In 1964, I had a young wife, a few friends, family, and a little house with a garage and a garden. Life was good, and then I lost it all to untreated alcoholism and addictions. I began cutting corners on honesty and integrity, and chased around the world in order to get more — more money, more power, more material things — and by the way, make it snappy! I owned a boat which I sailed all over the Caribbean in the pursuit of those goals. For many years, I ignored spirituality and thought only of more and more “stuff,” until that futile life-style drove me humbly to my knees. In 1985, I ended up in an institution and my life nearly ended in suicide, murdered by self-will.

Not long after that, I found myself sitting in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. God, it seemed, must have led me to A.A. and A.A. led me to God, a God of my understanding who did for me what I could not do for myself. I stopped drinking alcohol and the other things that had made such a mess of my life, and turned instead to a Higher Power of grace, love, and hope who freed me. I was mysteriously liberated from a twenty-five-year bondage to alcoholism and my other addictions. Since nature, it seems, abhors a vacuum, soon after my grinding obsessions had departed they were replaced by serenity, hope and a sincere desire to help others.

Today, I’m living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, well past sixty years of age, and again I have a wife and family. I have children, grandchildren, a great-grandchild, and friends. We live in a cozy little house with a garage and there’s a small garden. It’s springtime in the Fort. God’s living things abundantly surround us, birds singing, flowers blossoming, trees blooming, and I’m riding around our property on a little green John Deere tractor. I feed widows and lend hope to drunks and addicts who are too spiritually sick to have any, and I have discovered that I already had everything I needed to be happy forty-four years ago, but was so foolish I threw it all away. It is God who has given me this second chance at happiness.

When I read Voltaire’s novel Candide, it impacted me in several unexpected ways. The hero of that story searched all over the world, frantically looking for happiness and trying to discover an intellectual answer to the problem of good and evil. At the end of the book, he finally settles on a little farm, and stops worrying about wrestling happiness out of the universe by brute force. And he also stops fretting about trying to find intellectual answers to questions about why this painful thing happened, or why that evil occurred. The only answer we really need to know, he finally realizes, is that “we must cultivate our garden.” We must take our own little plot of land, the little piece of the universe where we live, and tend it with loving care. If we do that, we will discover (perhaps to our surprise) a large amount of real happiness, the kind that actually satisfies.


French garden

And I realized that this was what I was doing now at this point of my life. I was “cultivating my garden,” in my own little house and yard in northern Indiana, and enjoying some genuine happiness.

A sea captain friend recently inquired if ever I would return to a life on the waves. I have yet to sail around the world, which was what I started out to do in 1970, after a bitter divorce and my father’s death that same year. Sometimes I wonder if that distant dream of circumnavigation was but an alcoholic delusion, but at other times it seems like a grand and glorious opportunity missed because of cowardice or lack of gumption. And then I suffer self-doubt for a little while, and wonder if I’m a failure. But then I come back to my senses, and realize that I already have what I spent so many years looking for.

Some of the alcoholics and addicts whom I currently attempt to sponsor regard me as a loser when I first start trying to help them get clean and sober, and build new lives for themselves. These guys scowl at me with contempt, and cannot understand why I just smile back at them. Why do I smile that way? Because they remind me so much of my former self.

There is a carnival game called Whack-A-Mole. It is played on a waist high cabinet with holes in the top, and mechanical figures shaped like moles which pop up out of the holes at random. The player is given a large mallet, and scores every time he can hit one of the mechanical moles on the head before it can withdraw back into its hole again. The game starts up slowly, but then more and more moles pop their heads up for shorter and shorter times, until the player cannot possibly hit them all.


Playing Whack-A-Mole

When the sucker pays his money and is given a mallet, it starts out as what appears to be a simple game. The mole-whacker grins with delight because he has been given the scepter of power over the poor blind moles. But of course, as the game progresses, its speed progresses until the whacker weakens and he can no longer continue to hit all of the moles sticking their heads out of the holes.

The people whom I try to help are bikers, thieves, dealers, and wiseguys. In a biker club, there is a pecking order. The regular members have probationers and wannabe’s under their total power. If they try to pop their heads up, the regular members instantly pound them back down. But the club president and the other leaders have power over the regular members, and so they in turn spend a good deal of their time pounding down the regular members whenever they stick their heads up too far. In this hierarchy, there are even higher levels. There are corrupt politicians, crooked law enforcement officers, and other powerful people standing, mallet in hand, ready to pound the gang leader’s head back down whenever they get the opportunity.

The people who are doing the whacking delude themselves into believing that they have real power over the poor blind moles. But at whatever level, the whackers eventually weaken and can no longer keep up. I’ve witnessed many powerful people who at the end of the game refused to give up their mallet until they were unceremoniously whacked themselves, and the mallet was ripped from their lifeless hands. With their dying breath they were still trying to figure out a way to win. If only they had tried harder to manage everything and everybody around them, they try to convince themselves then they might’ve won. Seasons and years come and go without their ever understanding that neither the mole-whackers nor the moles can win the mole-whacker game! And so they die, never understanding what really happened to them.

In God’s will is our peace. Perfect liberty excludes personal choice, except our choice to surrender our will to a Higher Power and walk towards the light. At any point in the senseless game the moles and the mole-whackers both can surrender to a Power who will do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

What will happen, you might ask, if the players refuse to surrender? The laws of nature and the fruits of their pathetic actions will drive them into a place of dark desperation, with but three outcomes: homicide (murdering someone else), suicide (being killed by our own self-will), or incarceration (being put behind bars for the rest of our lives).

Surrender to win? What a concept! But Voltaire already discovered an important part of that key to happiness two and a half centuries ago. If we want to win at life, we must cultivate our own little gardens. People who jump in and start trying to gain an illusion of power, by playing at life like it was a game of Whack-A-Mole, will always end up as losers at the end.

John Barleycorn

The phantom writer of the column "Here's to Your Health". This writer is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous and therefore must maintain anonymity. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer