I ALWAYS HAVE HELP
A man who has had more than his share of trouble – alcoholism, shattered marriage, tragic losses – tells anonymously how he manages to face life, one day at a time.
A friend of mine recently sent me a greeting card with the title, "How to Live in These Troubled Times," and the answer printed inside: "Keep Breathing." If not very helpful it was at least appropriate. As I write this I’m in as warty a financial pickle as a small businessman could contrive – broke, no property, heavy family responsibilities, head of a small concern which is also broke, with creditors expecting in a few months to be paid $20,000 it hasn’t got. Less than this has driven highly strung people to breakdown and even suicide, and I confess I am a little uneasy. But because of a limited grasp of a philosophy which members of a celebrated secret society call The 24-Hour Plan, I’m fairly confident of pulling through.
Well, Now, you say, this is not so much to shout about. Lots of people carry on through difficulties. Yes, I would reply, and lot’s of people don’t. We have 18,000 suicides a year and 500,000 asylum inmates. Commitments to state mental hospitals have doubled since the end of World War II. Every day legally sane people swallow a number of tons of sedatives and wash them down with several million gallons of soothing alcoholic beverages, and we’re still jittery. If anyone knows of what the ancients used to call "an ever-present help in trouble," it’s a public duty, as I see it, to pass it along. Such a help came to me twelve years ago. I had cracked up under pressures which are not uncommon in our times. My wife had taken up with another man, my business was in ruins, and I was trying to get fished out of a morass created by twenty-five years of problem drinking. My mental state was such that I couldn’t even ask for a job, much less hold one. I thought frequently of suicide. Then, half-doubting and half-hoping, I took up with some people who were supposed to know how to lay hold of a situation of this kind. They gave me a book called Alcoholics Anonymous, and my eye fell on a remarkable passage. Before I tell you what it said, let me assure the reader that he doesn’t have to be an alcoholic to proceed with this article; everyone concerned with open-minded living may find something of interest. This is what the authors promised:
"We are going t know a new freedom and a new happiness. Feelings of uselessness and self-pity…fears of other people and of economic insecurity…will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change."
I decided to try it-what could I lose? Twelve years later I may ask: Do I ever feel useless and sorry for myself? Has fear of people and poverty left me? Do I always know intuitively what to do? Such perfection has, alas, evaded me; but this I can say: the extravagant promise has come true to an astonishing degree. The seemingly impossible has, indeed, happened-to me and to many. Some 200,000 of us have known these benefits to some extent. The foundation on which we all build is a way of looking at life which, as previously observed, we call The 24-Hour Plan. In essence the plan is to become aware that, if you take on the job of living one day at a time, you’ll make it. But there’s a good deal more to it than this; it has subtlety and paradox, corollaries and derivatives. I suppose the best way to tell you about it is to look back over the past twelve years and tell about some of my days.
On a cold and rainy November night I went to my first meeting of people enrolled in the Plan. They met in a Y.M.C.A. meeting room, a basement cubicle with cracked plaster and a single unshaded bulb. That first evening I carried away little more than a vague impression that these people were trying to understand what life was mainly about and to live it by workable principles. As time went on I discovered that my first impression had been correct. I had enrolled in a school for living, high in it’s standards, stern beyond belief with backsliders. If you passed your exams you were marvelously rewarded; punishment for failure-alcoholic relapse-was self-administered and sometimes grim. There was Harry, the handsome state cop who came around off and on, but never seemed to grasp the main, big ideas. One day he pulled the state’s car off the road and drew the state’s automatic out of it’s holster and blew out his brains. There was Ed, guiding spirit of a good-sized sales organization, urbane and capable, but clumsy with the simple lessons taught at school. One day he took a train from New York to Philadelphia, rode an elevator up to the top of a tall hotel and jumped off. There was Jane, warned about the danger of brain edema, who pushed her luck too far in an alcoholic experiment, lost her mind and never got it all back. There were others, tragic, unforgettable, teaching vital lessons by their failures. And there were inspiring successes. These last, I gratefully report, were predominant.
