In Praise of Muddling Through

Posted: August 22, 2011 in Uncategorized
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For about the past eight months, I have been reading a few pages of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers before bed.  It’s a longish novel, and if you manage only a few pages, four-to-five nights a week, it really will take that long to read.  But it’s a romp.  The characters are round but almost entirely without any real interiority.  The plot is ALL, really, ALL.  Fast and ridiculous.  Modest in the bodice-ripping department, as befits  mid-nineteenth century novel, but there are plenty of unripped (and partially ripped) bodices and swordfights and implausible intrigues to go around.  It’s a historical fiction, set by Dumas in the 17th century, and thus there are often playful swipes and slanders against historical characters which, by the nature of things, Dumas could hardly do for his own time in the jittery decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Dumas cut his chops on the stage, and that might account for the staginess of scenes, the emphasis on dialogue over interior monologue, and the grand, sartorial style of his dramatis personae, all of whom seem to be more costume than character.  It’s fun, and you can tell Dumas had fun writing it.  Reading it is something like watching a very excellent maker of sand castles play on an empty beach with all the buckets he can find.  The novel wasn’t built for the ages and it seems something of an accident that it lasted this long.  Perhaps on his deathbed, even Dumas knew he’d pulled a fast one over the public, who thought him a genius.  Or maybe he finally believed his hype.  James Cameron will feel like that, no doubt.

About a quarter of the way through the novel, the reader realizes the farce.  Nothing genuinely bad can happen to D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  They’re covered in Teflon.  Even when they are injured, it never seems for long or very seriously.  If there is a plot for D’Artagnan to be poisoned, a character whom we just met and don’t really know will have sucked down the offending liquor before the hero can taste it.  If they need money–and frequently they do–it arrives somehow, in the nick of time, before anyone gets really hungry or needs a horse.

But they’re bumblers, and it’s funny to watch them bumble along, like Charlie Chaplin who comes out smelling of flowers while everyone else is up to his eyes in muck.  Their enemies don’t realize this, and that’s the fun.  They are not perfectionists, but optimists.  Nothing can harm them, so why bother with armor?  The novel is what Carlyle called “a superlative lollypop.”

We dismiss these books as fantasies and fluff or we would if it weren’t old and French and prettily written.  As moral fibers go, it’s pretty threadbare, and doesn’t have the kind of tough, unflinching durability of Dickens or Dostoevsky.  Bumblers who muddle through are not heroes; they are  papier mache.  Real heroes are transformed or are transforming.  They are nearly eclipsed by the genuine tragedy around them but come through, certainly not unscathed.  They get down at the crossroads and confess sins.  They forgive the unforgivable.  They do not rattle a sword about, fool a Catholic Cardinal, and run off with a young bit of stuff. Nor do we laugh at them.  Above all.

To bring this ’round, at last, to recovery:  what is wrong with bumbling and muddling through?  Are they not “real” or not “heroic”?  To model oneself on D’Artagnan is to assume that life–while it doesn’t precisely owe me–will cough up the goods reasonably enough if I show plenty of pluck.   Not realistic.  So, dumb, and therefore not heroic.

We have the phrase, “Act as if,” in recovery; we say, “fake it ’til you make it.”  Well, it’s not really D’Artagnan’s fault that the world he lives in just happens to be one in which he can’t fail.  He does, as it were, take “life on life’s terms”–it’s just that the terms are always in his favor.

Bumbling along, muddling through is, for me,  not nearly the pretty sight that it is for the Musketeers, but does that mean that it does not work?  I see so many people in recovery putting pressure on themselves–the pressure to be heroic.  A woman I know recently remarked that she’d been having a tough time with her sobriety.  At eight months, she has found herself struggling again–crying frequently, feeling lonely and despairing.  She has been going to lots of meetings during this period, being of service, reaching out.  Yet, she said (and I quote) “I’m failing at this.”  Where does this come from?  Does it come from the expectation that the world should be like that of The Musketeers, who never meet a genuine obstacle?  Or does it come from the self-imposed belief that we should always “rise above” our reality–that survival alone is not enough and must be accompanied by the beattitudes of grace and perfect serenity.  My acquaintance says that if she is not happy, joyous, and free, she is “failing.”

To me, she is anything but a failure.  She’s doing everything right.  It’s… heroic.  My hardest days are my best, because I am working my program hardest.

By contrast, I’ve been muddling through lately.  Not been as engaged in my recovery as I might be–not doing my meetings as much as I should, not reading, not meditating, not blogging (sorry, One Fan of Blog), but… you know… NOT DRINKING either.  I suppose I choose to think this is okay.  Everything will work out.   I genuinely believe that.  I trust my recovery to be there and trust myself to pick it up again.  Is this out of place?  Silly?  Deluded?

It’s not heroic–that’s definite–and it’s not realistic, maybe–not according to some.  There is no guarantee that things will work out, so operating on the assumption doesn’t seem very politic.  But there it is:  I believe in the unrealistic, nonheroic act of muddling through.  It just sounds better in historical novels.  With velvet uniforms.  And swords.  And in French.

  1. Susan S says:

    Nicely put. THanks for your thoughts!

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