Much of my world view is shaped by my experience in a 12 step program. I learned to look at my life and the world in which I live in a different way. That new way of looking was an important part of my recovery.
Lately I have been reading about the human propensity for and attraction to narratives. By narratives I mean the need to place events into the context of a story; the search for cause and effect; precedent and subsequent. It appears that we need to understand our lives and our place in the world in terms of a story. But there is a problem with stories. They are descriptive but not predictive. They are constructed after the fact so as to flow as logically as possible. But they are impossible to construct before the “story” is complete. Thus history is a story.
One of the great truths that individuals, families, nations are told to live by relates to learning from history. Without quoting all the familiar aphorisms we are warned to use history (the back story, if you will) to guide us into the future. But is our history any kind of predictor of our future? I think not because everything is different this time. By living our lives, individually and communally we change the circumstances of our existence. When the circumstances change, the same actions will have different results.
How does this relate to a 12 step program? The first step in a 12 step program is “We admitted we were powerless over (name of poison) – that our lives had become unmanageable”. Powerless! What is power? If it is anything, it is the ability to control our present and future circumstances. In the first of the 12 steps we must admit we are powerless over some aspect of our life. But this is just the first step. As I learned a new way of living and seeing I realized, along with many others, that I was powerless over massive swaths of my life. I learned that my future was not in my hands and that I needed to accept that and live a life that prepared me for what was put in front of me. Because as soon as I tried to control what life gave me, I failed. I was powerless.
Of course I mean powerlessness in a macro sense. Not in a micro sense. We can control what we eat and what time we get up and whether we are groomed and a thousand other details of daily life. But these details do not control our future unless we fall outside our societal norms. For example if we stay in bed for the rest of our lives, or never shave again, we have limited our future. But we have not determined our future.
What we cannot control are the larger things. Traffic on the day of our job interview. The chemistry between me and the interviewer. Whether I fit the preconceived notions of the interviewer for the job. Thus no matter how certain we are that the job is perfect for us, we do not control the conclusion of the story. But once the story is concluded, favorably or not, we create the narrative and look for the rationale.
Ask each of your friends and acquaintances over the age of 25 or 30 if their life now is what they expected it to be when they were 18. The older they are, the more emphatic will be their response – NO. Not even close.
So if each of us has a narrative, but it is a historical story that has little or no use in predicting our future and minimal use in guiding our future, why do we do it? And if we cannot control our future, why bother planning and preparing for the future. I don’t know the answer to the first question. Although I speculate that we create stories because without them we would not be able to justify our continued existence.
We plan for the future because we must be prepared to handle the unknowns we will be presented with throughout our lives. We cannot guarantee our success but we can guarantee our failure by not being able to deal with our life challenges.
Kind of a trite conclusion I suppose. But it was profound to me when I became aware of it. It changed my life. When I understood that my failures and successes were not solely a result of my actions and that the results were not under my sole control I was freed to concentrate on improving my efforts rather than evaluating my back story.. So my story was not a train running down a track. My story was, and is, the same as your story. Unknowable.