In time, just by being around the people who were "on the program," I began to have some ideas about why we have emotional stresses and how The 24-Hour Plan sees us through. People break down, I am quite sure, for the same reason animals in laboratories do-too great expectations, followed by to severe disappointments, too often repeated. The 24-Hour Plan cushions such shocks by encouraging us to gear our hopes to what may reasonably be expected of the day in which we find ourselves.
This brings us directly to the question: What is a day, and what may one reasonably expect of it? Of course, our ordinary days vary according to our involvement. Now and then, however, it’s rewarding to take a day, strip it of all its nonessentials and get acquainted with it in its pristine essence. A day, the dictionary says, is the period of the earth’s revolution on its axis. One of the finest things that can happen to a person, say devotees of The 24-Hour Plan, is really to come to know a day.
You have to pick your time, though, and be in the mood. The best time for me is after a period when I have had a lot to do with people and am ready for a little solitude. It may sound strange at first, but this complete break from people, this getting by one’s self and trying to know a day is, to many of us, one of the essential points of the plan, high in dividends.
I like to get up when it is still dark on the day I have chosen and watch for dawn-the beginning. The way dawn comes is always a special and fine excitement, too often missed. Things seem to know it’s coming; the quiet of the night seems to deepen a little just before the first light. Then the light changes and the pre-dawn twilight is there, a filtered presence. I think of the great arc of light advancing over the earth and of all the things greeting it: a forest full of birds in song, a rooster crowing somewhere. Presently the sun breaks the horizon, rapidly clears the earth and begins its climb.
All day I keep track of the sun. If I can manage it, I walk on a wooded road or along a river or lake or the sea; or I drive to a distant place where nobody knows me. I have cleared my project with my family-who understand that apartness is as much of family life as togetherness-and have arranged that business demands be not pressing; then I can give myself to the day. Noon comes. At sea the navigators are watching through their sextants; they check their chronometers and know where they are.
Sunset, twilight, dark, the moon and stars-I begin to know a little where I am too. All the day I have not thought of people, but of earth and sun, daylight and dark. When thoughts of people intrude, I try to choose the people of whom I will think. I pick solitary, day-conscious people-the psalmist lifting his eyes to the hills, from whence came his help, the young prophet walking in the desert and encountering his destiny, the poet considering the lake country of England, the physicist perceiving that space is curved. All are people who have made The 24-Hour Plan’s big discovery-that man’s rational poise is related to his awareness of time and place, earth and sun.
Sometimes there is a great moment of full knowledge of being an earth creature and belonging, wholly content. This delicious instant is often reported by those who have known the plan-by any name-in depth. It may be described as a sudden intuition that the whole of creation is offered for you, that you are a part of a cosmic creative current, secure. One is not always so fortunate as to know this moment on the day one has chosen. But a moment comes when one knows it’s time for the return to people and the hurly-burly, to see what contribution one can make, refreshed.
The 24-Hour Plan is wonderfully flexible. It encompasses whatever we may conclude, on taking inventory in the light of our best understanding, is the major need of that day. It provides for the rhythmic, pulsating quality of life, the thing that Arnold Toynbee, acknowledging that one day’s need may not be the same as another’s, called the principle of withdrawal and return. Sometimes the difficulty is not too great involvement with people but the opposite-too much of being by ourselves.
The plan divides life into livable, manageable, daily units. This, indeed, was what made it so admirably suited to alcoholics. We knew that swearing off forever was beyond us, but abstinence for a single day was something we could manage. The principle applies to a whole catalogue of trying situations, having nothing to do with alcoholism.
The thing most likely to ruin any 24-hour stretch, we found, are fear and resentment. To enjoy life we had to control these plagues. We acknowledged realistically that other people would sometimes make mistakes and wrong us, but we could not afford to let this make us afraid of them or chronically angry. When we tried daily to tidy up our own behavior, sweeping out the ashes of burned-out grudges and opening the doors to fresh opportunity, we found that perhaps they had not decisively harmed us after all. Resentments, replaced by new interests, died from lack of nourishment.
