Life on Life’s Terms

Posted on September 27, 2014

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The world don’t owe me no living.  Dewey Bunnell

A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!”  “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.”  Stephen Crane

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.  Reinhold Niebuhr

When I was a kid, I had a paper route.  From the time I turned 12 until 16 when I could get a regular job, I delivered The South Bay Daily Breeze[1] in Torrance.  The cost of the paper was $2.50 per month.  Even adjusted for inflation, what I pay now for the San Diego Union Tribune seems excessive.  I tried to escape them and subscribe to the North County Times, but eventually they bought that paper too.  You might ask why I still need a print paper in 2014 when everything is available on the internet for free.  I will tell you.

There are two things that tie me to my newspaper: 1) the comics and 2) the puzzles (Sudoku, Jumble, and Crossword).  I have always been a creature of habit.  Among my habits is that I read the comics while I eat my breakfast cereal.  Among the comics, there are some that have never been funny or interesting and I just skip them.  There are some that are occasionally funny; I read these and am sometimes rewarded with something amusing.  There are a few that are consistently amusing that I really enjoy.  Among those in the last category is “Pickles.”

The main character in Pickles is an old guy by the name of Earl Pickles.[2]  Earl lives with his wife Opal.  Their daughter and their grandson Nelson live next door.  Earl is frequently the dispenser of nonsense in the guise of wisdom directed at his grandson.  This week he has been teaching Nelson about how he (Earl) lives life on his own terms, is the captain of his own ship, and the master of his own destiny.    Nelson asserts that he is boss of his own color book.  Earl tells him that’s a good start.

I would assert that expecting to live life on one’s own terms is a recipe for disappointment.  This is not to say that we do not have agency to affect the outcome.  Those are two different things.   In addiction recovery, you need to learn to live life on life’s terms.  It is often the grievance story and disappointment with life that leads to the sense of entitlement which perpetuates the cycle of addictive behavior.  In other words, if my expectation is to always live life on my own terms, when things don’t go my way, it is a direct affront to my expectations and perhaps my self-concept.  Consequently, I collect grievances (i.e. a grudge list) of the ways in which I have been done wrong.  In couples therapy, I often share that anger is generally a secondary emotion.  That applies here as well; anger is a secondary result of disappointment and unmet expectations.  We must live life on life’s terms.

As with most everything in life, health is in learning to manage the tension between two competing ideas.  The first is that you are not fully the master of your own destiny.  The second is that you have a great deal of power to affect where your life ends up.  The opening line of the Serenity Prayer  applies here.  Living life on life’s terms requires having the ability to accept what you cannot change.  You may need to grieve your losses, but there is nothing to be gain by raging against what is.  Being effective in life also requires recognizing your agency (i.e. power) to change the things within your control.  Within certain parameters, the world is still your oyster.  There is a way forward.

The less well known ending to the Serenity Prayer is “So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.”  We live life on life’s terms, but in doing so we can achieve a reasonable measure of happiness.

[1] It did not seem like a strange name for a newspaper back then.

[2] A friend of mine used to assert that Earl Pickles was who he wanted to be when he got old.  More recently he asserts that Earl is who he would become if he does not grow.

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