Thanksgiving and Gratitude: The Four Paradoxes

Thanksgiving is upon us. Another crop of basting turkeys will warm our kitchens with aromas that entice us back to our favorite memories of such a special day. For me, it was watching the enormous balloons in the Macy’s Parade float along the streets of New York City. Back in the 1950s and still in my PJs with feet attached, I sat up close to our TV and sipped hot chocolate. For a small town boy, this was a spectacle to behold. Balloons taller than the buildings where I lived, glided easily along, tethered to ropes, pulled by crews of smiling volunteers. I saw my yearly favorites go by; Snoopy flying high and Bullwinkle Moose looking dim-witted and clueless next to Rocky Squirrel, his best friend. All the marching bands and other performances  on the parade route were building my anticipation for one very important character, Santa Claus. There he was in living color, wearing a  dazzling red velvet outfit and bellowing out jolly HO HO HO’s with rosy cheeks and a full snowy white beard. He stood atop an enormous sleigh filled with gifts and toys and pulled by eight reindeer whose names I had to memorize and remember. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid,  Donner and Blitzen. And the most important of all, Rudolph with his nose so bright, ready to guide Santa’s sleigh from house to house on Christmas Eve. What amazing memories from over 60 years ago.

When the parade was over it was time for dad to take us to the annual football rivalry. Our Ludlow Lions were clashed like titans against the Palmer Panthers. For a small town boy, there was no bigger sports event. I was watching my heroes play their hearts out, tackling and blocking on the gridiron turf. Crashing into each other with a clattering of helmets and pads as the “ole pig skin” was thrown and carried towards wooden goal posts; as cheerleaders danced with pom poms and the band played the “push em back, push em back, waaaay back,” our fight song. I hurried at the end of the half and after the final whistle to meet the players walking off the field of battle, helmets off, hair matted down with sweat and the remains of streaked greasy eye black on their exhausted faces. I wanted so much to be one of them, important and admired, carrying the hopes of our entire town on their shoulders; fighting for every yard gained as each touchdown filled every Ludlow heart with enormous pride. Oh, those were the days for all of us young boys.

But what about now. Well, I still want to suit up and hit the line hard with a football tucked in tight and my head lowered like a charging bull. I would love to hear the roar of the crowd as I plow down the field, shedding would be tacklers with a stiff arm and fancy foot work. Of course, I still have my sports fantasies intact and they are fun to imagine. Why? For good reason. I am one of the blessed. One of the sober warriors who made it through the battle of addiction as my life was being brutally torn from my weakening grasp. Although I never did put points on the score board nor was I ever carried off the field after the winning touchdown, I do have nearly 3 decades of sobriety. And let’s just say, my life with addiction wasn’t pretty.

But now I am giving thanks, especially at Thanksgiving because it’s that time of year when we are reminded of the importance and even the miraculous influence of gratitude on our lives and those that we care about. Gratitude is like a healing dose of prayer and it’s good for everyone. I am grateful, not only because I survived the worst of my addiction, but I have been thriving for many outstanding years. I am constantly receiving the gifts and promises of recovery. So why do I share this with you? In part, because my sobriety is no secret. But more importantly, to tell you that in order for the nightmare of addiction to stop, I needed help. I needed my sober heroes as much as I needed to believe that the boys on the Ludlow High School football team were daring men, pulling together as a team to defeat their foe, the Palmer Panthers. And doing so, as though their lives, their dignity and their futures depended on it. That one particular game was everything to them. Their primary objective was to play full out. No quitting. No excuses. Nothing but true grit and the iron will to believe in themselves and to play with the spirit of pride and the heart of a lion. That is what brought them together for a worthy cause. That is how they bonded with trust and the unselfish power of being all about team and nothing about personality.

And so, nearly 30 years ago, I found my heroes. They were my recovery coaches and sponsors and sober teammates. They taught me how to play and win on the field of life. Instead of defeating opponents I learned  new and smarter strategies, one of which is worth sharing on this special day. They are called the Four Paradoxes of AA: (1) we surrender to win, (2) we give away to keep, (3) we suffer to get well and (4) we die to live.  Just writing this reminds me of the days of the immortal Knute Rockne, coaching Notre Dame football against Army in 1924 when the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame “Outlined against a blue, gray sky rode again” to victory with a score of 13 to 7. Their names are fondly remembered in the lore of South Bend, Indiana as Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden.

These were real men. Men you could trust. The kind of men I needed to help me get sober. The men I credit for inviting me to join their team. They gave me a playbook that was simple to follow but far from easy to execute. To master the four paradoxes, it took practice, practice and more practice. My sponsor drilled me on the following virtues; principles which I hold as tightly as the fantasy football I wish I could carry to victory.

Armed with these ultimate truths, my sponsor set out to teach me what the Four Paradoxes meant and how to apply them in my life. He said to me, we can’t win against addiction, so we surrender instead. This does not mean we give up. It means we stop fighting our addiction as though we can defeat it and control it and continue our ways of recklessly partying with no consequence. As soon as we surrender, the battle is over, and we are spared and that is how we win; by choosing not to fight. What I learned was that surrendering is harder than it sounds because addiction will never give up. It just keeps coming back for more, even when doing so is punishing and futile. And that is why hitting bottom is so necessary. It is the moment during which we admit that we can’t take it any longer and cry out to be rescued, and our cries are heard and answered.

The next key I learned is to give away what we have learned about success in sobriety. It is not meant to be a well-kept secret. And so we give to all who have the same desire that brought us together. By doing so we get to keep what we cherish most, the ability to say “No” to any cravings, and temptations that addiction can throw at us. The mantra I practice is “No matter what, drinking and using are not an option.” To use any substance would cause us to lose our sanity; a priceless and precious that gift that is given to us, only when we are ready and willing to believe and accept that a power greater than ourselves is the ultimate provider, ever reminding us, that by ourselves we are powerless over our addictions.

Next, my sponsor said, prepare yourself to suffer. There is pain in recovery, and you will not be spared all that is necessary for growth and change. Get used to it and fear not the suffering that will make you strong. It is the only way to really get well.

And lastly, he said, you must die to live. At that I balked in ignorance until he explained what it meant. You have been burdened by your ego. You have Edged God Out of your life and replaced it with a voice in your head that fills you with judgment against others whom you think have harmed you. And so, you justify your resentments because you believe you were right, and they were wrong. This must end or you will perish. This false self must die. You must free yourself from its curse and only then can you be allowed to hear the truth that pours from the hearts and minds of those who have walked the path of recovery and marked all the places where relapse lives. When you have finally given up and allowed the self-will of your bad character to die, what remains is good and ready and able to lead you towards an everlasting knowledge of the next right thing to do. With that as your guide, the path will take you to the promises that wait for all to harvest and share and rejoice.

To the incredible FRC family, I am thankful that you have allowed me to fulfill my life’s purpose with humility and gratitude. Being a respected member of the team and welcomed to make my contribution is the ultimate reward for me. Just as important is being a witness to the miracles of sobriety that happen every day and go on, lasting year after year, for many of our patients. At the outset they may reluctantly put their hope and trust in our hands and in return we give them our very best knowledge and experience and encouragement to face the pain with shameless grace, dignity, and courage. In time their confidence is restored and they begin to believe as we believe. That doing the work of recovery pays off big time. They discover a new found freedom and become what they are meant to be. And that is, to find their purpose and follow it with conviction because they are no longer a burden in the world. They are a blessing. We are a blessing too. And, oh what a blessing for me on this Happy Thanksgiving.


Go Lions!!! Beat Palmer.

Jamie R. Smolen, MD