“Is that it?” came the question from one of our four kids sitting behind my wife and me in the last hundred miles of our road trip to the Grand Canyon. “No,” I replied as we passed a relatively small crack in the Arizona desert. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
When we saw it, the massive hole was bigger than any of us imagined. And flowing through the bottom of the canyon was the surprisingly modest Colorado River. The persistence required for that stream of water to cut that ginormous canyon over that amount of time – hundreds of millions of years – was too much for me to comprehend.
Hundreds of millions of years. If you want to put your 80 or 90 or even 100 years of life on earth in perspective, stare down into a cavernous hole that was dug patiently and consistently over hundreds of millions of years. It made me feel insignificant like nothing I’d ever experienced.
It wasn’t a bad feeling of insignificance. In fact, it bolstered my confidence that in order to make any nano-impact at all on this spinning orb we call home, I had to muster all my available persistence to do the right things and live my best life – at least what’s left of it. And even if my only impact is to leave my corner of the world a slightly better place than I found it, the canyon inspired me to remain patiently and consistently focused on that simple goal.
No time to indulge selfish human desires that cause collateral damage. No time to waste considering moderation versus abstinence and searching for ways to try again and keep it in control this time. No time for mistakes made in the name of fun and relaxation. No time for alcohol in my life in any quantity.
Social pressure, stigma and shame, and a personal desire for pain and chaos relief don’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. I was staring into the beauty and majestic expanse of the grandest of schemes, and it was both totally humbling and completely freeing.
I guess that’s the point, really: Insignificance is freeing. If the Colorado River and its little stone carving project – past, present and future – doesn’t give a rip about the demons in my head, why should I give them any power at all. Hundreds of millions of years of relentless canyon cutting is powerful. My human impulses? Not so much.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that addiction isn’t real and serious and deadly. Quite to the contrary, I’m suggesting that perspective is a tremendous weapon to use to battle the shame and stigma associated with alcoholism. Realizing how teeny and tiny our contributions – good or bad – are to the history and future of this planet completely dismantles the social pressure to drink. Who cares what our neighbors or family or boss or drinking buddies think about our sobriety. The opinions of others are even less significant than our puny little lives are. Who knew puny could feel so alive?
I was reminded of the insignificance of my life again on the third night of our camping trip in the Grand Canyon at 12:41am when my wife and I were awoken to the cries of some dying beast in the woods behind our tent. It sounded like a cross between a large bird and some kind of wild dog, and something had gone terribly wrong for it. We laid in our sleeping bags with eyes wide open for a few minutes as we listened to it getting closer and closer to the tent.
When I hear a strange noise outside at home, I know just what to do: stay locked inside our brick house. But as I listened to the braying werewolf approach my wife and me and our four inexplicably sleeping children, I thought about how a front-paw-declawed house cat could shred our tent in about five seconds. So, I climbed out of the tent, searched in the dark for our dull hatchet and stood in only my boxer shorts wielding a twelve-inch, rounded axe while trying to muffle the sounds of my tears.
The dying beast eventually changed course and dragged it’s limp carcass deeper into the woods to breathe its last breath. I returned to my sleeping bag still clutching my blunt hatchet and stared at the top of the tent until morning.
As I laid there in the quiet night, my thoughts returned to my overall insignificance. Had I and my family been mauled by a wild creature in desperation that night, the Colorado River would not have even slowed its flow to tips its cap in our direction. Our death would have been dismissed by the National Parks Service as a tragic one-off, and campers would have gone right on camping. Maybe we would have made a good ghost story to tell around the campfire, but that’s about it.
So if we mean so little to the world around us, why do we give the world around us so much power to keep us shackled to the elixir that lubricates society? Why do we give a shit what anyone thinks? Ever?
Each night of our week-long national park escapade, we cooked dinner over an open fire. Each night after dinner, our kids roasted marshmallows over the hot coals (twelve-year-old Joey wasn’t patient enough to roast his marshmallows, so he set his ablaze and called them asteroids, then ate the charred remains). Each night we washed-up with cold water and climbed into a toasty tent for a restless night of semi-sleep (except, of course, for the night Sheri and I traded the sounds of wilderness death howls for any sleep at all).
Each night I was thankful for my wife and kids, and I prayed for my family. Each night the quarter-inch sleeping pad felt a little more comfortable than the previous night, and each night my cumulative exhaustion made sleeping a little easier to accomplish.
Do you know what I didn’t do each night? I didn’t drink beer around the campfire and slowly fade away from my family. In fact, I only thought about drinking once. And it wasn’t a craving or longing so much as an acknowledgement that just a few summers ago, drinking around the fire would have been the epicenter of my trip.
I was glad that it never even occurred to me to drink. I was comfortable with the discomfort of my sleeping situation and never considered self-medicating the hard ground and stuffy evening heat away. I was excited to percolate coffee over the campfire in the morning, not because I needed caffeine to ease the pain of a night of drinking, but because percolated coffee tastes like hot, smokey-wet, dirt-water, and I really like to settle into the ambiance of the great outdoors. I was proud to have abundant patience with my kids – even Joey with his passionate commitment to squeezing out loud farts in the hot, enclosed tent after scarfing down a half dozen marshmallow asteroids (he is very, very twelve). And I had a good time laughing with my wife free from the alcohol-generated tension of vacations past.
I was even content with only having the opportunity for two showers taken over a week’s time. I didn’t have alcohol screaming to get out of my pores, so I only sweated the naturally occurring 100% of the time in July in the Arizona desert. I didn’t shave in the cold water available to me, and my facial hair grew like an over-fertilized Chia Pet. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror at the end of the week with my scruffy face and dishevelled, long, greasy, wind-blown hair, and I was startled for a minute. No wonder the dying beast dragged itself back into the woods to breathe its last. I wasn’t so much scary looking as I was completely unappetizing and gamey.
Do you know what the Grand Canyon and its architect, the Colorado River, thought about all of that? Do you know what impact my filthy, sweaty, tired, chewy-coffee-drinking, fart-filled-tent-living, dull-hatchet-wielding self had on the hundreds of millions of years old hole in the ground in the middle of the Arizona desert?
None. My impact was less than insignificant. And that felt great. In fact, it felt exactly like freedom.
Do you know what else felt great? A cool shower, a hot shave and full night’s sleep in my bed at home. It was the perfect camping trip: I loved every minute of it and I was ecstatic when it was over.
The vacation did more than leave me relaxed and ready to get back to work. It left me inspired with the belief that if I’m going to leave my world just a little better than I found it, I have a lot of work to do on my mission to end the stigma associated with alcoholism. I’ve got no time for hangovers or self-doubt or cautious optimism. I’ve got to put my head down and go like an unformidable river with hundreds of millions of years of work to do over the next few decades.
Insignificance makes me fearless. If I ever need a reminder of what fearlessness looks like, I’ll just think of the opposite of my night spent crying in my underwear outside a tent limply swinging my blunt and useless weapon.
If you are tired of hiding from the stigma and sinking into the shame of alcohol consumption, I invite you to consider joining SHOUT Sobriety, our six-week online course to help people navigate early sobriety. It is absolutely free to participate, and the program is designed to help drinkers and loved ones of drinkers alike. For more information, to register or to make a donation to keep our work alive, please visit our SHOUTSobriety.com website.