In early January, 2015, I was at a low point spiritually. As an experiment, I started writing a daily letter to God. Things got better. Life got better. I got better. God got nearer. I have kept up a daily letter every morning ever since. Monday will be my letter number 1,500.
There is nothing remarkable about any one of these letters. Each is just a simple entry in a notebook. Think of it as journaling. But taken together, they add up. They are a practice. This practice, done consistently, has improved my spiritual life in revolutionary ways. This is not an understatement.
Over the past few months, my relationship to my God has deepened and grown. The letters have become love-poems. (I post each one here every morning: https://letters-to-god.com/)
I share all this not to seem special. The opposite: Anyone can do it. All it takes is a start. One step, another step, another step. Pretty soon you’re walking. Pretty soon, you’ve traveled a fair distance.
If you are curious to follow a similar path, I would be interested to learn what you find.
There is a city I visit repeatedly in my dreams. Rather, a place in a city, and a route to that city.
The place. It is a transport station, elevated in a sort of castle-like building on a point. It reminds me of the Flatiron building if it were a castle. Along one side it follows a river road.
This city is somewhat timeless. It sometimes is archaic, with only foot traffic. Shakespearean. Sometimes early 20th century, cars and trains. Other times contemporary.
The approach. For some reason the city is approachable only through a steep, lengthy, harrowing trip down steep mountains. I often have dreams in which I am careening — seemingly forever — down mountainsides on my way to this city. Somehow I know that his my destination. Sometimes I am ridin something like a sled, sliding down forested hills. Sometimes I am on a train. But it is always frightening, and always goes on and on.
Other times, my dreams involve my trying to reach this central station from somewhere in the city. It kind of pops up as a concept within whatever else may be happening in the dream. Sometimes it is a destination so I can escape from some conflict, sometimes it is my sought-for point of departure to seek something else I want. But it is always a central destination.
One night recently I had my first dream where the focus was my experience inside this station. It reminded me of the interior of Los Angeles’s Union Station. I was escaping someone or, more properly, skulking and hiding from someone. There was a flea market and I spent time at a sock table. In my dream, Neil Patrick Harris was also in the group of people at the table. We interacted somehow, and he ended the conversation by allowing all of us to take a selfie. He pulled out his own phone for this, and said, “OK, everyone, time for the selfie.”
Today I came across a relatively new (month-old) feature in Facebook Messenger: you can hail an Uber from within the app. Both Facebook and Uber act as (and have aspirations to be) interesting “front door” or “gateway” apps. For instance, for more and more people Facebook is not a page on the World Wide Web: it is the Web. All browsing starts in Facebook. Similarly, Uber has aspirations to be the first thing people think of when they want to move themselves around in a place.
Both of these “front door” functions actually are about reducing hassle, or friction. It is a hassle to find links to visit. It is a hassle to get in a car, drive yourself to a place, and park. Facebook and Uber remove those hassles (or intend to).
This frictionless society has been building inexorably, and it is interesting to think about its timeline and to reflect at how different the world has become and is becoming.
In thinking about this timeline, it is possible to start as early as 1969 when Arpanet was created, or 1989 when AOL was launched, or 1991 when the first Web page was published (actually that link points to a replica).
But instead I am thinking about the efforts and effects of major companies. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a dystopic history or the description of a pathway to an easier lifestyle — or it could be both.
In any event, think about it:
Amazon (buying things) established 1994
craigslist (local want-ad stuff) established 1995
Wells Fargo Web banking established 1995
Peapod (groceries) established 1996
Google (searching) established 1998
PayPal (paying people) established 1998
Wikipedia (knowledge) established 2001
iTunes (digital music) invented 2001
Gmail (best email) launched 2004
Facebook (social community) established 2004
YouTube (video) established 2005
Google Maps (wayfinding) launched 2005
Twitter launched 2006
Apple TV launched 2006
Hulu (broadcast TV) established 2007
iPhone launched 2007
Spotify (even easier music) established 2008
Uber (transportation) established 2009
Just the above list does not do justice to the massive dislocation that a handful of these companies have created. Just think about how altogether possible it is to:
Buy everything you need through Amazon (groceries through local delivery service like Peapod)
Maintain connected to community, communicate, and learn about news through Facebook
Pay all bills through web banking
Listen to any music you want through Spotify
Watch any filmed entertainment (TV shows or movies) through Apple TV
Get around using Uber
Find people to do housework through craigslist and pay them through PayPal
Each of these services is attempting to create a total “front door” ecosystem, and they have to varying degrees created footholds among and between each other (Facebook + Uber for example).
What else is ripe to become more frictionless? Making objects (3d printing)? Learning (Lynda)? Remembering things (Evernote)?
