This may not be a commonly used phrase anymore, but it still gets a lot of airtime in the rooms of recovery. The words may sound old-fashioned or even silly, but they illuminate an attitude about actions that can be very subversive and potentially very destructive. We may not even be aware that we hold this attitude, and it will undermine us all the more if it goes unseen. This odd phrase means well and is meant to save us from avoidable trouble. So let’s take a closer look at what this phrase can help us understand about life and our recovery.
What Does It Mean?
To “rest on our laurels” means to relax and rely on our past achievements or success as justification for not achieving new things or new success. It comes from the ancient Greek and Roman societies, where high-ranking and high-achieving people were awarded crowns made of laurel leaves to mark their accomplishments. Today, this phrase often stands as a warning for a potentially very destructive attitude — one that stops us from moving forward. For example, a teenager with this attitude may say, “Why do I have to take out the trash today? I just took out the trash last week!”
The reality is the trash keeps piling up. Whether we took it out last week or yesterday, new trash is being made. We can’t rest comfortably and ignore reality because we took the trash out last week or the week before. That’s not how it works. More simply put, “yesterday’s home runs don’t count in today’s games.” This is not to denigrate yesterday’s home runs. Not at all! Our achievements and successes should be shared and celebrated, without a doubt. The danger these seemingly silly phrases warn against is celebrating those achievements as reasons why we don’t need to achieve anything today.
What’s the Problem With It?
It is pretty natural in our modern society to daydream about what it will be like to finally “retire.” It’s part of the American dream to work hard enough for long enough that someday we can just take it easy and rest in the sunshine. But to “retire” was once used in language as a synonym for being dead. In nature, there is no retirement — when plants stop growing they die, and when animals stop hunting they die. As people live many of us dream about retirement, letting the present escape as we fantasize about the day when we can just be still. This is the set-up that makes us so susceptible to resting on our laurels.
We prize the actions we take and the work we do as a means to an end. With the subconscious goal of working for retirement, sometimes we unknowingly attempt to retire early. After all, we put in so much hard work yesterday — surely we can retire for a while? It’s a nice thought, but there’s a subtle distinction that can mean a lot of trouble for us. Rest is different from retirement, and “resting on our laurels” is more like retirement than rest. A good night’s sleep typically lasts eight hours. Less is as unhealthy as more in equal degrees. Whether we sleep four hours a night or 12 hours a night, we’re in dangerous territory either way. We can’t spend every day immersed in hard work. We need rest, we need fun, and we need relaxation. But we do also need hard work and focused action. The key is finding the balance between the two. The problem is that balance doesn’t always look the way we think it should.
Some of us want to be working all the time. Some of us want to be resting all the time. In either case, we may be suffering from the desire to “rest on our laurels.” This phrase can warn us against the mindset of pushing hard or achieving things for the sole purpose of future rest, which traps our happiness and rewards in the distant future. We can only ever be happy in the present. This phrase can also warn us against the more common habit of pointing to something we’ve done in the past as the reason why we deserve to rest now. This is a very dangerous way to think. Taking a shower a few days ago doesn’t make us stink any less today.
Resting in Recovery
This was a fun experiment in history, language, and subconscious motivations, but let’s get real. Resting on our laurels in recovery can be straight-up deadly. If we worked the 12-Steps once, we can’t hang our hat on that and never do them again. Our disease would take us down all over again. If we went to a meeting and helped somebody out last week, that doesn’t mean we get a pass on being loving and of service today. Our recovery, just like our precious life, is a vital and active living thing. It needs to be treated as such today and every day.
So often we suffer from subconscious ideas and attitudes that rob us of the beautiful experience of the present moment. Our minds stay trapped in the past or focused on the future, never conscious of where we are now or what we’re doing. Much of life is lost in this way, often without us realizing it. Sometimes we get stuck shuffling between action and rest, behaving as if neither has their place and one is just an impediment to the other. The missing key is balance. We can accept that both work and action have their place and purpose, that each day is a new opportunity to both work and rest, and most importantly, that each day is a new opportunity to live more fully. For those of us who are alcoholics or addicts, we can often not achieve a full and happy life without the 12-Step program of recovery. It is a design for living that really works and helps us live happily, joyfully, and freely. If you have struggled to achieve and maintain recovery, Jaywalker Lodge is exactly the place to start again. We’re here to help. Call us now at (866) 529-9255.
As Chief Executive Officer Bill provides leadership and manage all day-to-day operations of Jaywalker Lodge, an extended care residential addiction treatment program for adult men.