Lessons and Reflections from Addicts on 2020

By Ken Wells - 01/08/2021


“Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile.”— Mark Twain

For most of us 2020 could not end quickly enough.  For many who were waiting for the nightmare to end, the virus insidiously smothered and snatched their lives in the isolation of a cold hospital room with no loved ones, tended only by strangers dressed in PPE equipment that made them all look the same. The nightmare of 2020 tragically ended far too soon for them.  Never in my entire lifetime has there been a year so pervasive in its impact on so many. Some suggest that this year surpassed any on record since the flu pandemic of 1918 and the economic devastation of the Great Depression. And it’s not over yet! 

We will be writing about the challenges and impact of 2020 for years to come. Isolation, anxiety and depression, economic uncertainty, pandemic fear and panic, racial tension, and the crisis of democracy are intense struggles that face all of us moving into the third decade of the 21st century. There will be many insights uncovered by historians that emerge from the cascading events of 2020. For sure, what unfolded in 2020 were the results of realities that have percolated from the pressure of many years of social trouble and instability which triggered and exploded in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic outbreak. Addicts have a unique perspective in reflecting upon the past. From emphasis in a book I wrote in early 2020, Dare to Be Average: Finding Your Brilliance in the Common Place, I would suggest that the pandemic has brought every social class to its knees. Pronounced fear and uncertainty have become an average every-day experiences for everyone.  While racial tension and the pandemic have impacted the poor far greater than the affluent, no one has been left untouched. The pandemic has been no respecter of social class. While treatment and care has been preferred to the powerful and affluent, the unpredictability and confusion of the mysterious pandemic has gripped the hearts of everyone from the Queen of England to the peasants of Kolkata. Resilience and capability for hope and healing have reverberated from those who have embraced the average every-day struggle of the unknown and have manifested their own brilliance toward adapting to an uncertain world. This brilliance has been witnessed from the homespun wisdom for survival among the poorest to the unprecedented medical discoveries obtained from the billions of dollars invested by affluent countries around the world.

Addicts have their own special homespun wisdom when reflecting upon a year in crisis. 

1. Personal brilliance is revealed to those who humbly accept powerlessness but not helplessness:

When the world at large scrambles in anguish for answers to a pandemic that is a mystery, addicts in recovery approach the cunning and baffling dynamics in life by embracing powerlessness which is on the other side of town from helplessness. You may not be able to create electricity but you can turn the light switch on. You may be powerless but not helpless. For an addict, turning on the lights is about telling your story of what it was like to be out of control. The magic of an unedited story told is the connection and support that comes from those who listen. Even when you don’t know for sure what to do, there is comfort from those who listen because they suffer the same experience. This is shared powerlessness. You and everyone else know uncertainty and what it feels like to be vulnerable.  Together you create the brilliance to survive one day at a time. This is what I mean about helplessness being on the other side of town.

2. Personal brilliance uncovers a greater power in the presence of adversity and unrelenting calamity:

The stories of brilliance around the trials of 2020 have been inspirational. I recall watching the Dawn Wall on Netflix which is a documentary about a rock climb of the most difficult path to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  What was brilliant to me was not the fact that Tommy Caldwell was able to navigate his way to top of this seemingly impossible 3000-foot historic climb, but that his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson was able to successfully navigate the infamous “Pitch 15” after several failed attempts that literally depleted his energy.  Not only this, but then he followed up with completing Pitch 16 which included a six-foot sideways “dyno”– a leaping move that involves both feet coming off the rock at the same time. This success was something that his compadre Caldwell, gave up and went around! 

There is something about adversity that uncovers the brilliance of reserves and resources in the presence of unrelenting calamity that lie within us all. Some refer to this as God, Higher Power, the Divine, the Higher Self or Universal energy. Upon reflection, the adversity of a mysterious pandemic has beckoned each of us to draw deep within to find that resource to manage the difficult ascent to healing and overcome the greatest health challenge since the flu epidemic of 1918. Addicts in recovery have learned to access this resource and depend upon its reserves to face the adversity of addiction. There is no addict who has been successful who has not learned to depend upon that resource. How else can we explain the brilliance of creating numerous vaccines for a mysterious pandemic? Medicine has drawn upon the brilliance of scientific inquiry and individual creative reserves to achieve this astonishing feat. So, too, must you and I draw from our creative power to manage uncertain times? 

