July reminds me of picnics, especially one picnic in particular. The gathering never really happened. It was conjured by the narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s book “All the King’s Men.” The only people invited were all of the personalities he’d been during his life. He got to see who he’d been and what he had become.
The guest list would be a scary bunch if it were my picnic. The kids would be trying to look “normal,” trying to fit in. But they would be full of fear, a fear they couldn’t explain. After age 15, they’d be sneaking beer from the keg to kill the pain of feeling different inside.
From 18 into their 20s, the young men would be full of rage. Radical, long hair, fiercely outspoken over the hypocrisy they saw in America and blind to the hypocrisy of their own behavior. Internal fear had grown to internal terror.
By the 30s, the self pity grew to be staggering. The feeling of being on the outside was amplified by a lifetime fighting racism and poverty at home and war abroad. Those versions of me would be making regular visits to the beer keg and smoking dope, dropping pills if some were handy. They’d share one goal – to blackout so the pain would stop for a while.
The 37-year-old would be the quiet one. Having chased away his wife and step daughters with his anger, he’d spend most of his time alone. He wouldn’t speak unless like the journalist/narrator in “All the King’s Men” he had to pull out a notebook to jot something down for a newspaper story he was writing. He was waiting for the day when his fear of death would be overcome by the fear of living another moment as he was. When that day came a 12 step program was waiting. He asked for help and he got it immediately from a God who loved him no matter what, who forgave him completely, who wanted only the best for him.
The 38 year old at that picnic would have three things his predecessors didn’t have – he would be clean, sober and grasp a seed of hope that would grow to encompass his entire life. Bad times would come with the good, but he through it all he would know that all things were possible through God who provides him strength.
In addition to whether they drank alcohol or not, another behavior would separate those men at the picnic. From children to adults well beyond 37 years old, some would be overweight, some normal-sized. As the men got older, the weight swings would become wider until at 54 and 17 years sober, the man there would dwarf all the others. Using the same 12 steps, he would finally surrender, ask for God’s help and find a new way to view food as just fuel for the body. He would start to exercise. The weight would fall off. As the Big Book says, he’d recovered first spiritually, then mentally and physically. At 60 and four years after beating cancer, his arm would sport an “M-Dot” tattoo. It would distinguish him as someone who completed an IronMan triathlon by swimming 2.4 miles, riding a bike 112 miles and running a marathon distance of 26.2 miles in a single day. Fear had melted away. His attitude toward life is: “Bring it.”
The picnic would end badly no doubt. Sirens would come, some on police cars to break up the fights, others on ambulances to take away those who OD’d or blacked out or who just went insane for a while. The later versions of me would head to their homes. The one I am now would ride a bike to a lovely ranch house I share with a woman who’s never seen me drink or do drugs, who has never seen me lose control of my temper, who has never seen me binge on food.
I would have had a few words with those younger versions of me if I thought it would have done any good. Instead, I let the picnic proceed on its own course, knowing each one of those men in pain had to reach a point where they would do anything to change. Only then would they do the work to find another way to live with God’s help.
I have more things to change and steps 6 and 7 make it possible. I want to take a better me to the picnic next year.
Who will you bring to your party?