In 1998 I traveled to Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka. I went because the government said it was finally safe to do so. But the government lied. Batticaloa was under siege by the rebels.
I could tell many stories about the days I spent there, but one stands out.
I met a boy, an orphan, who had been playing near his village one day and picked up what he thought was a ball. It was a grenade, and it blew off both of his hands. He’d later been fitted with two primitive prosthetics. If he moved his arm in a certain way, a cable would retract the thumb. We talked for a few minutes through a translator (because I don’t speak Tamil).
I asked him if he had plans for the future. He gave me a big smile, and said, “I’m training to become a tailor.”
I was speechless. I’m not sure which was more shocking: that a boy with no hands planned to be come a tailor, or that he could smile about it!
Even now, two decades later, I often break down in tears when I think of that moment. Yet why shouldn’t he smile? Yes, he’d been through horrible and traumatic things. But he was doing the impossible. Conventional wisdom says that a person with no hands cannot become a tailor.
There’s another side to this story because I, too, was doing the impossible. I am an addict. I have an incurable progressive, and fatal disease that is characterized by self-centeredness and self-destruction. Medicine has no answer for me. Psychology offers little help. Conventional wisdom is that, absent a miracle, an addict is doomed to “jails, institutions, and death,” as the Narcotics Anonymous program puts it.
Yet I traveled to Batticaloa clean and sober for a purpose: to try to understand a war that no one seemed to understand, in the hope that somehow my effort might help end the long and bloody conflict. I don’t like to think of it this way, but I risked my life to try to do some good in the world. And I did it without drugs or alcohol.
For someone like me, that’s impossible.
For someone like me, simply being clean today is a miracle. Putting together a significant number of days is nearly impossible. We’ve tried. Our families have tried. Doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists have tried. The justice system has tried. But we continue to do what we’ve been doing: drinking and using, and leaving a trail of wreckage behind us.
Yet literally millions of people have recovered from their substance addiction, most in Twelve Step programs. We have done the impossible– or God has done it for us.
In this post I’m not going to delve into the how and why. I’m simply going to ask this question:
For those of us who are doing the impossible, do we give a big smile like that boy with no hands? Or do we dwell on our challenges, our pasts, and our shortcomings?
There are days when I ask myself that, and I don’t always like the answer.
Recovery is something to celebrate, something to cherish. We are doing the impossible. We should be smiling!