3. 2020 has shown the brilliance of personal surrender.

Trials and tribulation bring us to this place. Uncertainty triggers overwhelming fear. Social isolation promotes unrelenting anxiety and depression. When faced with overwhelm, addicts have learned to look for guides who have gone before them in facing the overwhelm of out of control addictive behavior. The world must do the same. Migrants can teach the most about living life in fear and uncertainty and not going insane. Managing social isolation can be learned from people like Albert Woodfox who spent 43 years in solitary confinement! The disasters of 2020 have taught the value of reaching out to those who have experienced the depths of what we face. Often, our source of education for brilliance come from unlikely sources. 

4. Take responsibility and own your own shit: 

Adversity and catastrophe require what addicts reference as a 4th step inventory which is a way of looking inward to your own defects in behavior rather than blaming others on the outside. 

You really never know who to count on by the words of support others share in good times. It’s when the heat is turned up and people need to bleed for principle. Not many people are willing to do this. Yet, this is the time and place you learn who is your true friend and who is not. An important issue in the presence of calamity is who will take responsibility and who will own their own shit. Crisis reveals what is on the inside of a person. In step 4, addicts learn to own their own shit and not make excuses. This year politicians and national leaders have demonstrated ducking and diving and avoiding taking responsibility of leadership in the presence of calamity. Both sides of the aisle have glaring failures. Addicts in recovery know this failure all too well. The completion of a 4th step inventory would bring us all back to the center of accepting responsibility and owning our own shit. Pandemic crisis has exposed the shit that is smeared throughout our society. It takes the form of blame and shame and pointing fingers at others while minimizing the reality of its devastating results. 

5. The brilliance of admitting you’re wrong and releasing shame:

Addicts learn to tell on themselves. Steps 5 through 7 are all about admitting your mistakes to others and the powers of the Universe. It’s about letting go of the shame that dominates. Getting through a crisis requires the admission of mistakes. Things done wrong don’t self correct. It requires admitting to yourself and others that you were wrong. Politicians are the worst at this. Religious leaders not much better. Yet, when someone steps forward and courageously admits vulnerabilities and shortcomings there is overwhelming acceptance because we have all screwed things up. In pandemics there are screw ups. When I own my own stuff then I can humbly ask the universe to take away the shame that binds me to the mistakes. It’s a simple formula for coping with the unmanageable, out of control experiences of crisis that exist in 2020. 

6. Addicts are challenged to make it right:

It’s simple but tough. You hurt someone, make amends. Say you are sorry and do whatever is needed to repair the hurt. It’s that uncomplicated and elementary. The best way for all of us to navigate a pandemic and social crisis is that when we hurt someone circle back and make amends. Political leaders will lead with clarity when they commit mistake, apologize and make things right. This is the way through calamity. Trying to minimize, smoke and mirror, point fingers only exacerbates the problem. Eliminate the phrase “if I hurt someone by what I did or said” and just own that you hurt someone and ask for forgiveness. Our country is full of people who forgive. It’s true of citizenry too. When you hurt someone with vitriolic argumentation, back off and apologize and make it right. You don’t have to change your view, just your dominating position and hurtful behavior. Addicts learn to practice this with steps 8 and 9.

7. Be humble with daily vigilance and connect with the here and now thru conscious contact with your resource.  

Navigating life through a pandemic and social crisis is never a one-and-done experience. Brilliance is mined by those who learn to regularly examine heart motives and behaviors. Through steps 10 and 11 addicts learn that it’s not a one-time amends but you learn to do it ongoing. Stress and adversity have a way of pulling you away from your center. Quieting yourself through meditation will help you become alive in the only moment you have— the here and now.

8. Addicts learn to model and not mandate desired results.

Step 12 is a visionary quest toward something more than existence. In the presence of pandemic and social unrest, few mandates are greater than considering the other person. Rather than lecture and preach with zeal and zest a particular conviction. It is most helpful to simply model and live and just be what you believe is healing and helpful. Bringing a spiritual awakening in the presence of disaster is a simple act of treating others with dignity and respect in as simple a way as offering a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty.

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