Recovery Principles for a Country in Crisis

COVID has proven one-hundred-percent fatal for one particular group of people: our leaders. A systemic lack of leadership has left citizens adrift in a sea of misdirection and misinformation. “If you are not sure where you are going, you’re liable to end up someplace else.”

In 1939 Alcoholics Anonymous’ (“AA”) founders published the first twelve-step personal recovery process. While there are now groups ranging from Clutterers Anonymous to Racists Anonymous to Underearners Anonymous, they are all based on the original twelve-steps. Many of the slogans incorporated in the original twelve-steps have made it into the common vernacular.

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The phrase “One day at a time” is perhaps the most common. Another recovery ditty is “One drink is too many, and a thousand is never enough.” The spring lockdowns were implemented in part because one more COVID death was too many. Somehow now 500,000 (or more) deaths are not enough. Given this situation, perhaps our leaders might benefit from some of the instructions outlined in those twelve-steps. 

Step one involves admitting we are powerless – our life has become unmanageable. London’s infection rate is roughly ten percent (10%). (A rate of five percent poses a risk of uncontrollable community spread.) The city is in its third lockdown, this time for six weeks. Portions of every state in the Union presently exceed London’s figure. Yet throughout America, it is business as usual. Politicians repeat the doomed mask, distance, handwash mantra as if the more they say it, the more fearful the virus will become. 

Is admitting we are powerless to stop an invisible, deadly enemy so hard? The sickness and suffering will continue until we admit that at the moment, the virus has us beat. As for life becoming unmanageable, yesterday’s little snafu at the United States Capital would seem to be an unmitigated qualifier.

Step four involves making a searching fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This step requires analyzing how our fears and insecurities have led our ego to decide based solely on self-interest. In our politicians’ case, this manifests as making whatever decision is most likely to keep them in power. In turn, their example has lead the people to side with those they believe most likely to protect their interests. Motivated only by the fear of an allusion, a perceived unreal enemy, both sides have ignored all moral hazard.

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COVID doesn’t care if you “Back the Blue” or think it’s time law enforcement finally be held accountable. COVID doesn’t care if you’ve deluded yourself into thinking Democrats stole the election (by somehow electing numerous Republican lawmakers at the same time.) These issues are hyperbole promoted by our leaders to distract you from their abdication of duty. The complete failure of their most basic obligation. “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”  

Step nine involves making direct amends to people for prior harmful conduct. To amend is not to apologize. Amend comes from the Latin emend, which means “to correct.” Our leaders have failed with COVID testing, PPE supplies, and now unsurprisingly, the vaccine rollout. (As of today, Massachusetts has no plan to vaccinate any people beyond hospital staff and first responders.) Admitting failure and putting the vaccine into the Amazon supply chain for distribution would be a correction. Cease using unenforceable half measures which have never worked to stop the spread would also be a correction. Making any real consequential decision, much less the hard choices, would be a correction.

Finally, step twelve, having had a spiritual awakening, try to practice the 12-step principles in all of your affairs. Members and non-adherents of twelve-step programs often misinterpret this spiritual awakening as the achievement of some form of Zen.

“Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain.” But as American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön points out, this is incorrect. “The journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.”

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Our leaders are immune to the basic principle of honesty. There will be no safe Fourth of July cookouts. Normal has long receded from the rearview mirror, and any “new normal” is fading fast. Recovering from the jackpot, we now find ourselves in will be a long, challenging, painful journey. The sooner leaders reveal this truth. More people will be better equipped to deal with the insecurity and pain going forward.

But until somebody somewhere takes the lead and does something, we will continue to meet AA’s definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

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