Alcoholics Anonymous taught me not to despise corny sayings
If I have something boring, difficult or daunting to do, my natural inclination is to procrastinate – doesn't everyone? But I have developed a working tactic. "You don't have to do it all. Just do a little bit. Life is an hour at a time."
It is one of the many lessons that I learned from Alcoholics Anonymous, which I regard as one of the world's most effective organisations. Every business could learn something from the philosophy of AA, let alone any individual with a destructive or addictive habit to overcome. When life is challenging, or painful, or even unendurable, just think "a day at a time"; or if need be "an hour at a time". Don't project into the future.
I once asked: "How will I get through Christmas without a drink?" I was told: "You could be dead by Christmas. Don't project."
This is not a Lenten sermon about quitting alcohol. Not drinking for a season is a healthy thing to do, for body and soul, but it is essentially penance, for soul or body. An alcoholic (or a problem drinker) isn't getting sober as a penance, but to recover a life that has become disastrous.
Yet it's the broader philosophy that I have found helped me to think about focus and purpose, and in a wider sense. One of the slogans is "First Things First": concentrate on what you're there for. If you're at a meeting about addiction problems, leave your politics at the door. Focus on the job in hand. Don't wander off on another remit.
When a police force, for example, becomes more concerned with issues such as gender balance or ethnic diversity – worthy though these causes may be – it loses its focus on what it's for, which is to fight crime and keep the peace.
When a charity is more about the salaries of the executives, the strategy or the "brand", it loses sight of what its purpose should be: which is one definition of decadence.
When education becomes more focused on "changing society" rather than serving the best needs of pupils and students, the purpose of education is marginalised. Many people believe that there would be less deep-rooted conflict in Northern Ireland if all education was integrated. Often a well-meaning analysis: but would it serve the best interest of the children's actual education?
First things first – focus on the purpose of education. The inconvenient truth is that school standards in Northern Ireland are very good just as they are.
I've always thought Amnesty International was a fine organisation, campaigning for prisoners of conscience and against torture. But it has so widened its remit since its original founding more than 50 years ago that its purpose seems attenuated: its targets now include the arms trade, corporate accountability, reproductive rights, slums, Shell, conditions in Darfur, ethnic cleansing and maternal mortality. Can you support all this without contradiction or prioritising? Supposing you're a French manufacturer of battleships providing much employment, how can you crusade against "the arms trade"?
One of the strongest influences AA had on my thinking was the notion that "I am responsible". I am responsible for my choices, and I must take the consequences of my choices honestly. That is outlined in the context of picking up a drink, but it applies to a range of actions.
I have made many bad choices (and some good ones) in my life, and I must take responsibility for those choices. This is now somewhat counter-cultural: the mania for litigation and compensation has diminished the notion of personal responsibility – it's always someone else's fault.
Victimhood is more admired than stoicism. "Poor little me" is more the spirit of the age than "I take responsibility"; but taking responsibility for our own choices is learning to be a grown-up.
True, there are choices by accident, by circumstance and even, perhaps, by genetic inheritance. Bad luck can play a part in anyone's fate. I'm prepared to believe that there's an addiction gene.
Yet AA showed me that lots of people who had a desperate genetic inheritance – ghastly childhood, abusive parents, a long line of destructively addictive family influences – still managed to make a better choice. I'm not saying that a self-help movement – and there are many other such self-help movements which use a similar approach – is for everyone. I'm just reflecting what I learned from this experience, and how much it has influenced me in many more ways than sobriety alone.
One of the aspects of such movements that some people don't like is an element of fanaticism. I've heard such advice as: "If your family is causing you to drink, leave them. If your children are prompting you to drink, abandon them. Walk away from anyone who is negative karma."
This is fanatical. Yet it's the fanatics, the "absolutists" in any movement who often drive it forward, with the single-minded pursuit of purpose. Nice, middle-of-the-road liberals are sweeter companions, but they seldom have the edge of leadership.
Yes, I learned many enduring life lessons. "Practise an attitude of gratitude." "Make amends." "If you feel depressed, give service." And of all events, both good and bad: "This too will pass."
I also learned not to despise corny sayings. The cornier a saying, the easier it is to remember. Corniest of all, and truest of all, is the famous serenity prayer: accepting the things we cannot change, changing the things we can, and seeking the wisdom to know the difference. Still recited every morn.