The meaning of a “little willingness” (June 4, 2012)

We Course students love the idea of the little willingness. After all, it is hard to muster up an overpowering will to be loving and forgiving. But if, instead, we need just a little willingness, it suddenly sounds like the task might just be doable.

I was recently reading “The Little Willingness” section (T-18.IV) and I had a new insight about it. What struck me was just how much emphasis there is on the fundamental wrong-headedness of our own attempts to find salvation.

Let’s start by thinking about what the word “willing” means. Merriam-Webster’s first three definitions are as follows:

1: inclined or favorably disposed in mind : ready <willing and eager to help>

2: prompt to act or respond <lending a willing hand>

3: done, borne, or accepted by choice or without reluctance <a willing sacrifice>

All three definitions share an idea that is implied but not stated: giving your assent to something that comes to you. Someone needs help, so you are “willing and eager to help.” A need presents itself to you, so you respond by “lending a willing hand.” There is a cause that cries out for you to serve it, so even if that means your own interests suffer, you make “a willing sacrifice.”

In all three cases, a need, a force, an impetus, comes to you and asks you to respond in harmony with it, in service of it. Because it comes from outside you, you could easily see it as outside your interests, as threatening your wellbeing. But that’s not how you respond. Instead, you willingly give your assent. You join your will to what initially came as an outside will, so to speak.

If salvation is all about having a “little willingness,” then salvation becomes a process of giving our assent to something that comes to us, rather than generating a salvation that comes from us.

Why? The simple answer that I saw in this section is that we are too crazy for salvation to come from our self-generated efforts. One of the most vexing things about insanity is that it always passes itself off as sane. We, therefore, like all insane people, walk around thinking we are sane. And being sane, we naturally assume that our self-generated efforts will lead us inexorably to salvation.

The problem, though, is that our self-generated efforts spring from the soil of an insane mind. In each moment, we have thoughts that translate to “Salvation lies this way, so I’ll go there.” What we don’t realize is that that’s usually our insanity passing itself off as sane.

This is what “The Little Willingness” is all about. It is all about how, when we reach for a holy instant, we unconsciously assume that that means making ourselves good so that we now deserve a holy instant. And this, ironically, amounts to pushing the holy instant away. This game of making ourselves deserving subtly assumes a whole set of anti-holy instant conditions, one of which is trying to play God:

In preparing for the holy instant, do not attempt to make yourself holy to be ready to receive it. That is but to confuse your role with God’s. Atonement cannot come to those who think that they must first atone, but only to those who offer it nothing more than simple willingness to make way for it. (T-18.IV.5:4-6)

Notice that last sentence: Atonement can come “only to those who offer it nothing more than simple willingness to make way for it.” Do you see how that mirrors what I said about the meaning of “willing”? Atonement comes to us and says, “Make way for me.” And our job is to say, “OK, I will.”

This also illuminates that well-known passage from this section: “Trust not your good intentions. They are not enough. But trust implicitly your willingness, whatever else may enter” (T-18.IV.2:1-3). Our good intentions say, “I really want to find salvation, and here’s how I intend to do that.” That is the voice we are supposed to not trust. In contrast, our willingness says, “I can hear salvation knocking at the door. I don’t understand why that presence at the door is salvation. It’s certainly not what I expected. And I definitely feel somewhat threatened by it. But in spite of all this, I will answer that door.” That is the voice to trust. And that is the voice to rely on (which is another meaning of “trust”). That is the voice that will get us home.

The question, then, is which voice are we currently relying on? The voice which says, “I am obviously sane, and my salvation will come from simply following the dictates of my sanity in each moment”? Or the voice which says, “I only have enough sanity to recognize the light when it shines on me and, in that moment, to say yes.”

My conclusion is that I am still listening to that first voice far too much of the time. The second voice is very humbling. And it means constantly telling myself that what I see is not real—that my apparent sanity is really insanity in disguise. Spending all my time in the theater reminding myself “This is just a movie” is a lot harder and more unsettling than just kicking back and enjoying the show. It feels good to think that my sanity will get me out of this mess. On the other hand, there is that great slogan from AA that says, “Your own best thinking got you here.”

I think I need to be guided a lot less by my own best thinking, and do a lot more listening for those knocks at the door.

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