So I have this little problem with alcohol. Well, maybe not so little.
Thankfully, no drop of alcohol has passed my lips for over four years.
While I don’t often blog about such, I sat in a meeting a couple weeks ago that got me thinking. The topic concerned length of sobriety and as I reflected, I began to see the manner in which I relate to sobriety reflects my understanding of time and vice versa.
That 12-step programs are chock-full of cliches is a fact not lost on those who participate. Of course, they have their use and can function as simple reminders. Statements like “One day at a time,” “progress not perfection,” and (what I often hear in meetings) the whole idea that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Then there’s my favorite: live in the present, in the now.
In the weeks since that meeting, I ruminated over my initial reflections and now having gained some clarity on my own perspectives, write this post.
In sobriety we often talk about how much sobriety we “have.” I could say “I have four-plus years.”
What I find interesting about such a statement and the great many cliches is their metaphorical nature. Even the language which conceptualizes sobriety in terms of “How much time do you have” or “I have x amount” of time betrays a certain metaphor.
While “metaphor” is for most a concept related to literature and/or the poetic
imagination, a writer’s tool, for UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and University of Oregon philosopher Mark Johnson, metaphor is much much more: metaphor is “pervasive in everyday life…in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (2003, 3). In other words, how we think, how we conceive of the world and our experience, and how we conceptualize such is metaphorical in nature. Further, we are typically unaware of as much.
As I began to think about the topic that night, I reviled against the very nature of the topic itself. Upon further reflection, I have come to understand that my reaction stemmed from a lack of personal connection to the metaphor. The metaphor underpinning the idea of “having” time, or “having” sobriety is something to which I just don’t relate.
To “have” sobriety implies the notion that sobriety is something to possess. If I drink again, I “lost” what I “had.” Such falls within what Lakoff and Johnson call the “Time is a Resource” metaphor. So common is this metaphor in Western societies that we “tend not to see” the metaphor at all so deeply ingrained is it in industrialized societies. This metaphor is related to the “Labor is a Resource”metaphor and together the two “emerged naturally in our culture because of the way we view work, our passion for quantification, and our obsession with purposeful ends” (2003, 67).
These three elements come part and parcel in any 12-step program. Every night the group I attend reads “How it Works” at the meeting’s beginning. We speak of the 12 steps as “work.” That passion of quantification underlies the idea of sobriety itself and the topic that spawned this post: the length or time of one’s sobriety: 1 day, 2 weeks, 25 years.
A particular relationship to time underscores the notion of purposeful ends. Related to such is the standard 12-step cliche “progress not perfection.” Lakoff and Johnson identify two primary metaphors for time: the “Moving Time” metaphor and the “Moving Observer” metaphor. The latter concerns us here for whereas in the former the individual is a stationary object for whom the events of time pass by (as in the metaphor the “flow of time”), in the “Moving Observer” metaphor the subject (the person) is doing the moving and “Each location in the observer’s path is a time” (1999, 145). Further, in the Moving Observer metaphor, events/experiences are conceptualized as “being located at time locations” (1999, 153). To be located at a location implies a static state; time does not “move.” Take for example the statement, “I began writing this post at 10:00 am.” Thus time is experienced and related to in a particular manner. Moreover, since such metaphorical entailment conceptualizes events/experiences as times in/at a particular location, the metaphor necessarily implies a certain landscape: time is related to spatial conceptions.
This spatiality then lends itself to “progress not perfection” and the idea that “life is a journey.” In relation to the latter, I consistently hear “it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.” Sure, I get the sentiment and personally I find it a little trite. Then again, I find it such because I don’t particularly relate to the metaphor.
The life is a journey metaphor and progress not perfection implies the Moving Observer metaphor and relate further to what Lakoff and Johnson call the “Event-Structure” metaphor which deals with matters of cause and causation. The Event-Structure metaphor specifically entails the notion of “moving toward, reaching, or not reaching a destination” (1999, 190). “Progress,” in turn, is “forward movement.” Archetypal psychologist James Hillman adds a vertical dimension to the notion of progress. Progress is not only conceived of in terms of going forward, but “up.” That 12-step programs emphasize trust and reliance in a “Higher Power” is not insignificant. Progress and a Higher Power both rely on the vertical dimension of upwardness. As Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate, when it comes to metaphors, “up” is typically conceptualized as “good.” Sobriety, which is “good,” is something I “have” in order to make “progress” on the “journey.”
