THE SIMPLE act of threading the cap back on a tube of toothpaste in the morning sounds like an insignificant accomplishment, yet this little ritual actually gave one of our friends a joyful sense of achievement during his first few months in Alcoholics Anonymous, He couldn't have felt better if he had broken eighty in golf or put over a sensational sale. It was such a pleasant experience that he even prolonged it, making each turning movement with deliberate precision. His wife wondered if he wasn't becoming slightly balmy.
Our friend wasn't becoming balmy, and we who had lived some of his previous agony knew why the ritual of the toothpaste cap was important. It was symbolic: It stood for the general appearance of order and sensible action coming back into his life. He was in charge of himself again, capable of doing jobs the right way at the time they were supposed to be done. No longer a driven creature of haste and impulse, he had a measure of order in his life at last and meant to have more.
It's likely that many alcoholics are like our friend, and would actually respond wholeheartedly to orderly systems of living. In spite of this deep need, they drink and shirk their duties in seeming rebellion against the whole idea of order. It's said that order is "heaven's first law," and prudent men see the truth in this. But alcoholics ignore it, and pay a terrible price for this folly.
In our defense, it should be said that most of this disorder in our lives was the result of ignorance. Many of us wanted the self-discipline and sense of perspective that we admired in others, but we didn't know how to develop these qualities. We had no way to begin the painful task of learning "order."
Our friend, the gallant conqueror of the toothpaste cap, found his answer in the three magic words "First Things First." These words are often parroted meaninglessly at AA meetings, but they actually give us a way out of the terrible bondage of disorder. When we truly understand the meaning of putting first things first and practice it, we find that we can often accomplish what previously seemed impossible.
Many centuries ago, this idea of putting certain things first was phrased in a slightly different way: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." Few AA members view themselves as actively seeking something called "the kingdom of God," but the idea is essentially the same. When we are able to establish priorities in our lives and put the practice of the AA principles first, all else seems to follow.
We sometimes tend to forget that we can concentrate on only one thing at a time and do one thing at a time. Driven by terrible feelings of inadequacy and overload, many of us frequently set fantastic goals for ourselves while overlooking more modest goals that are well within our capability. Frustrated because we cannot do as much as we want to, we simply give up completely and get drunk. This sometimes appears on police ledgers as "drunk and disorderly." It would be more correct to say, "He was disorderly, so he got drunk."
For recovering alcoholics, the question of what comes first in our lives is easy to answer. Sobriety must always come first. Anything that helps us grow in our sobriety is helpful and good; anything that threatens sobriety is pernicious must be discarded.
Sobriety, of course, is an AA term that embraces much more than merely keeping the bottle at arm's length. It includes such AA practices as keeping our thinking straight, letting go and letting God, and carrying the AA message. Seeking a healthier state of mind always has priority over external conditions, and it is a rule of thumb that we AA members first take charge of our own thinking when a disturbing situation arises. If the world falls in shambles around us, we are still victors if we manage to remain sober and in control of ourselves when challenged by or disaster.
AA members who face situations in this manner are not Pollyanna or the boy who stood on the burning deck but did not take action to set matters right. They are merely realists who have learned that they can be effective only when they have themselves under control; once that is done, they can use their other powers and abilities to the fullest. In the meantime, they refuse to be carried away by the panic, tension, anxiety, and fear that often drove them to drinking and still seem to blight the lives of so many people around them.
It is also important to remember that only the orderly approach really works in the long run. One writer, for example, defines sin as an attempt to get a supposed good to which we are not otherwise entitled. He might have said just as easily that sin is an attempt to get a supposed good in a disorderly way. For almost every advantage that people seek through wrong methods could be obtained in even greater measure through following correct methods. It could also be retained. Sinful or not, disorder is at least unnecessary.
Examples of this truth are easy to find in the experiences of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like most people, we desired peace of mind and looked for it in a million bottles and a thousand barrooms. But all we ever found was a counterfeit of peace of mind. True peace--which we call serenity--comes only after persistent and orderly efforts to set one's own life in harmony with God and with other human beings. We also wanted status in the community and the respect of others. But we tried to get these by lying and showing off; in the end, we lost even what meager status and respect we had. Yet we later found that people gave us status and respect once we recovered and faced our responsibilities. Many AA members could easily say that they have found, in Alcoholics Anonymous, most of the things they expected to gain from drinking but never truly found.
If sobriety and straight thinking come first in AA members' lives, what comes second? Is there any principle that we can follow in organizing our lives along more orderly lines?
One of our friends has such a principle. He often says that he puts his sobriety first, his job second, and his family third. He reasons thus: "Take care of your sobriety, and you can take care of your job. Take care of your job, and you can take care of your family."
Some people might cry that our friend has relegated his family to the bottom of the heap in his thinking, but this is not true. The approach he offers has made him more able to provide for his family than ever before. It is simply the commonsense approach.
Such common sense is apparently highly uncommon. We see so many people who are unable to put first things first, to observe ordinary rules of common sense. A woman loses her job and lets that be her excuse for getting drunk. But getting drunk only makes it more difficult to find another job. A man broods over his inability to give his family everything they want. Such brooding becomes an alibi for a drunken bout that makes him even less able to support his family properly. Whatever else such thinking and actions might be, they are certainly "disorderly," and they indicate that the individuals involved haven't learned the real meaning of "First Things First."
Our other friend, who schooled himself to replace the toothpaste cap, is not indulging himself in trifling behavior. He simply perceives that toothpaste caps ought to be replaced, that this is proper operating procedure. Order carries the day in other ways as well. Traffic moves safely on the highways if motorists drive in an orderly manner. Production moves efficiently through a factory if the processes have been arranged in an orderly manner. There is order in everything that is sound, whether it's an airplane engine or the human body. Rhythm, pattern, harmony, and tempo are words that describe elements of order.
We should also know that order isn't only heaven's first law for man. It also seems to be heaven's first law for heaven. All that we're able to glimpse of creation is completely subject to laws of orderly action. Everything seems to function according to a pattern or a plan: The stars remain on course; the seasons come and go on schedule; and all creatures reproduce after their own kind. Let us consider this for a time, and we soon realize that order lies behind the beauty and glory of the universe.
Our friend knows that his new-found ability to replace the toothpaste cap was a small victory, but it's an orderly part of the bigger picture he's seeing these days. It's thrilling to be able to do things completely and properly for a change. The toothpaste cap is a great symbol.
And maybe it symbolizes something else, too--like the day he threaded the cap back on a whiskey bottle and proceeded, in an orderly manner, to call AA.