This morning, early before anyone else was awake, I did something that has become a habit over the past year. After letting the dogs out, and then back in, and giving them food along with the cat, I walked down to a small sofa I have in my basement.
Every morning I read spiritual literature, pray a set prayer, and meditate. I end by writing a letter to God in a little journal I have.
There’s nothing special about the letter. I could just as easily call it a “journal entry,” or I could say I “write in my diary.” The approach I use, that works for me, is a letter to a higher power.
I don’t have a specific format for the letter. It changes from time to time, depending on what is on my mind. Sometimes I have shortcomings or transgressions from the day before to confess and address. Sometimes I have anxieties about what is to come, or the well being of a family member. Sometimes I am angry or hurt, and I need to express it. Sometimes I am ecstatically grateful for the gifts that have been showered on me.
No matter. It all goes in the letter. I typically close my missive by writing this: “God, grant me knowledge of your will for me, and the willingness and power to carry it out.”
What the letter contains is unimportant. What matters is that I have written it. I only allow myself to write once I have done the other things (reading, prayer, meditation). In that way, the written letter becomes tangible proof that I have engaged in the practice I intend.
Like many people, I am easily distracted. I make resolutions, or “set intentions,” only to abandon them when something more interesting comes along. With spiritual practices this has been the pattern. I tell myself I will meditate more, or pray more. And I do for a week or so . . . then one day I’m in a hurry, or oversleep a bit. And, poof, it’s gone. The resolve evaporates like fog under the sunlight.
The letter has worked for me where willpower and intention has not. I think about why, and it is a silly thing. I have become superstitious about the letter.
Some time ago I began to write down the consecutive number of each entry. Each day it goes up by one. I have got it in my head that if I miss a day, something dreadful will happen.
Intellectually, I know that’s not true but I don’t let that stop me. I revel in this superstition, because it has given me resolve where all my good intentions have failed.
This morning, I wrote my 365th consecutive entry. One full year.
What can I say has been the result? I don’t have anything specific to point to. I have had the usual ups and downs throughout the year, and I have responded in the ways we all seem to — never as well as I might hope, but I do the best I can.
The best, most helpful news I can give is that praying and meditating every morning for a year has allowed this practice to become part of my identity. I am someone who prays and meditates. Do I do it well? No. But I do it.
If I can do one year, I can do another. Maybe I will look back on decades of this practice in my final days.
Today (June 10, 2015) marks the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous. In popular culture and even among those who are a part of “the program,” AA is seen as a useful oganization, or as a set of support groups for people who are trying to follow the directions of a particularly enduring self-help book. Of course, to some it is seen as a cult. But all of these views miss the important genesis of this spiritual movement.
I use the term “spiritual movement” with care, for I believe that is what it is. It is spiritual in nature and it is a movement in the strictest sense of the word: a polycentric, wide ranging, collective sense of direction marked by complementary actions toward a common goal and with no central director but instead many smaller coordinating entities and individuals.
Nowadays, when someone has a good idea about how to do something, they may write a book that sets forth their principles. It will often be structured in ways similar to a workbook or a textbook. It may have boxes sprinkled liberally throughout, questions to ask oneself after each chapter, even spaces for notes. Then the person or group who published it will set out to develop some kind of organizational structure based on that. Even when gently and empathetically directed, this is a prescriptive organizational enterprise and it has at its core the model of school: We know something that we are going to teach you, and your job is to learn it.
AA came about differently.
Beginnings: An Insight
AA started with an insight that one of the co-founders (Bill W.) had while in a New York alcoholic asylum after literally losing all. He had had what he saw as a spiritual awakening and felt that this may well help keep him away from a drink when all else had failed. (He had been visited by a friend who had joined the now-defunct Oxford Group, which was an evangelical Christian movement started in 1908. This started him thinking spiritually.) But Bill’s further insight was that only by trying to help other alcoholics would he himself be able to stay sober. So he started looking for drunks to try to help. He had no real success in terms of helping people, but his insight held: he himself stayed sober.
On a business trip to Akron in 1935 that fell apart catastrophically, Bill was at loose ends in his hotel. A big talker, he had been trying to corner the market on rubber and his deal was in shambles. He had no money to pay his hotel bill. He could use a drink. He hovered in the lobby, looking into the hotel bar on one side, and at a church directory on the other. For some reason he chose the church directory and started dialing. Not looking for a sermon — he thought churches would be good places to find alcoholics he could help. When the chips were down, his original insight held: he’d better go help someone, or he might drink.
