The Paradox of Intention

In recovery, there are those who have achieved the promise of “happy, joyous and free”; there are those who remain stuck and miserable; and there are those who vacillate between the two extremes. For years, I found myself in that last category. There were the good days… many of them. But too often I fell into the trap of “I will be happy when…”.

Whether it is a better job, financial freedom, a new relationship, a slimmer waistline or myriad other goals, too many of us short change the present by making happiness contingent on some future outcome. For those of us predisposed to think this way, understanding the paradox of intention is a prerequisite to living life to its fullest. Simply stated, the paradox is thus:

“You must have goals. Your subconscious is a goal-striving mechanism. But your happiness cannot be tied to those goals. You must be happy BEFORE you attain them.”

Now of course this doesn’t pertain to every goal. I may, for example, determine that I will put down the Ben & Jerry’s and jog five miles a day. In a state of New York Super Fudge Chunk freedom, I may rise at 5 a.m. every morning and slog it out. I may not be happy, but I can grit my way through it.

But then there are the goals that really matter, goals that align us with our purpose, or God’s will if that is your cup of herbal tea. We know that we have found purposeful goals and the correct path to pursue them if we find our joy in the pursuit, not just the attainment. How we pursue matters just as much as what we pursue.

Think of the paradox as a litmus test rather than a mandate. I am not saying you must force yourself into a state of happiness before you attain goals. Rather–based on false starts, failures and, eventual successes—I have found that I know I am on the correct path when the pursuit of a goal is its own rewards. I call it “finding my flow.”

I noted this for the first time in my quest for sobriety. For 14 years I tried to put the bottle down unsuccessfully. If I could just stay sober for a year I would be happy. I set and reset that goal multiple times.

Unfortunately, for those 14 years I figured I was the smartest person I knew and I was going figure this whole sobriety thing out on my own. I tried self-help books, religion, psychology and psychiatry. I took every medication claiming to curb cravings. I tried mass doses of will power.

There were dry periods… times I didn’t drink or drug. But they failed to deliver the relief I sought. I was caught in an endless U2 loop of “I still haven’t found what I am looking for.” Relapse inevitably followed.

Fortunately, as I have described in this blog, a series of events led to a full adoption, a total immersion, in 12-step recovery. I am not talking meetings alone. I had tried that. Despite the cliché, meeting makers don’t always make it. I proved that repeatedly.

But when I went full in—meetings, sponsor, step work, trust in a higher power, selflessness, and service—the miracle happened long before obtaining that one year chip I so coveted. I enjoyed the journey, the process, the new design for living. I was aligned with what was right for me.

But as I graduated from the aluminum chips to the brass ones marking years, not months, I stagnated. I had a good life, but there was a sense of incompleteness. My subconscious is a goal-striving mechanism after all. New goals were needed.

Unfortunately, with a few years under my belt my ego wasn’t inclined to ask for help. I feel back into the pit of doing it my way. For me, that has always been a losing approach. You see my best thinking is the same thinking that kept me down for so many years. Rather than setting goals that aligned with my purpose, or rather failing to figure out how I should pursue those goals, I started to daydream about the “if only’s.” If only I could win the lottery and go back to school. If only I had the money needed to pursue what I am passionate about. If only, if only, if only… That is broken thinking. That is the kind of thinking that robs life of the rich blessing of living in the now.

Fortunately, I kept going to meetings and working on my recovery. Eventually I got humble enough to resume listening to something better than my own advice.

At pizza after a meeting I met a woman who had returned to school after getting sober. She went on to obtain her PhD despite having a full-time job. A seed was planted. It took a few months to germinate—and regular cultivation through doing what sober (not just dry) people do—but finally I go out of the day dreaming rut and into action.

Pursuing my passion necessitated that I started doing stuff instead of waiting on magic stuff to happen. The day dreaming had to end. Putting conditions on my higher power (you do XYZ and then I will get off my butt) had to end. The fear of success had to end. (Yes, I said “success.” It’s a thing. I will blog on it next week.)

Getting into action—school, writing and service commitments involving those with co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders—was the key. The goal of a PhD and a new career is still down the road. I am just now wrapping up the pre-requisite Master’s degree.

But the journey, oh how I am loving the journey. Despite the late nights and homework-filled weekends, pursuing a goal that aligns with purpose is its own reward. May you find your own path. May you find goals that resonate. That is my hope and my prayer…

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