Live & Let Live: A battle-tested slogan in the fight for recovery
By Jeff Vircoe
As Canadians pause this week to remember the battle of Vimy Ridge and its impact on a wide-eyed, impressionable nation 100 years ago, it may surprise some in recovery, from their own battles with the bottle, to learn that one of the most sage bits of advice offered to them has a close connection to the war “over there.”
One of the most enduring slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous is Live and Let Live. Found in the organization’s basic text book, the title from which the name of the fellowship originated, Live and Let Live is one of the big three slogans, sandwiched between First Things First and Easy Does It in the chapter The Family Afterward in all four editions of the Big Book.
Its meaning is not vigorously debated. Most would agree that Live and Let Live fits along the lines of “mind your own business”, “let sleeping dogs lie”, or my personal favourite, “What people think of me is none of my business.”
“We try not to indulge in cynicism over the state of the nations, nor do we carry the world’s troubles on our shoulders,” wrote A.A. co-founder and Big Book author, Bill Wilson, in the chapter in which Live and Let Live appears.
Practical. Sage. Innocuous advice, perhaps.
In early April 2017, as we solemnly watch rickety black and white images of young men racing up steep trench walls and out into Vimy’s no man’s land pockmarked with millions of shell craters, the juxtaposition of the peaceful concepts behind Live and Let Live and any military connection may seem polar opposites, yet the battlefields are precisely where the term originated.
In a series of unofficial, but widespread, ceasefires on the Western Front around Christmas 1914, French, German and British soldiers laid down their weapons, crossed the trenches and created a sense of fellowship with one another. There were reports of joint burial ceremonies and exchanges of food and souvenirs. Harmless soccer games broke out. These spontaneous mini-truces broke up the horror and monotony of steady shelling and sniping, attacks and counter attacks. The truces meant, literally, that the soldiers would stay alive – Live, and would allow the other side to stay alive, as well – Let Live.
The New York Times and Britain’s Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch newspapers published reports of the examples of good faith exhibited by those warriors, but as senior commanders on both sides learned of the fraternization on the front lines, orders were given to knock it off. Some units defied the no fraternization order over the next year, especially around seasonal holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving, but by 1916, with gas attacks and casualties continuing to climb into the hundreds of thousands, the war bogged down, resentments hardened and Live and Let Live was put on hold as far as the battlefields went.
In his book, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System, British author Tony Ashworth went through diaries, letters and veterans’ testimonies and came to the conclusion that the term and concept of Live and Let Live was widely known by that generation.
These days, when you think about sayings like, “Pick your battles” or “I’m not willing to die on this hill”, you can see the potential military correlation. Not necessarily so with “Live and Let Live.”
It may be important to remember that, in 1939, the Big Book was introduced to a world only 20 years removed from the supposed War to End All Wars, or The Great War, as World War One was known by that generation. Much of the lexicon of the day still held a military connection. In fact, many in the 12 Step movement were veterans of WW1.
Bill Wilson was part of the Vermont National Guard, having had his first drink after being commissioned as an artillery officer.
“I found the elixir of life,” he wrote in Pass It On. “Even that first evening I got thoroughly drunk, and within the next time or two I passed out completely. But as everyone drank hard, not too much was made of that.”
Neuro-Psychiatrist Dr. William Silkworth, the physician in charge of Towns Hospital in New York City where Wilson detoxed, served in the U.S. Army from 1917-1919. Rowland Hazard, who brought Ebby Thatcher to the Oxford Group before Ebby introduced Wilson to that organization from which A.A. evolved, had been a Captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Corps. And Jim B., an agnostic A.A. pioneer who is credited with establishing the Third Tradition, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and the terms, “God As We Understand Him” and “Power Greater Than Ourselves” rather than religious terminology, was a first class private in the U.S. Army in the First World War. His story, The Vicious Cycle, was published in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions of the Big Book.
With all these veterans having input into the Big Book as Wilson cobbled it together through most of 1938, it is no small wonder that Live and Let Live, a military term urging alcoholics to put their own psychological weapons of mass destruction down, came to pass.
Photo: An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”
Live & Let Live: It makes good therapeutic, scientific sense
By Jeff Vircoe
When, as children, we are told not to put our hand on the hot stove, it’s kind of a no-brainer. Yeah, I think I can figure that out, mom.
And when we come to the rooms of recovery, beat up, lost, and feeling like old little kids in an adult world, the term Live and Live can have a similar connotation.
Intuitively it makes sense… but how the heck does one do that?
Live and Let Live is one of the big three slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous, in that it is one of the trio of helpful suggestions written at the bottom of page 135 in the 12 Step movement’s basic text, the Big Book, alongside First Things First and Easy Does It. Sage advice for anyone, not just for people with addiction—Live and Let Live has plenty of therapeutic value. In the treatment world, where people suffering from addiction are clamoring for a way out of their pain, the slogan speaks to modalities employed by counselors.