Eventually, after much dialing, he got put in touch with a local doctor who had also pretty much lost all (Dr. Bob, the other co-founder). Dr. Bob had been trying to stay sober to no avail, and had almost lost his practice completely. They met. Bill told Bob what he knew about alcoholism: that it was like a disease over which he had no control, that one had to figure out a way to seek power greater than oneself, and that in order to keep any kind of sobriety one had to try to help others. Because Bill was a fellow alcoholic and had been through the same wringer Dr. Bob had, he listened. Bill knew what he was talking about where (it seemed) all the previous moralizers did not. Bill was not forcing anything on Dr. Bob, just telling him his experience and what worked for him.
Dr. Bob felt his problem was behind him and the two began to help others. Bill stayed in Akron. They sought out drunks and tried to help them. Bob eventually took a business trip during this time, and got drunk. He came back with his tail between his legs and a renewed sense of purpose. He had to work harder at this thing, which didn’t even have a name.
AA’s “birthday” is seen as that day, the day of Dr. Bob’s last drink. June 10, 1935.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous was not even an idea at that time. It would not be written until 1939.
What Bill and Dr. Bob did was to continue to try to find and help alcoholics. A small group grew up around them, and they spent almost all their time together, like people in a lifeboat. They started to meet together at night, drinking coffee and smoking, and sharing with each other so they could collectively stay sober. At first they met in local Oxford Groups, but eventually split off and met on their own. As each person achieved sobriety, they began to try to help others. There was nothing written down, no organization, no rules to speak of. Just hard, practical work. Dr. Bob was sneaking patients into hospitals so they could sober up, and the administrators of such facilities were looking the other way because it seemed to work. (Bill eventually went back to New York and this same kind of growth happened there, too.)
Eventually, when it seemed clear they were onto something, Bill wanted to create a huge (and moneymaking) organization complete with treatment centers. Others were skeptical and thought this might ruin what they had. They had a vote. The group was not interested — but they would be willing for a book to be written that would set forth what they had been doing thus far in order to stay sober. (This idea passed by just one vote.) The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” came from this decision — collectively written, a literal effort to capture what they had been doing for the last four years that seemed to be working.
A Movement Today
Since publication of that book, AA has grown remarkably. But it has maintained its practical roots and remains a movement. It has, by design, as little organization as is possible, only such that is necessary. Its functions are governed by a simple set of traditions that keep all power (what little there is) in the hands of local groups and places the central office in a service role, answerable to the collective conscience of AA groups and members. Anyone who has run or worked in organizations knows this is no way to run an enterprise, as it makes decision-making enormously difficult. But it is how a movement can retain its essential character as a group endeavor run by no one person and democratically aimed.
I find this history remarkable both for how amazingly that small 1935 meeting has grown into a global phenomenon that has literally saved millions of lives, but also for how unlike other organizational stories it is. AA is not the story of a centrally directed organization coming to power. It is the story of a social movement.
I used to know someone who was the “town drunk” (his words) in a port town on a remote island nation. A merchant marine vessel docked there. On that ship was a recovering alcoholic. He had with him a pamphlet he had gotten from the central office (one of its duties is to publish such pamphlets). My friend came into contact with the seaman (who, as a good AA member, was seeking people he could help get sober). The ship left port. My friend was left behind. He and his friends started meeting together and talking, basing their interactions on that one pamphlet. AA now thrives on that island nation. Not because they wrote to New York to get permission, but because they started working together, and it seemed to work.
This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:
What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.
To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.
Almost ten years ago, when the kids were still in elementary school and I was two years into what would be a long period of working independently in my home office, a situation that my wife had enjoyed already for eight years, I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about my situation.
And my situation? It was perfect. Everything — home, family, economic well being — all revolved around our thriving household:
As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.
Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home. . . .
Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.
Now, with daughter at college, son considering, and parents retired, I find I want to double down on this way of thinking. We live in uncertain times. They are made all the more uncertain by social norms that dictate young people should grow up and get out, that as seniors age they should seek out “retirement communities” where they can live with others like themselves.
I want to be a countervailing force.
I want my house to be, and remain, an intergenerational beacon. I want my wife’s mother to choose to live with us in retirement. I want my kids to boomerang back home, not in failure but by choice. Or, at least, I hope for those concerned to see this as a viable and desirable alternative.
So much research points to the benefits of intergenerational connections, and yet our social structures tell us that “moving back home” (both for old and young) is to be avoided. What if it were the norm? It is, after all, why humans choose to cohabit and live in company: to thrive and be secure. Why should a modern life obviate this evolutionary imperative?
In my ideal fantasy, multiple generations live in our 21st century farmhouse, supporting one another, providing the social network and glue that help us thrive. And — hope of hopes — this ethos gets passed on so that my kids feel the same way, welcoming both their parents as well as their adult children to continue to thrive together as we row our lifeboat through the currents.