On St. Patrick’s Day, the city dyes Chicago River a brilliant hue no Kelly I know would claim for his own. I’ll be there to attend a retreat with recovering men I’ve known for decades. I’ll also have tea with my former wife, the mother of my children. We’ve been estranged since our divorce a dozen years ago and this conversation is long in the making, though not overdue.
We make cut ‘n’ dry amends for what we have done, or what we have failed to do. But, when we perpetrate sins or shirk duties out of a lack character, well… we can’t exercise, can’t put to work what isn’t ours to summon. Joan Didion1 wrote that “people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; … the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” 1 I flubbed the play because I was never in the game.
“To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.” 1 Shame? Guilt? Regardless, without self-respect, we stand empty-handed at every threshold. There, I remained.
What then, might I now say to my darling-ago? Words will come. My determination arises from a long delayed appreciation of my childhood. My parents loved, nurtured, educated and entertained me, insured my place in the family circle. I came unmoored, perhaps by circumstance, but not thorough any intent of theirs. My education included the conviction that we are children of God: “God’s love sparked me into being. My life echoes His love. Inhabiting this love is my deepest need and my greatest desire.”2 This exalted belief implies a responsibility to myself, to my innate gifts and to the prospects that arise to use them. To show “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.”
Decades ago, I did not enter my third marriage with any such mandate, and my alcoholic bottom shortly followed our firstborn’s arrival. In recovery, I acquired a grudging “willingness to accept responsibility”, but lacked “discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.” 1 George Bernard Shaw described Oscar Wilde as, “…so in love with style that he never realized the danger of putting up more style than his matter could carry. Wise kings wear shabby clothes, and leave the gold lace to the drum major.“3 Time heals; it also teaches.
If we even half-practice a rigorous honesty in recovery, eventually our egos crater and we are “driven back upon oneself, …the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” 1 We discover that the “sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. … to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.” 1
In college, Ms. Didion lost “the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me… happiness, honor and a good husband.” We zealously cling to our innocent self-deceptions. Some of us drink and drug ourselves silly to perpetuate them. When we ultimately release, are finally released from them, we know a “new freedom and a new happiness”4 grounded in a newfound self worthy of respect, a self we protect, nurture and love.
1 Self-Respect, its source, its power, Vogue, Joan Didion, August 1961
2 First Principle and Foundation, The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola, interpretation, Martin McElroy, 2017
3 Letter to Frank Harris, introducing a revised edition of Life of Wilde (1918)
4 Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book), AA World Services, Fourth Edition, 2002