A dear friend wrote me last week, expressing her spiritual jealousy of my life in the Tiny White Box. Cate, who is much wiser, more centered and much, much more in tune with the universe than I ever dream of becoming, talked of my bravery and purity and purposefulness. All very kind eggs, but placed in the wrong basket here, I’m afraid. Let me mea culpa for a while.
Some of you know, and most of you will be shocked to hear that I attended a conservative Protestant seminary, Gordon-Conwell, and was a minister in a Baptist church, focusing on teenagers. During this time, I believed the Bible was inerrant, down to every last jot and tittle, and it contained answers to all of life’s questions. During this time, also, I didn’t drink alcohol in public—although I was an embarrassing drunk when away from the congregation. In other places, I’ve talked of my kind of alcoholism, but briefly, if alcohol had been my problem, then being a Baptist minister would have presented a solution: stay away from alcohol and stay away from my problem. Unfortunately, alcohol was never my problem; it was the solution I used for any other problem in my life. Drastically reducing my alcohol consumption, instead of leading to a life in balance simply led to a buildup of dread, foreboding and suicidality. By the end of my time in the church, I was throwing face-first down stairs—stair-surfing I called it—cutting my wrists and planning suicide. My wife at the time, who had no idea what kind of madman she’d yoked herself to, drove me to a psychiatric hospital, where I was treated for depression and where I walked away from Christianity. And where my wife walked away from me—as she should have.
Having sailed in fairly rarefied waters in the church, I still had some kind of spiritual hunger, not quite as gnawing now that I was able to drink like an alcoholic in training. I read a few books on Buddhism, and started thinking of myself as a secret Buddhist. For what it’s worth, my first and only CD, put out under the name Pus Theory and long-since disappeared down some Internet black hole, was called “The Sound of One Mind Snapping: Spirituals from the Zen Baptist Tradition.” (If anyone really wants me to, I’ll sing any song from the CD at weddings, bar mitzvahs or barn burning.) This flirtation with Buddhism, given my unwillingness or inability to sit and meditate, ultimately became the equivalent of a boxed game of Monopoly, kept tucked away on a spare-bedroom shelf and pulled out on a rainy Sunday, only to be shoved back when the sun came out or I recognized this activity takes focus and dedication—and a desire to get all the green properties. But I digress.
By 2007, when I was drinking mouthwash for the alcohol and back to contemplating suicide, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a group of former drunks who had found a way to treat their alcoholism. Unfortunately, part of their system involved having a higher power (or Higher Power) or, honestly, God. Because I am powerless over alcohol—the way I drink when I drink—and my life is unmanageable—it dissolves into chaos, resentment and suicidal dreams when I don’t drink, I needed a higher power, and I needed one pronto. People in the rooms I was sitting in told me I could have the group be my higher power—their lives were certainly more manageable than mine—or a light bulb—it was brighter than I was—or a door knob. You get the picture.
Having been a Baptist minister, with a belief in a transcendent God whose biggest concern in the universe was whether I was lusting or coveting, I couldn’t really worship any of these things. Instead, for no earthly (but perhaps heavenly) reason, I thought back on my junior high algebra class, with its introduction to quadratic equations. Without going into a review of quadratics (says the man who is likely incapable of such a review without sitting down for an afternoon and rediscovering them), let me just say the solution to the quadratic
X2 + 1 = 0
Requires the use of an imaginary number, represented as i, which stands for the square root of -1. It’s imaginary—for negative numbers can’t have square roots—but once we’ve imagined it, it turns out i is indispensable in solving that problem. From that insight on, my higher power became an imaginary number, represented by a lower case i, and referred to as the square root of negative one. My higher power didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, yet once it was imagined, it became indispensable in solving my problem: how to live without alcohol and how to live a semi-manageable life.
So Cate, who coincidentally, is an ordained minister as well as being a seeker after truth, beauty and justice, dreams of the life of contemplation, while I sit here in the Pittsburg sun (it’s a balmy 60 degrees right now), contemplating whether to get back to the memoir I really do need to make progress on, the essay collection that’s not likely to write itself, the thriller novel I’ve been enjoying creating or the political fiction that’s the most saleable potential property. Or take a nap in the sun.
I don’t know what it says about my spiritual fitness, but I hope I have pleasant dreams.