My twelve years on the plan have been full of emotional peaks and valleys. Because the plan has never let me down, I have come to trust it.
I crossed the first of the valleys after the refusal of my first wife to accept reconciliation. After my seemingly miraculous recovery from alcoholism it was a baffling reversal of everything I had learned to expect of her, and the justice of things. It seemed to me we had been through the worst, that happiness was at last ahead. I loved our children, our home and, despite our misunderstandings, I loved her. It took me a wretched year to accept her determination to carry through a divorce. The plan, as well as the famous A.A. prayer for serenity to accept things we can’t change and for courage to change things we can, saw me through this valley.
Then quite unexpectedly, I rose to one of the peaks. A neighbor woman had a bent for matchmaking. She noted my dismal celibacy, recalled a young divorcee who lived with her three youngsters in a neighboring suburb, and wrote notes to both of us. I called on the young lady. It was a click from our first meeting over a Sunday-afternoon cup of hot chocolate. A year later we were married and ever since have known the great happiness of marital harmony and devotion.
Happy marriage, however, cannot ward off calamity, and presently I was to enter the deepest, blackest valley I have yet been called upon to cross. I was careful not to allow my friendship for the children of my first marriage, including a son, to lapse. A father’s hopes and plans for his son-how long they incubate, even from his own boyhood, and how they hatch and soar! One night the phone rang, and I was summoned to the hospital to see my son after an accident. The next day he died. I cannot tell here what I felt during the following days and months, or say much about a lonely corridor that haunts my memory even now. But I can say that the plan saw me through.
Meanwhile, life, irrepressible, was bear-ing upward toward another peak. A baby was on the way. Carl Sandburg once said that a baby was God’s idea that human life was worth while. Sandburg was right. When our little girl arrived, even in our grief we found it good to look after the needs of this small and charming, this needing, trusting, appreciative person.
After these heights and depths the business ups and downs seemed almost anti- climactic. True, I coddled a whopping rage for a while when a boss fired me because I could not share his views on local politics. I hit a giddy peak when a new product I had concocted began to find favor with customers. And I slumped into another valley, or at least a gully, when I misjudged demand and wound up $20,000 in the hole.
But nothing has yet happened in these twelve years that has found the plan wanting. If it can produce this wonder for an alcoholic type like myself-edgy, high-strung, mercurial, headstrong, conflict-prone and vain-what might it not do for a normal person, normally beset? It is the lesson of my deepest heart that lets me say truly that The 24-Hour Plan, the decision to bargain for this day alone, is an ever-present help in trouble.
Our experience suggests that nobody can work the plan alone. Some sort of affiliation with some human organization based on some sort of idea that is at least global in scope is essential. We alcoholics have weekly meetings devoted mainly to discussing ramifications of the plan. All churches offer this primary call to the transcendent. So do many fraternal orders. For those who mistrust creeds, organizations like the Unitarian Fellowship bring the challenge of cosmic thought without doctrinaire demands. Service and literary clubs often are bridges to a realm of thought beyond the commonplace. All these groups can provide the ingredient without which the plan cannot work-direct contact with thinking people.
Friends can be of enormous help. When I first undertook the plan I felt I didn’t have any. But friends appeared, and two of them-named, by coincidence, Walter B. and Walter C.-contributed important thoughts. Walter C. helped me to understand the rewards of just being quiet, quoting the Chinese proverb: "Muddy water…if permitted to remain still…will gradually become clear of itself." The more practical Walter B. took me to task one time-when I was trying to bull through an impossible situation-with these words: "Relax; give events a chance to go to work on your side."
Some of my best friends in the plan have been books. Here, as with any other kind of friend, it is individual’s choice. I have liked Conquest of fear by Basil King, from its opening line-"When I say that during most of my conscious life I have been prey to fears, I take it for granted that I am expressing the case of the majority of people"-to that memorable assertion- "The life principle is my principle; I cannot cut myself off from it, it cannot cut itself off from me." The New Testament has some fine statements of the Plan: "Give us this day…Sufficient unto the day…" My wife likes Ann Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea, with its special word for mothers and its cry to her sex, "Why have we been seduced into abandoning the timeless inner strength of woman?" I have found things in John Cowper Powys’ A Philosophy of Solitude© worth remembering: "People find to their astonishment that when they drop their eternal striving and clutching, real happiness flows in upon them in a brimming flood-the art lies in the embrace of those elemental accompaniments of existence which as a rule are taken so stupidly for granted."