“For me, therapeutically, Live and Let Live is being in the moment. Being right now,” says Ryan Tompkins, 50, an addictions counselor at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, B.C. “If I’m working with patients who are living in the past, or they’re living in the future, that’s all they’re focused on. They can’t live in the now. So they can’t process what they need to do now, to just live and let live and move on.”
For the past three and a half years, the retired naval chief petty officer has been helping Edgewood patients learn to deal with their clear and present danger—addiction.
“Addicts get so caught up in the past or the future. Addiction lives in the past or the future. If we help the patients live in the now, in this moment, addiction can’t live here, with their people, with their peers, with what’s happening to them in that moment, whether they’re breathing – or not breathing half the time,” he says with a smile.
Tompkins says a lot of the work he does with patients is utilizing various grounding techniques.
“Breathing in the moment. Living. Right in this moment. Focus on, ‘How am I living in this moment? What’s happening in me? What’s happening to me right now?’ These [are] reflective questions that I get patients to ask themselves. How do we help you be in the room with us right now and not be caught in the past? So, the breathing, the grounding, we do a lot of schematic stuff, ‘What’s happening in your body right now?’, so they can begin to recognize this is what I’m feeling like in this moment right now, process it, and then they get to move on to the next minute. Versus living in their past and holding onto a resentment, or moving towards the future and how they’re going to figure everything out. So, that mindfulness piece of being in this moment right now. The here and now.”
Psychologists and scientists seem to agree with the philosophy of Live and Let Live. The practices of Mindfulness – defined as the psychology of bringing a person’s attention to external and internal experiences happening in the present moment, embody the concepts proposed in the slogan. It’s not just a good idea. The scientists have proven it works.
Pointing to a series of neuroimaging studies exploring the neural mechanisms underlying mindfulness meditation practices, scientists are finding that “experienced meditators exhibit a different gray matter morphometry in multiple brain regions when compared with non-meditating individuals,” according to six different studies done between 2005-2010.
In other words, “We can train our brains to automatically reconnect to what matters, break free from the limiting stories in our minds, incline our minds toward the good in life and even learn how to relate to our difficult feelings differently to realize an emotional freedom from the confines of our habitual thoughts and reactions,” says Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, in a Huffington Post blog in 2013.
Though the contemporary version of Live and Let Live may have originated on the battlefields of World War One, when opposing armies were recorded standing down and interacting in a non-violent way at Christmas and other important holidays, the truth is, since ancient times, getting grounded, choosing acceptance and seeking coherence with the world – right now – has always made sense. Early Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism used meditation as far back as 4,000 years ago. The practice remains a critical component of their beliefs. In today’s fast paced world, the versatility of mindfulness practices means virtually anyone can find a form of the practice to fit their schedule, and the benefits are undeniable, whether you have an addiction or not.
“That therapeutic bond that happens in the here and now? Addiction can’t live there. Addiction can live in the past or the future,” says Tomkins.
Indeed, with many individuals with addictions refer to themselves as control freaks. Acceptance, a radical departure for most people struggling with addiction, is a big part of finding the peace to calm down a busy brain.
Marsha M. Linehan, an American psychologist credited with creating dialectical behavior therapy, once put it this way:
“Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.”
She’s also quoted saying acceptance is the only way out of hell, a place with which too many people with addiction can identify.
Live and Let Live as a concept doesn’t appear in A.A. literature in the Big Book only. One of the books patients study at Edgewood is called Living Sober, an 88 page book detailing some of the methods A.A. members have used to not drink. This handy resource dedicates an entire chapter to the slogan, two and a half pages of wise advice to ponder.
“To begin to put the concept of Live and Let Live into practice, we must face this fact: There are people in A.A., and everywhere else, who sometimes say things we disagree with, or do things we don’t like. Learning how to live with differences is essential to our comfort. It is exactly in those cases that we have found it extremely helpful to say to ourselves, “Oh, well, ‘Live and Let Live.’”
“In fact, in A.A. much emphasis is placed on learning how to tolerate other people’s behavior. However offensive or distasteful it may seem to us, it is certainly not worth drinking about. Our own recovery is too important. Alcoholism can and does kill, we recall.”
In other words, how important is this resentment we are building up rather than accepting them for who they are.
Nicole Makin is a clinical counselor at the Edgewood Health Network’s clinic in Victoria, B.C. With over a decade of helping people who suffer from addictions and other mental health issues find peace, she says Live and Let Live is an important bit of advice to get our heads around.
“It’s complicated. I think of addiction as isolation and the opposite of that is connection. So when we are living in an interconnected way, we have to have a balance of allowing others to make their choices, and also having boundaries around what we are willing to experience,” she says.
“For me, Live and Let Live would come into play if I was struggling with someone else’s behavior. It’s a reminder that I have a responsibility to set healthy boundaries for myself and allow others to have their own choices,” she says.
