A couple of weeks ago I celebrated an important anniversary.
Thirty years sober. After having been given a grim prognosis of two months to live if I continued down that self-destructive road of alcoholism. Against all odds, against that long, irrefutable history of previously broken promises and humiliating failures, somehow, with a lot of help, I succeeded.
Today I am seventy-one years old, passionately engaged with this turbulent world of ours and inordinately and perhaps undeservedly happy. I am what's known as a recovering or recovered alcoholic -- take your pick. Either way I don't drink.
I credit my sobriety to the lessons learned in AA. Prior to my experience in AA my life was a continuous downward spiral of self-destruction. The doctors to whom I had gone for help invariably looked to the “historical solution” to my problems -- delving into my childhood, my relationship with my mother and father, etc. Not one of them ever simply suggested that I quit drinking. So I continued drinking and continued going to my analysts and my life continued spiraling downwards. Then, finally, after my fourth hospitalization, I was effectively coerced (against my better judgment) into attending an AA meeting. That was February 16, 1978. And I haven't had a drink since that day.
What was it about the AA message that proved so successful? Two things come to mind. First, I remember someone at a meeting saying this: Imagine that you wake up and you’re in a burning building and you have no idea how you got there. What do you do? Answer: You get the hell out of the building. Later, when you are safe and sound, if you want to try to figure out how you got into such a predicament, or who exactly started the fire (the historical solution), you can delve into it at your leisure. However, as your life improves, and things get better and better, affixing blame for your previous troubles becomes less and less meaningful.
Secondly, the whole premise of the AA philosophy is built on unconditional surrender and honesty, rigorous self-honesty -- honestly admitting that you are defeated, that the old ways don’t work, and that you need to turn your life around; but that you also need to accept responsibility for your own life and quit blaming others.
What in the world, you might well ask, does this gratuitous personal revelation have to do with the world we live in and with Islam?
And I would answer: everything.
It has occured to me that this latest violent incarnation of Islam, almost the entire Arab World, and the Palestinians in particular, are all locked in an obsessive, self-destructive downward spiral not unlike alcoholism. And, as with alcoholism, seeking an “historical solution” -- i.e., who has the more legitimate claim to the land -- just doesn’t work. Perhaps they must collectively reach that proverbial “rock bottom” and admit defeat (1948) and finally and unconditionally surrender in order to have a chance to recover and move on. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. As hard as it is, you must just quit.
For me it took twenty-five years, two failed marriages, and several bungled careers before I reached my particular rock bottom and finally admitted defeat. For Germany and Japan, in the first half of the Twentieth Century, it took two world wars, the death of millions, and finally, the complete and total destruction of two hateful and evil regimes to reach their historical turning point. It took the relentless imposition by the Allies of Unconditional Surrender to achieve these miraculous turnarounds. No room was to be left for retrospective qualifications or rationalizations, no absurd revisions of history -- such as transpired in post-WWI Germany -- were to be allowed. No false promises or temporary truces would be accepted. Not this time around.
Only complete and utter Unconditional Surrender. In short -- they had to hit rock bottom. Which they did. And, against all odds, within five short years Japanese kids were playing baseball in Tokyo, and Germany (at least that democratic Western part of it) was well on its way to becoming a national economic powerhouse. And, just as suddenly, as the prospects for success became more and more apparent, that whole outmoded, now-useless, unhealthy concept of victimization began to lose its appeal. Thus, hope replaces self-pity, and we rise anew from the ashes of our despair.
In 1948, in a rare display of Arab unity, all of the surrounding hate-filled Arab states came together to wage a war of total annihilation against the tiny fledgling State of Israel. They mustered their huge supremely confident armies and, assured of a magnificent success, they savagely attacked the insignificant and ill-prepared Israeli forces.
And they lost.
Not only did all of the combined Arab states lose, but they suffered one of the most humiliating and ignoble military disasters in modern history.
And Israel continued to live and to thrive.
But the embittered Arab states never unconditionally accepted the awful reality of their defeat. Almost immediately after the disaster, the Arab world began their delusional retrospective qualifications and rationalizations, their absurd revisions of history. Year by year, war by disastrous war, they sank lower and lower into that dark hopeless world of self-pity and hatred. That irresponsible world of lies and denials, wherein nothing is your fault and everything is the fault of others. And as Israel prospered, the Arab world seethed with self-loathing and plotted revenge.
The first time I got to tell my tragic life's story in front of the group, based upon my previous experience, I was pretty assured of the response I would get. The usual response was immediate unqualified sympathy and affection. That night, my sponsor and mentor, a tall, kindly, soft-spoken older gentleman, with fourteen years of sobriety, whom we all called Big John, was seated next to me. When I finished my story, everyone was very quiet and then Big John got up and put his long arm around my shoulder and said, very softly, "You know something, Son? You're full of sh*t."
And thus it began. That long hard road to disciplined self-honesty. That whole frightening process of abandoning all of those comforting old lies and obfuscations, abandoning that whole sick delusional persona. And, it should come as no great surprise, that those amongst us who were unwilling or unable to try to become honest with themselves were the ones who didn't make it. A lot of those less fortunate people are no longer with us.
What, I wonder, will it take for those embittered Islamists, those hate-filled Arabs, that whole new generation of Palestinians, nurtured on years of hatred and revenge, to reach their collective rock bottom? How many more years of death and destruction? Where is the end of this Arab/Islamic downward spiral? Who, if anyone, will be Islam's Big John? Who will put their big strong arms around them and tell them lovingly that they're full of sh*t?
One thing is certain, though. One cannot break out of this suicidal spiral without being scrupulously honest with oneself. One must reject the false comfort of the role of victim -- how many horrors have been unleashed on this world by purported victims?
In short, the only thing that works is to just quit. And the only way to quit is to learn how to be honest, scrupulously and uncompromisingly honest with yourselves.
And finally, my friends, we must never give up hope, because life without hope is no life at all.