While over and over I hear people say it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters (not unlike “progress not perfection”), the “progress,” according to the metaphor, “is movement toward a destination” (1999, 194). Again Western industrialized society’s infatuations with purposeful ends. While perfection, or the destination, may be deemphasized it is still implied by the metaphor.
As I reflected upon the topic that night, I wondered (as I’d often done before under different circumstances) “What if there is no goal? What if there is no progress?”
The metaphor of the journey slips away.
What, then, becomes of time?
For one, it ceases to be linear, for progress, in being defined as forward movement, implies linearity.
12-step programs emphasize living “in” the present (as opposed to the past or the future) and staying sober “one day at a time.” The prepositions “in” and “at” again betray a metaphorical conceptualization. Specifically, these and similar prepositions have “a spatial sense and a sense concerning states” (1999, 180) and operate from within the “Location Event-Structure” metaphor where “changes are movements” and “purposes are destinations” (1999, 179). Both again depend upon the Moving Observer. By “locations,” Lakoff and Johnson “mean bounded regions in space” (1999, 180).
Since the Moving Observer conceptualizes events in time as locations in space, such events/experiences are, in a sense, static. Again, it is the Observer, the person, who is doing the moving, not time itself. Being “bounded regions in space,” each “location,” each experience/event is defined by a boundary and consists of an interior and an exterior. I live one day at a time or live in the present.
In other words, such events–one day or the present–are conceptualized as objects. Something I can “possess” or, to return to an earlier statement, a sobriety I can “have” and “not have.”
12-step programs preach letting go of old habits, old ideas. Again, a nice sentiment, but I
wonder, if we don’t examine the metaphorical underpinnings of our ideas, our views, our conceptualizations, how can we really let them go? They continue, just like anything unconscious, to rattle around and maintain their grasp on us.
Moreover, in emphasizing living “in” the present, 12-step programs, I believe, reify the metaphor and may, have an unintended effect. Now I will admit that I was once one of those who sought to live in the present, in the magical Now! as much as I could. At least I sought it out. Why? Because I operated within the metaphor of thinking of the “present” as an object.
But is the Now and object? Can I really live one day, one moment at a time? Can I live in it? I’m not so sure and I can’t help but wonder that as long as the present, the Now is an object sought it sort of defeats the purpose.
Think of it. As soon as you say to yourself “now” or read the word, it is already gone! In seeking the Now I put my hook into the water and seek a to catch a fish that isn’t even there.
In seeking to live in the present, we impale ourselves on the very same hook!
I hear in meetings the idea of not living in the past and not living in the future. As if thinking about the past and thinking in the future mean living in it. While we think of the past or the future, we are always already living in the present.
As far as I see it, as long as we seek or want to live in the present, we will always miss it even as we experience it.
As the Gospel of Thomas states:
His students came to him and asked, “When will the Kingdom come?”
Jesus said, “It will not come because you are watching for it. No one will announce ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth and people do not see it.'”
The “present,” the “Now” is not something to be possessed, not something to be found, not something to be lived “in.”
It is not real.
The Now is nothing.
To seek the present is to be bound to it, at least the idea of it. There is the sense, at least as far as I understand it, that to live in the present is to be free.
Ah, the irony!
For as much as I seek the present, the Now, and as much as I try to live there, I am not free.
To return to this post’s initial prompt, as far as I understand to and relate to sobriety and, as such, to time, I have come to find the notions of the journey, progress, and living in the present to be concepts that limit my experience of sobriety.
In letting go of all my old ideas, I have let go of the journey, of progress, and my search for some “eternal,” but eternally fleeting, “present.”
Maybe life’s not a journey, maybe there’s no ultimate destination toward which to progress.
Maybe it’s a series of wanderings, experiences for the sake of experiences.
Life for the sake of itself.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
—Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.