In closing, whether you have an addiction or not, Live and Let Live is a bite-sized jingle packing a powerful psychological and scientifically-backed punch. As one anonymous writer put it in the book Stress Less: The Essential Guide to Reducing Stress With Meditation and Mindfulness, it’s just something we need to think about.
“When we are stressed, it effectively makes us less intelligent. This is due to the reduction in prefrontal activity, which in turn is designed to make us more focused and alert. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for forward planning, creative thinking and other ‘high-order’ brain activity.
“When you are being chased by a lion, though, it is really not the time to be thinking about the meaning of life! So, shutting down this part of the brain and placing your focus on feedback from your senses makes much more sense.”
How recovering addicts use ‘Live and Let Live’ to quieten their minds
By Jeff Vircoe
It’s one thing to sit in a circle or around a table and talk the talk. It’s another thing to practice it when the meeting is over.
Live and Let Live is one of those slogans which requires any alcoholic or addict to pause. What does it really mean in my case? How do I not live and let live, or as Paul McCartney flippantly wrote, Live and Let Die?
Asking people in recovery about the slogan Live and Let Live, it quickly becomes obvious that control seems to be a major issue for many when they first arrive in the rooms.
“Control was a huge issue for me, always being overly concerned with what everybody else was doing and living their lives – particularly my siblings,” says Lindsay, a 35 year-old woman who recently celebrated her 10th year clean.
“I have a brother and a sister in recovery. But, when I was first getting sober and my brother was still in his addiction, I was like, you know, putting the Big Book downstairs, and doing stuff to try and get him to change his life rather than just kind of letting it all happen mechanically, which it did in the end.”
“So, today I use Live and Let Live in remembering that their program and their choices are theirs, and that my choices and my program are mine and I don’t have any control over what they do or don’t do – just like they don’t have any control over my program. “
Another woman who had a strong desire to steer the outcome back in the day is Janina B. At age 43, she’s 19-plus years clean and sober, and has over a decade in the field of addiction treatment. She says the slogan Live and Let Live can be compared to Step One, in terms of being powerless over people.
“So Live and Let Live is: I live, and then I let you live. At least, that’s what it means now to me,” she says.
But, of course, it wasn’t always that simple to figure out, she says.
“Before, I would just obsess about everything. I say the first year I was MOCUS – which is Mind Out of Focus. I was going a million miles a second in every direction and not going anywhere. I fired a sponsor of mine because she called me manipulative. But I was. I just wasn’t ready to hear it. But I was totally manipulative!”
“She told me, ‘I’ll be on your Step Nine!’, and in my head I was, like, ‘No, you won’t!’ But she was right. She totally was right. In that instance, I was manipulating one of my male friends to give me money, when I could have just gone to the bank. So, in that instance the Live and Let Live was I wasn’t letting him live. I was manipulating him so that I could “Live.”
If Live and Let Live can be aligned with Step One, at least one member of the recovery community we talked to sees a comparison to Tradition Three as well.
Warren W. will notch nine years out of the darkness of addiction later this month in Nanaimo. The 48 year-old says the gist of the slogan is acceptance.
“It reminds me of Tradition Three, whereby the only requirement is a desire to stop using. You don’t have to be white, straight, male, Christian, sis-gendered, whatever. It reminds of inclusivity. Tolerance,” he says.
“It’s about accepting that anyone can do this and get this with the support of others with similar goals. So Live and Let Live, to me, equals I want to get this and I want you to get it too, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
One woman in recovery in Al-Anon says practicing Live and Let Live can be a battle for many who come out of the world of addiction.
“It’s a challenge for people with addictions because we lose our sense of self. Whether we have addiction or co-addiction, we lose our sense of self and we don’t develop relationship skills in our isolation,” says Nicole M. “So, in that sense, [I] don’t know how my life ends and somebody else’s begins. Reminding myself that I’m here to live. I have my life to live and other people have their lives to live. That’s what the slogan is all about,” says the 42 year-old.
It takes years of practice to live and let live, Janina concurs.
“I want my partner to behave in a certain way. I want you to call me. I want you to, if you have a plan, I want you to cancel. I also don’t, but there is a part of me that does. So the Live and Let Live is, I can ask for what I want or need, and then let him respond in his way.”
In the end, another woman in recovery says the slogan is about respect.
Andie M., who went through Edgewood in May 2012, says living her life and accepting others is the key to serenity in recovery.
“Basically, I live my life to be the best that I can be, the best that I know how, and respect that others do the same in their own way. ’To each their own,’ as they say,” says Andie, 38.
“In my day to day life, coming across so many different people at work and in the recovery community, I come up against different ideas, points of view, values and beliefs. I may not always agree, but can respectfully disagree. We are each entitled to our own thoughts and opinions, our own way of being. It’s those differences that make life interesting. I live my life to the best of my ability with what I have learned, without fear of judgement, and I hope others can do the same.”