Life On Life's Terms

by Arien M.

Lately, I’ve been dealing with changes – specifically, life changes that have occurred without my consent, or situations “beyond my control.” This kind of change is unsettling to me; unnerving because things are different and I feel a sense of loss over the past, “the way things were.” The familiarity and comfort of predictability is gone, and it has been replaced by fear of what will be, how things may continue to change, and whether I will be able to accept them as they occur.

I’ve been thinking about “life on life’s terms,” and what that means to me. When I first heard that phrase in traditional AA meetings, I thought it was another excuse for powerlessness, another aspect of control over my own life that I was expected to give up in exchange for continued sobriety. I associated it with the “let go and let God” concept, and I resisted it, because I did not want to believe that I was a body acted upon; that by nature of admitting “powerlessness over alcohol,” I was somehow supposed to evolve into a being who was also powerless to deal with her own life. That did not appeal to me, especially since I did not believe that any Higher Power was suddenly going to care for me. From the Big Book, page 448, a passage that made me cringe:

…Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation--some fact of my life --unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God's world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.

Accept things that I don’t like? That sounded like defeat to me; a denial of my own feelings and frustrations. I did not want to give up my emotions simply to “find serenity.” And “nothing happens in God’s world by mistake”? Well, in my world, there is no God, so mistakes are certainly possible. But the part about not being happy resonated, and I wondered if changing my attitudes – in ways that did not feel too threatening – could help.

I started hearing another interpretation in the Agnostics meetings, and seeing it in action as people talked about their lives. For some people, “life on life’s terms” simply meant acceptance, a method of rolling with the punches instead of holding one’s head up to be pummeled. It meant acknowledging that something didn’t go as planned, and choosing to move forward through the setback, disappointment or frustration. It did not mean rolling over and playing dead, or thinking that EVERYTHING was beyond one’s control.

Acceptance is still really hard for me. When situations are very painful, I don’t want to be in my skin. When something happens that I feel angry about, I want to lash out at whoever is nearby. I try to remember that Life Happens, and my feelings will not kill me, nor do I have to let them consume me. I have learned that acceptance can be empowering; instead of fretting when things don’t go my way and dwelling on my disappointment, or denying that I am hurt or frustrated, I can recognize my feelings and accept them. In sobriety, I can listen to myself, instead of “stuffing” my feelings down inside.

Today, I choose to sate my desire for control by taking positive actions. I cannot control everything that happens to me, but I can control how I react to situations. If someone pisses me off, I may feel angry and resentful. I can recognize those feelings now, and make choices. Instead of reacting impulsively or ignoring my anger, I can choose to examine my feelings, figure out where they’re coming from and what role the other person actually played in the situation, and then take action, instead of nurturing my resentment and letting it become a grudge. Taking positive actions also helps me cope with my fear of the unknown. When change happens and I do something instead of sulking or focusing on the past, I feel more capable of dealing with whatever will follow.

I didn’t get into graduate school this year. Instead of thinking, “Oh well, it’ll never happen,” or delving into self-doubt, “Of course they didn’t accept me – why would they want to?” I can find out how to increase my chances next year, and take the time in between to save money.

A relationship with a friend is altered because she got married. I can find ways to stay connected that don’t interfere with her love relationship, like email or phone calls. Instead of thinking about how different our lives have become, I can focus on the things we still have in common, like shared interests.

© 2004, Arien M.

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