If my account of the plan seems to emphasize calamity it’s only because bad times always seem so much harder to manage than good. Surely we must not end the narrative without mentioning that an important part of the plan is watching for those small delights-"those elemental accompaniments of existence"-which life is always tossing our way.
One morning last winter I awoke with a vague dread and discontent. The malaise persisted most of the day. During the afternoon the weather grew colder, and by the day’s end the temperature had fallen thirty degrees. When I came home, my eight-year-old daughter danced and tugged at my coattails, shouting, "Daddy, daddy, the pond’s frozen-take us skating!" I was about to plead too tired, but we were called to the table. After supper we all got our skates and went to the pond. The moon came up and made the big irregular oval and its surrounding woods a glistening, blue-black-and-white fairyland. It was a night of laughter, swift gliding and spills-one I will always remember, and it came unexpectedly out of nowhere.
There have been many such times. One day in late spring I heard the sound of a steam calliope. Now, playing a calliope is to me what being President is to some people. They are about as common where I live as yaks are in Iowa. My musical training never extended much beyond a few boyhood piano lessons; actually to command the instrument of the river boats was almost beyond my daydreams. Nevertheless, there came this haunting desire. I followed the sound a few blocks, and there at the curb sat a man playing the great machine, mounted on a wagon. I was sure that anyone owning such a thing would be selective about who played it. Just the same I asked-shouting, so grand was the din-if I might try.
He smiled and nodded and moved over on the bench, and waved an inviting hand toward the keyboard. I stepped aboard, approaching the big, hot pipes with awe. The quivering, powerful thing now sat waiting my touch, its tense boiler hissing. I played Farmer in the Dell over and over, the great steamboat sounds whistling, fooping, boop-alooping over the landscape for miles in all directions and upward God knows how far. It was all part of the plan, and it contains a lesson-if a chance to play a steam calliope can come t me, any good thing can happen to anybody.
"Give events a chance to work on your side," Walter B. had said. This is no Pollyanna happy piece; some days we get nowhere, and when they’re over, all you can say is that you’ve suffered through another day. But even that is an accomplishment when your passing through one of the valleys. Some things are healed only by time, administered in 24-hour lots. Its mere passage brings one closer to that restoration that makes it possible to begin living creatively again. Thus have people been living their daily stints for a million years, through an incredible variety of shifting circumstances.
Failure to hold fast to this truth has cost many a life, swept away in a fit of temporary disappointment. A neighbor of mine, a literary man, worked for four years on a novel, shipped it to market, then fell into despair during the weeks of waiting for a publisher to decide. One evening he drove his car into his garage, closed the door and started the engine. This widow and children are now living well on the royalties and movie rights-the book was an international success.
The $20,000 predicament described at the beginning of this article has given me a fine opportunity to "let events go to work on my side." For a week or so it looked like certain bankruptcy-I was obliged to "accept the things I cannot change." Then my principal creditor decided I was worth a gamble. He accepted a six-month note for most of the debt, providing a new supply of 24-hour periods for me to change the things I can and for events to go to work. On some day, presumably, it will be clear whether the survival of our little business is a "reasonable expectation" of that day. Either way, as long as we’re still on the plan, we’ll "know intuitively" what to do when the time comes.
Meanwhile we’re having some fine days, one at a time. With only a slight editing I can certify, after twelve years of testing, that the whole incredible promise is one come true. We have found a new freedom and a new happiness…Feelings of uselessness and self-pity…fears of people and of economic insecurity…do not overwhelm us. We intuitively know how to handle many situations which used to baffle us. Our whole attitude and outlook on life has changed. And changed immeasurably for the better.
Source: Saturday Evening Post©, May 21, 1960
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