Do the Next Right Thing
I learned “do the next right thing” in my first home group Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (a home group is the meeting at which you are a regular member, and it’s an important concept for most alcoholics and addicts in early recovery because we typically have such dismal relationships with commitment and accountability). I don’t remember who I first heard it from. It could have been Edmund, the bright but chronically depressed attorney; or Ann, the dogmatic middle-aged woman with emotional problems who’d been sober for decades; or Tom, the businessman who dropped in occasionally but said wise and wonderful things that resonated with all of us; or my first sponsor, Lynda, beautiful, brilliant, highly educated, and the reason I “kept comin’ back” in those early days.
It doesn’t matter, I suppose (but ahhh, those are some great memories). I heard it, and I grabbed onto it. It’s become a sort of default view that I recently realized has become such an ingrained part of my decision-making process, I barely notice it anymore.
“Do the next right thing” is kind of a catchall phrase. A cliché, even (12 Step groups are bursting with them). But most clichés exist because they express an essential truth. If you want to look deeper into one, you will probably learn something, about yourself, about human nature, or about the world; possibly about all of the above.
Looking more deeply into “do the next right thing” certainly taught me some things about human nature, the world, and myself. Prior to getting sober, well, I’m not going to say I was a horrible person who thought only of myself, because I wasn’t. But I was miserably unhappy and my life was not moving in a positive direction. This was largely because I didn’t know how to be happy, and I didn’t know what a positive direction was. Prior to sobriety, every time I started to do something good for myself, I got so uncomfortable that I always managed to find a way to sabotage it. This included friendships, relationships, therapy, college, career (or lack thereof), and simple self-care, such as diet and exercise. Essentially, I had to learn almost from scratch how to take proper care of myself and what it meant to be a productive, useful human being.
This was a tall order for someone who had a lifetime of self-destructive behavior to overcome. Thus, when I heard “do the next right thing,” it was like a dinner bell ringing out over the countryside, calling me home. I realized, in a sudden, powerful, and visceral way, that I didn’t have to figure it all out at once, I just had to try to do the next thing in front of me to do, whatever it was. At work, it meant doing the best job I could. With friends, it meant trying to be kind and supportive and a good listener. In self-care, there were simple, tangible tasks, like improving my diet, being more active, going to AA meetings regularly, and—this is a big one—forgiving myself when I fall short in any of these.
Somehow, “do the next right thing” broke everything down into manageable chunks. I suppose it brought me into the present moment and kept me there, and this was critical, because if I focused on what was in front of me in the present, I stopped focusing on all the dark possibilities my mind could conjure (and there were a lot!). The darkness didn’t go away, but it did lose a lot of its potency.
Wow, what a powerful tool! I had been living on the edge of the abyss my entire life, and suddenly, I was able to step back from it, and it wasn’t even that difficult. It was so simple, in fact, that there was almost an effortlessness about it. There was also a huge sense of relief. I didn’t have to live on the dark side anymore; brooding became completely optional. But I also didn’t have to be insincerely positive. All I had to do was the next right thing; actually, all I had to do was try.
It was the simplest, yet most complete approach to living I had ever experienced. In that cliché, I found salvation. In daily life, it helped me stay sober and be productive. In quandaries, I would ask, what is the next right thing? I didn’t always figure it out right away, but I discovered that if the next right thing is a main concern, a person is in little danger of making tragic mistakes in either action or judgment. This awareness alleviated my anxiety to a tremendous degree and made just about everything easier and less stressful.
“Do the next right thing” has been an upward spiral of change for me in every way. Over the years, my definition of what the next right thing is has changed (I think almost universally for the better), but the principle has not. It always grounds me in what’s in front of me to do, what I can accomplish, how I can make myself useful. I can’t think of a better philosophy for everyday living, even if it is a cliché.