to my own devices and on my own I would not have near the life I do and more than likely would not be sober or even alive. The sacred gift of the “We” has always been my lifeline no matter how reluctant I may be to use it at any given time. That is the core message of It’s A Wonderful Life: No man is a failure who has friends. Said differently: no man can fail when he is immersed in the “we” of Life.
The acting in It’s a Wonderful Life is far from perfect. It often slips into melodrama with a thick heavy Christian accent and a dash of racist caricatures. But it was the 1940s a very different time from today. The message is solid because it is a very human message. The story transcends the movie’s limitations. George Bailey’s life was far from the life that he expected or even worked hard to create for himself. Twice, as he was getting ready to dive into his destiny as an explorer of faraway lands, Life intervened and pulled him back. The man couldn’t catch a break. He so often gave up his dreams to help others and be of service to the larger community. Some might label him codependent or even worse, a fool. And finally, when he was getting ready to dive off a bridge in a suicidal explosion of the built-up resentment, jealousy, and deep disappointment that had been accumulating for years, Life intervened again. I have heard that same story told by a thousand different strangers a thousand different ways over the years: “…..And then God/Life/The Great Spirit/Higher Consciousness intervened.” And then the miracle occurred.
When I first began my recovery journey I didn’t know, let alone believe, that it was a wonderful life. I knew I wasn’t ready to die and I was tired of feeling so alone and lost. The challenge is that addiction is such a black-hole of self-centeredness that it is hard for us to feel any sense of connection to the “We” when we are first coming out of the morass. It is a leap of faith for so many of us.Others, who had also stood at the precipice told me it was a wonderful life. They shared their experience of hopelessness transformed into hope; selfishness and self-centeredness transformed into service; and, pride and insecurity transformed into wisdom and humility. These are the people who helped me build a life brick by brick. They kept telling me over and over again to trust the process and believe that it not only could get better but it would better. And it has. So so much better.
And so I proclaim the same words today to and for others that were sung to me by the choir of angels that God put into my life all of those years ago:
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive it to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.**
**The Desiderata by Max Ehrmann