The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous was the “Four Hour Work Week” of its day. It was meant as a practical guide to show you how to do something. Unlike the “Four Hour Work Week,” which deals with outsourcing, the “Big Book” (whose real title is simply “Alcoholics Anonymous”), was meant to show people how to stop drinking themselves to death and live happy lives.
It was also addressed to those who were affected by alcoholics. There are chapters entitled To Wives, To Employers and The Family Afterwards, each addressed to their respective constituents. The first of these chapters, To Wives, is a seemingly anachronistic text. The suggestion that women are the only gender affected by alcoholism is the first tip off that this was written in a different era. Perhaps it was decided To Domestic Partner lacked zing.
The chapter’s text is filled with oft-derided suggestions to the the wife like, “Cheerfully see him through more sprees,” as if this were something anyone could do cheerfully. Yet the most interesting aspect of the chapter is the idea of marriage as a commitment kept. There are a few mentions of leaving the alcoholic husband, and when there are they are always followed by asterisks, reminding the wife that the husband is sick and deserves her devotion and stick-to-itiveness. All situations brought up in the chapter—verbal and physical abuse, adultery, incarceration, abandonment—are framed by a doggedness in keeping a commitment. It’s not that a commitment to someone or something couldn’t include choosing to leave, but it’s a suggestion that we are going to do everything in our power to make something work.
The chapter reminds me of a statement a friend of mine made shortly after he got married. He had been living with his wife for a while, and I asked him if anything had changed after the ceremony. His eyes lit up and he said, “Yes! Things that used to be problems are now projects.” I thought it a remarkable statement, a way I’d never thought of a commitment.
Much of my life has been spent avoiding commitment. I always wanted to see if something worked for me rather than making something work. Here’s a smattering of things that didn’t work for me: bicycle racing, the swim team, the debate team, DJ’ing, being a professional cook, college, personal fitness training, yoga, acting, modeling, stand-up comedy, a full stack of relationships (romantic and otherwise), being a reporter, life in general.
I would start each endeavor with the best of intentions. I wanted it to work out for me, whether “it” was a new job, girlfriend or hobby. The initial period was always the best. Infatuation or the steep learning curve of being new at something kept things interesting. Invariably challenges arose. I would get stage-fright, a girlfriend would not like the right movies, I couldn’t ever seem to hold a downward-dog. Without a commitment, circumstances like these became deal breakers, not challenges to deal with. For many years, I went through the world leaving a wake of unfinished projects and unrealized plans.
If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that when one person does something, many more have the same problem. The ranks of the committed are far fewer than the ranks of the pleasure seeker. So you might be wondering, “How can I stop doing the same thing?”
Unfortunately there’s not a clean ending to my story, only growing awareness of what the underlying problem is. And make no mistake, it is a problem. As the Buddha said, “You cannot build a well digging many small holes.” All of a sudden you find yourself twenty years older, with little to show for your time, either materially, emotionally or spiritually.
There are a few definite things I can suggest for the recovering quitter:
- Start looking at your life and notice if you are a commitaphobe. For me, it came after I quit a third job in quick succession. At the time, my longest relationship was three months (the normal distance a relationship can survive without refueling). I had a birthday party around that time and virtually no one showed up. I began to realize that it wasn’t the things I was doing that were failing, but the person who was doing them (i.e. me). I saw that it didn’t matter what I was doing, whether it was writing, acting, being a friend, being a lover, a yogi, whatever, I was going to fuck it up because I never saw things through. If this this you….
- Get closure on the things you started. Think of your life like a novel: it’s tough to write a new chapter when the old ones aren’t finished. If we have unfinished stories, we are going to play out the same narrative until the are finished. Our present moment will be pervaded by our past because the past wasn’t dealt with when it happened. So the past becomes our present and future. When we get closure, we can put the past in the past. We also can start identifying with ourselves in a new way. If I quit something without closure, I will likely hold that conception of myself as a quitter. On the other hand, if I get that closure—no matter how much time has elapsed—I can hold myself as someone who sees things through. Sometimes this is tricky to do. I’m not going to try out for the high school freshman swim team to get closure, but there are tangible things I can do. For instance, I dropped out of college in my early twenties. After looking at my commitaphobic tendencies, I returned to finish my degree. That chapter is over. I have also gone back through my life and cleaned up relationships. I’ve worked things out with my folks to the best of my ability, apologizing where necessary and resolving any unresolved issues. I’ve done the same with ex-girlfriends, approaching the ones who were willing to talk to me and writing letters to the ones who were not. I pay close attention to the really mundane stuff like calling people back if I said I would, making sure my house is clean (literally and figuratively) and keeping appointments. The sum total of all of our broken commitments can really weigh us down. Get closure and lighten up.
- Choose your commitments well. This is a slightly more advanced concept, but an important to be aware of. Oftentimes, commitaphobes want to prove they can commit to something, anything, so they pick the first thing that comes along. This is a “fix” or reactionary commitment and it can make things a lot messier than necessary. This messiness generally emerges from a failure to get closure on old commitments. It’s reactionary because there is no volition, just a need to prove we are “not something.” I was in a reactionary relationship for two years that should have lasted two dates. I wanted to prove to myself and the world that I could commit. I struggled through the two years, playing out the same unresolved issues from previous relationships, but I wasn’t going to quit. Of course, not having worked out the past issues, I did quit it. When I finally freed the two of us from this misbegotten union, I still had to clean up the past, but now I had one more unfinished chapter to complete. Are you looking to commit to something new? Commit to cleaning up your past. It’s the best commitment you can make and, when completed, it will allow for clean commitments in the future.
- Commit to what you are already doing. Commitaphobes often feel compelled to find new endeavors to commit to, yet are nominally committed to the things they are already doing. For example, for me it’s writing. I’ve been a writer all of my life, but have seldom been wholly committed to it. My failure to take it seriously has been a way to shield myself from problems. If I don’t take something seriously, the implications of reneging on my commitment are not a big deal—“I wasn’t taking it seriously anyway,” I’d rationalize. But when I’m committed, the onus is on me to deal with circumstance like having difficulty finding a publisher or an agent. Most of us need not look far for places to direct our commitments.
The ultimate commitment is to yourself and your life. Most of us aren’t really committed to our lives. We are tepid, spending our days fantasizing about how things should be or could be, dreaming about some mythical confluence of opportunity and circumstance. We listlessly go through our days, diverting ourselves with online games, gossip, empty relationships, TV, busywork and other time-sinks. We fail to deal with what’s right in front of us. We avoid confronting fears and relationships. We wish things were another way than the way they are, but they never are. They are always the way they are. Always.
So deal with broken commitments—mend broken relationships, make good on promises, complete the past, do what’s is in front of you. These things seem like a pain in the ass, and sometimes they are. But hasn’t our pursuit of personal pleasure always backfired? Hasn’t it been our aversion to short-term pains that come with commitment that has led to long term regret? Might John Rockefeller have been right when he said there is “nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure”? When we are truly committed to our lives, our problems become projects and we stop waiting for our lives to work out, we make them work for us.