Sometimes the sayings you learn in recovery aren’t the ones hung on the walls of the meeting rooms or taken from the pages of sober literature. They are wonderful catch phrases that you hear when people share at meetings.
The other day, for instance, a woman offered the following:
“Why” is not a sober question.
Since overhearing those words, I have been pondering them–and marveling at their wisdom. While asking “why” is obviously invaluable in many areas of life–from scientific research to daily problem solving–it is a query with which we should exercise caution when endeavoring to maintain a sober outlook.
“Why” is certainly compatible with a sober state of mind in circumstances where we know that finding an answer is possible and finding an answer will do some good (for instance, “Why won’t my car start?”, “Why does my head ache?”) Asking “why” is disruptive to our sobriety, however, in situations where we are powerless to effect change and therefore need to practice acceptance in lieu of questioning what is going on.
Most addicts are familiar with that highly triggering question laden with self-pity and drama–“WHY ME?”–and all the other useless hand-wringing “whys” with which we waste energy wondering about things we cannot change, such as the past, other people and the weather.
Asking “why” in situations where an answer won’t help us feel better or solve a problem only serves to provoke negative feelings that can leave us vulnerable to a relapse–frustration, resentment, sadness, shame. The good news is that most if not all of these difficult emotions can be preempted if instead of asking “why” we simply accept the things we cannot change, as outlined in that brilliant microcosm of sobriety known as The Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Giving up the “why” habit can be challenging. Despite more than eight years of endeavoring to practice sober acceptance, I still find myself tempted to look heavenward, sigh with exasperation and ask my Higher Power to tell me “why” something happened that I simply have to accept. In recent days, for instance, I have been questioning rather than accepting various troubling situations in my life, and making myself miserable in the process.
As the nostalgic parade of fall and winter holidays approaches, for instance, I have begun tormenting myself with questions of why I messed up the two Big Love Affairs of my life. Even if I could figure out definitive reasons why these Grand Amours fell apart and devise strategies that might have helped me get along better with these men, it would do me no good. One of my true loves passed away earlier this year, and the other is happily remarried. My hair-tearing, breast-beating “whys” about old loves do nothing but torture me and if I keep flogging myself I might just reach for a glass (or three) of hard cider whilst awaiting trick or treaters on Halloween.
Not all of my whys are emotionally wrenching. Some are preposterously trivial. Nonetheless they drive me to an agitated and resentful state.
For instance, the other night during a bout of insomnia, I turned on my favorite shopping channel, whose happy hosts and cozy live broadcasts from a plush suburban set have a soothing effect on my synapses. On this particular evening, however, I noticed that the broadcast was different from the live jewelry show listed on my program guide. Instead the network was offering a pre-recorded program on stretchy pull-on jeans known as “jeggings”. Worse, when the hour was up, the jeggings show was broadcast again. And yet again an hour later. “Why is this happening?” I asked myself to no avail. “My program guide shows a lovely variety of retail offerings and instead I am forced to experience this dreary parade of stick legs and thunder thighs encased like sausages in stretchy fabric.”
Not satisfied with pondering the programming mystery, I called the shopping channel’s 800 number. A weary young woman attempting to be friendly said, “Hi, I’m Brittany. What is the number of the item you wish to purchase?”
“I don’t want to purchase an item. I want to know why you keep broadcasting the same program on jeggings hour after hour. The TV guide said it would be all sorts of things like jewelry and shoes and cute tops.”
“I am sorry. I can’t tell you why.”
“I have not been given the information. There must be some reason but I don’t know it. I would connect you to Customer Service but they are closed now.”
Despairing, I asked, “Why is Customer Service closed. Shouldn’t they be open 24/7 for the nation’s number-one shopping channel?”
“I don’t know why, Ma’am. You can try them later.”
Reluctantly I hung up, as a tidal wave of “whys” rushed into my frustrated and panicky brain. Why the programming snafu? Why didn’t Brittany know why? Why was there no Customer Service in the middle of the night?
And then I remembered:
“Why is not a sober question.”
Finally, mercifully, came the aha moment. This, like the rueful reflections about my exes, was a situation where “why” was neither useful nor pertinent. “Why” and its answer would offer no relief because the problem was out of my hands.
Instead, acceptance was in order.
Acceptance and problem solving. I would have to figure out another way to cure my insomnia. I would have to find another outlet for my romantic impulses.
Maybe, I reasoned, I should consider asking “how” instead of “why.” If I asked “how”, that would lead me to the specifics of “what” and “where.” And those questions would lead me to actually do something about my various predicaments.
And finally, if I followed those magical adverbial stepping stones they would bring me to yet another sober proverb–and, at last, a profound answer to almost any dilemma:
“We must live in the solution.”