I went to my first AA this weekend. It was an assignment for a class. People recognized my classmate and I right away as newcomers and greeted us warmly with handshakes, coffee, smiles, and pamphlets, the most important one to them being the schedule of meetings – several a day, every day of the week in this location. They read from the Big Book and took care of business, then Thomas got up, his white hair covered by a faded blue fedora he’d probably had since they were popular the first time.
“We are all equal!” he hollered. “High priced actors, day laborers, crackheads. I been sober twenty years, but that’s just my bragging rights. We are all equal!”
And here I was, sitting in the back row, struggling, struggling, struggling with this feeling that I’m better than these folks because my life hasn’t gone to shit just yet. I know it’s untrue. Thomas is right. We are all equal. We are all human. We all suffer. We all get addicted and fall down and screw up – some of us just do in more or less socially acceptable ways.
But that’s not to equate my privileged, middle-class, educated, white girl suffering with theirs. No way. They’ve got economics and class and race and language barriers to deal with that I never faced. And to top it all off, they’re alcoholics, each and every one. Well, shit.
They stood up, one after another, and told their stories.
“You all have heard this before,” several said, “but I’m gonna tell it again for the new people. And because it still affects my life.”
They gave out chips. Three people came up to get a chip for their first 29 days, two who were new and one “fuck up,” in her own words. Others got chips for longer periods of sobriety. They were in shirts and ties and tattoos and piercings and as I looked at them I tried really hard to let Thomas’s words penetrate me – we are all equal.
We read this week about disconnection and oppression and injustice. We read about the outcasts and the “made poor” and privilege. I’ve heard a lot of it before, but some was new. I’d never heard that poverty was a form of exclusion, which Brita Gill-Austern explained so eloquently in Chapter 3 of Injustice and the Care of Souls. She’s right. How many times have I walked right by the beggar on the street and refused to look because I was ashamed? How many times have I committed an act of violence with my aversion?
I learned that we have to know home, leave home, and return home. This is also a Buddhist teaching. I remember realizing as a teenager that, despite their superficial words of political correctness, my parents were racist and class-ist and just a little bit sexist, even my tough working mother, and they didn’t even seem to know it. I remember my feeling of alienation and otherness living into a mixed Hispanic/Asian neighborhood in LA, feeling almost illiterate just looking at the neighborhood signs. I remember adult conversations with my parents, challenging their conservative take on “the blacks” and “the government” and struggling to hold on to my temper.
It’s from this home I come into that AA meeting with all my baggage of superiority, of “better than.” And I can rationalize it a thousand ways to Sunday. I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve never had a DUI. I’ve never been to jail. I haven’t had my kids taken away from me. I haven’t hurt anyone. Have I?
But I have. I buy alcohol, don’t I? I keep the producers rolling in the profits so they can make more of this poison and make sure it reaches just those people who need it least. I benefit from my white privilege, don’t I? I walk around my neighborhood and people might assume I’m lost, but they don’t assume I’m dangerous. Privilege isn’t free; it’s always at someone’s expense. My middle-class parents worked hard for what they have, and so do I, but we all live in a country that consumes a quarter of the Earth’s resources to sate the needs of 4% if its population. I’m not a math major, but I know that doesn’t work – not for long anyway.
So just what do I have to feel so superior about anyway? Not a damn thing. But let’s cut this pity party short.
“We’re all equal!” Thomas yelled, and the crowd affirmed.
That’s what our religions teach us. The Buddha, like Jesus, took in the outcasts, the drunks and the tax collectors and the whores and at least one serial killer that we know of (Angulimala Sutta). The Christians write books about how to safely welcome sex offenders into their congregations. I never knew that. How awesome is that? Scary, it’s true, and a sure source of anxiety, but still an awesome demonstration of God’s love for all His children. The Buddhists in temples and monasteries and meditation centers all over the world chant the sutras (scriptures) about the buddhanature within each human being – the capacity for enlightenment and freedom from suffering.
No, I wasn’t any better than these alcoholics. They had and continued to endure more suffering than I’d ever known and beyond all that they’d found just a little bit of their buddhanature (or a lot, come to think of it). They talked about the joy of being sober, of not waking up hung over, of remembering their days, of not fearing they hurt someone. They have freed themselves from much of the suffering of their addiction, and they’re willing to face the struggle of it for the rest of their lives. I can’t say the same. Thomas has all the bragging rights. He’s earned them. And I was humbled to hear the Dharma, the Truth, from him.