In 12-step programs, Step 3 is seen as crucial by many–“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”  Many new to these programs may be experiencing difficulties with the word or concept of “God,” so substitutions abound:  Higher Power, the Universe, the group itself, Nature.  When I first sat in 12-step rooms, I was angry with my inherited ideas of God because representatives had acted in ways I found immoral and reprehensible.  A wise veteran in the program suggested that I insert the name of my favorite author, so I directed my insouciant prayers to Virginia Woolf–and it worked.  Recently, a woman who’s been in a group we share for 30-some years spoke on the step for that day’s meeting.  It was Step 3 and she focused on just what “will” involved for her at this stage in her life.  After sharing some standard definitions, e.g., “the power of making a reasoned choice” and “the particular desire, purpose, pleasure, choice of a certain person,” she began musing more personally.  Pointing out that “willful” and “willing” must share the same etymological root, this woman spoke movingly about her own journey from trying to “fix” her relationships by being willful to inhabiting a space where openness prevailed.

In the time since I listened to this wise person’s thoughts, I’ve come to some telling realizations of my own about these two words.  Growing up around a mother who loved me and who needed a lot of attention from me, I became quite willful in that I felt it necessary to grit my teeth and form emotional (and sometimes literal) fists so I could stand my ground and assert my young will just to remind myself that I existed as an entity separate from hers.  When she “punished” me by making me sit in a closed room without books or crayons, I willed myself into a positive place where I made up fascinating stories in which I starred as hero/villain/helpless victim.  In one such episode, my mother stood on the other side of the door that shut me out of life and said “All right, Honey, you can come out now.”  My little willful self stayed in the room for additional minutes, telling myself I was not finished with MY story.  In later life, as I bungled my way through one relationship after the next, the common denominator was my militantly willful belief that I knew just what the other person should do to be successful/healthy/happy/loving, only to find myself repeatedly coping with that other person’s gradual but sure retreat from me and our shared life.

Finally, I relented just a little and walked into an Al-Anon meeting where a bunch of other women of all sorts sat for an hour listening to each other’s stories of trying to give up “fixing” other people (being “willful,” surely).  Instead they spoke about a slow and painful coming to understand that such behavior not only cost them friends and intimacy but finally exhausted them emotionally and physically.  I remember one story in particular:  a group member told us that a new friend had asked her how she was.  She had responded by saying “Well, Harry is drinking again but I’m trying to show him what to do to stop.”  That person’s willfulness ended up erasing her from the equation except as the person trying to run another person’s life.  Gradually, as I listened to those much further along a recovery path than I was share what it might mean to approach life with open hands rather than clenched fists, I began to ease up just a fraction and, significantly, to ask who was in myself rather than in relation to some other human being.  The program was asking me to put myself first, not as an act of selfishness but in order to know where I start and stop and someone else begins.  The process of doing this seems to me now the process of moving from “willful” to “willing” because meeting life with open hands and heart means I relinquish control over method and outcome.  I even get to live in the moment more often and that’s amazingly fresh ground to occupy.

People who know me grasp early own that I have set ways of doing things in my home:  shoes off at the door; no water used in the beautiful cobalt blue kitchen apron sink because water drops might spot the dark blue surface; Patches, my beloved kitty, eats her dinner at 5:10 p.m. even if going on or off daylight savings time seems unreal to her stomach.  Well, I’m clearly becoming much more “willing” these days because at my recent gathering of women friends to mark the Winter Solstice, I made a sign that I taped to the front door.  It read in part “NO NEED TO REMOVE SHOES.”  I told myself I was saying that because we were experiencing a dry and unseasonably warm string of days, so shoes would not “track” unwanted debris into my house.  The first people who arrived were a couple I’ve known for forty years.  They stood at the threshold open-mouthed and said “We don’t know how to act!”  Though we all laughed, and though several other attendees remarked about being thrown completely off kilter by the sign, I understand that being “willing” rather than “willful” means being flexible.  It’s new territory but I find it like it and am thinking of other little “signs” I can make to myself about relaxing some rule that may not even be functional any longer, whatever its original purpose might have been.  As I recently abandoned a long-standing policy around recording facts when filling my gas tank, I couldn’t even remember why I had agreed many years ago to start keeping such a detailed record of this mundane process.  As I tossed the little booklet full of such minutiae into recycle, I smiled.  “Willing” seems to carry unexpected benefits to me, let alone what it may bring to those who choose to relate to me.