Reopening the economy during a pandemic is eroding a key AA tenet.
Even if they’ve only dipped their toes into Alcoholics Anonymous, recovering alcoholics and addicts are familiar with one of the organization’s go-to passages: the Serenity Prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
True to its first line, the recitation’s overarching message is that most matters are beyond our control. The vast majority of items within our power to change are internal: our thinking, our actions, our sobriety. Many of us, myself included, are recovering control freaks accustomed to banging our heads against the wall in vain attempts to get the world around us, including its inhabitants, to bend to our will. In sobriety, we learn that placing outsized expectations on others invariably leads to disappointment and resentment.
As someone who is decidedly not a “God person,” I have found the Serenity Prayer refreshingly non-religious and spiritually simple. Its first word aside, the passage logically dissects the overwhelming majority of situations into two columns: those that I can do something about, and those that I can’t and must therefore, however begrudgingly, accept. All that is required of me is an honest assessment of which column any given matter occupies.
This binary system has helped successfully steer me through nearly nine years of sobriety and all the marital, financial, interpersonal and attitudinal progress it has made possible. For someone who lacks a traditional God, it has been… well, a godsend.
Until now. Until COVID-19.
A Delicate Dance
After three months of house confinement, Americans are beginning to reemerge and reengage. Vaccine or no vaccine, the reopening was inevitable because the opposite was unworkable: if we didn’t start returning to some semblance of business as usual, there wouldn’t be an economy to return to. Unemployment figures exceeding 40 million simply aren’t sustainable. Zero income is not an outcome and, while many of us can work effectively from home, most can’t make a living from their laptops.
So here we are, restrictions easing, preparing to head back out into the world. Successfully reopening the economy will require a critical mass of people to perform a delicate dance of mask-wearing and social distancing. And already, the Serenity Prayer’s well-founded advice of limiting our expectations of others runs into a stubborn contradiction: it is one thing when the actions of others merely threaten to impinge upon our spiritual well-being; it is quite another when those actions threaten our very lives.
Expert simulations have shown that if 80 percent of the population wore masks, infection rates would plunge by more than 90 percent; a study published by the World Health Organization on June 1 aligns with these findings.
Americans’ response has been… mixed. A USA Today poll found that 84% of Americans have worn masks in public, while other surveys put the total closer to two-thirds – figures that, unsurprisingly, include a gap according to political leanings. The protracted nature of our efforts is an additional hurdle, as many are understandably fed up with treating every excursion like a germ gauntlet; even in epicenters like New York, there are signs of citizens waning on safe practices, prompting warnings from government officials.
My daily life reflects these concerns. Each day, I go into my empty office (my colleagues are currently working from home; I have a visual disability, and the customized setup at my office makes working there far easier). While offices are mostly empty, the building manager has taken the opportunity to undergo a renovation. The number of workers wearing masks? Close to zero.
A few weeks back I got into the elevator. Then a worker – sans mask – got on with me.
I got off the elevator, shaking my head. The displeasure on his bare face was evident. Apparently my self-preservation had offended him.
This isn’t a spiritual inconvenience; it’s a potentially life-and-death health issue. The two choices I had were physically endangering myself and my family, or offending someone. I chose the latter, because the former is simply unacceptable.
It is a microcosm of what recovering alcoholics everywhere now face. In exercising the courage to change what we can – in my case, proximity to someone who refuses to abide by the simple recommendations of health officials – we will inevitably do something else we are taught to avoid: cause friction and conflict with those around us.
With COVID-19, we are living through a crisis that is both all-permeating and all-important. Efforts to mitigate the spread of a deadly, highly contagious disease have touched every single American and stretched into every corner of the economy and society at large. Everyone has been forced to react to it as best they deem fit.
Therein lies the rub: something all-encompassing and lethal has been foisted upon society without warning, causing a widely disparate set of perceived best practices to combat it. Many of us are on the same page – wearing face masks, socially distancing – but many are not. And considering the stakes, the majority of responsible citizens are ill-advised to tolerate the significant minority of those literally throwing caution to the wind around their bare faces.
In this fashion, COVID-19 has drawn a red line between recovering alcoholics and the crucial tenet of acceptance espoused by the Serenity Prayer.
An Inconvenient Lack of Truth
I feel comfortable sharing exactly none of what I just wrote in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Why? Because AA is a strictly apolitical organization attempting to navigate a society in which indisputable facts have become politicized.
Until COVID-19, this was manageable, because topics whose facts have been tainted by politics – climate change is a prime example – are easily avoided. They don’t directly factor into our day-to-day recovery.
In stark contrast, the coronavirus pandemic has affected everything. It saturates every aspect of our lives, including AA. For example, we aren’t meeting on Zoom because of climate change, or the #MeToo Movement, or Donald Trump’s latest Tweet. And even if we were, it wouldn’t trickle down into essentially every action every person takes.
But such is COVID’s cascading impact: an unprecedented health crisis has caused an unprecedented recovery conundrum – and one that we can’t even talk about as a group, no less. Unfortunately, a sizable subset of society seemingly doesn’t believe in simple science; and AA, of course, is simply a subset of society. The problem is societal, and we are part of society.
Regardless, even if I could share this in AA, it wouldn’t change the current contradictions of applying my recovery’s teachings in the outside world. That guy is still getting on that elevator without a mask, AA or no AA. I cannot choose to just stand there, and a proselytizing conversation only invites further conflict and confrontation. My only answer – the least bad option – is abrupt, unsettling, silent avoidance.
In this fashion, COVID-19 has made recovery more brusque, curt, cold. I cannot convert the maskless masses, nor can I abide them. I did not recover from a progressive, incurable and potentially fatal disease, alcoholism, only to succumb to another.