On Devotion

I'm currently teaching the final weeks of my flagship course, The Bigger Yes. This week, we're talking about Devotion, one of my most favorite topics, second only to Faith.

When I consider devotion, I am brought back to a memory of my earliest days of sobriety. Back when I still couldn't string together more than a couple weeks of sober days, when stumbling felt as inevitable as anything else. I had just moved into my new apartment—a place I swore would be the marker of my sobriety. I would not drink in this new place, I promised, like I had promised so many other things. A few days into getting settled, Alma went back to stay with her dad, and the weekend came. It was a Saturday night and I don't even remember the circumstances, but I drank. The next morning, Sunday morning, it was bright and hot outside—a late August day—and I hated myself for clouding it with another stupid hangover. I forced myself to go to the beach, to push through the physical and mental unease, to let myself swim in the cold water and feel the sun on my skin and to try to peel back another layer of compassion, which was getting harder and harder to muster.

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to the ocean-
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.
— Robert Frost

When I got back to my house after the beach, I set my sandy bag on the floor and stood in the kitchen, unsure what to do with myself. The space was so quiet. So bare. Had I ruined it here, too?

I looked down at my feet and was struck by how pretty they were. My toenails were painted an electric, shimmering blue. Light tan lines had formed around my flip-flops and the skin underneath was pale and new. Sand dusted the tops of my toes. I had really beautiful feet—the feet of someone who took care of themselves, who stood in the sand, bathed in the sun, and lived by the sea. I had lovely, elegant feet, even as I felt so wretched. The sight of them made me cry. I cried so hard I fell to the floor.

I laid there for a while, curled up in a C shape, my cheek resting on the cool tile. When I was done, I closed my eyes and made a promise to myself. I said: I will never leave you. Even if you do this again, even if you do it 1,000 times more, even if you never stop doing it, I won't leave you.

Just sit there.
Don’t do a thing.
Just rest.
For this separation
from God, from love,
is the hardest work
in the world.
— Hafiz

I stood up, took a picture of my feet, and carried on with the day.

That was a few months before I got sober for good.

In hindsight, I can see this as the most basic act of devotion. It was simple, pure, and tender. I promised myself a thing I'd never promised before, a thing it had never even occurred to me to promise: that I would stay. I didn't say, I will stay if I behave. Or, I will stay if I only fuck up two more times. I said I will stay no matter what. It was unconditional.

This is what we do when we are devoted. We show up as we are. It is practical and it is profound. We stay the course, we do the best we can in each changing moment, and most importantly, we come back when we lose our way. The real act of love is the return. And this love is the thing that lifts us higher. I had tried to hate myself into acting better for far too long. I had worshipped at the altars of Shame and Guilt and Self-Loathing and Other People's Ideas; those were diminishing, false Gods. Love was the only way up. It was the only thing I really had to learn. It would be hard and beautiful work to do this. It would be necessary.