The Wisdom in Just for Today

By Steve K.

The ‘Just for Today’ card published by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and regularly reflected upon by many of its members is a set of positive daily affirmations that instil healthy behaviour, attitudes, and values within the reader.

I’ve intermittently used the card throughout my recovery to ground myself and to set some positive intentions for the day. I recently researched the origins of the card and discovered that the most likely author was journalist Dr Frank Crane, who suggested a set of very similar affirmations in his newspaper column “Dr Crane Says..” for the Boston Globe in 1921. Here are his original Just for Today affirmations..

Just for Today: I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle my whole life-problem at once. I can do some things for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt I had to keep them up for a lifetime.

Just for Today: I will be Happy. This assumes that what Abraham Lincoln said is true, that “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Happiness is from Within; it is not a matter of Externals.

Just for Today: I will Adjust myself to what Is, and not try to Adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come, and fit myself to them.

Just for Today: I will take care of my Body. I will exercise it, care for it, and nourish it, and not abuse it nor neglect it; so that it will be a perfect machine for my will.

Just for Today: I will try to strengthen my mind, I will study. I will learn something useful, I will not be a mental loafer all day. I will read something that requires effort, though and concentration.

Just for Today: I will exercise my Soul. In three ways, to wit:

1. I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out. If anybody knows of it, it will not count.

2. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do, as William James suggests just for exercise.

3. I will not show any one that my feelings are hurt. They may be hurt, but Today I will not show it.

Just for To-day: I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress as becomingly as possible, talk low, act courteously, be liberal with flattery, criticize not one bit nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate nor improve anybody.

Just for Today: I will have a Program. I will write down just what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I’ll have it. It will save me from the two pests Hurry and Indecision.

Just for Today: I will have a quiet half hour, all by myself, and relax. During this half hour, some time, I will think of God, so as to get a little more perspective to my life.

Just for Today: I will be Unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to be Happy, to enjoy what is Beautiful, to love and to believe that those I love, love me.

As you can see the text is very similar to the current version published by AA. There are other attributed authors of the Just for Today card affirmations, but these are unlikely to be in fact true. Dale Carnegie in his book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” mistakenly attributes the Just for Today original essay to Sibyl F. Partridge, a Catholic nun (1856 – 1917), but researchers have refuted this attribution.

The first affirmation within the Just for Today card is probably the most helpful one as far as I’m concerned. Early on in my recovery from addiction it got me through some difficult days in relation to resisting the urge to drink alcohol or use other substances to escape my feelings and reality. Later in my recovery, now free of the mental obsession to drink and use other drugs, I find it just as helpful for dealing with anything I’m finding hard in life and in helping me to keep things in the present. My anxious mind is always attempting to live in the future and predict the worst-case scenario and the suggestion of living Just for Today is an effective antidote to this neurotic tendency.

The principle of Just for Today is similar to the practice of mindfulness or bringing one’s focus into the present moment. The Eastern spiritual traditions, and more recently Western psychology, use mindfulness to develop self-awareness and to promote physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Modern research studies have identified positive health and relationship benefits in relation to mindfulness and it’s increasingly being integrated into various therapies and other health initiatives.    

The second affirmation within the Just for Today card suggests that we can choose to be happy through developing the right attitude. I’m not always so sure about this, for example, loss, grief, serious physical illness and suffering cause natural sadness and unhappiness, which we shouldn’t try and deny in my view. However, in general, I do think that we can make efforts to think positively, to practice being grateful, and to focus upon things and activities that make us feel better. I’ve recently been reading a book called ‘Science and Spiritual Practices’ by Rupert Sheldrake that references the scientific research into the relationship between an attitude of gratitude and happiness. Grateful people do tend to be happier.. science resolutely says so.

The principle behind the second affirmation within the Just for Today card is the same as modern Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) which is a type of CBT. REBT theory suggests that our thoughts affect our feelings and behaviour. The same principle can be found going back to the ancient Greeks and their Stoic philosophy.. “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” Epictetus

For me, the third affirmation within the Just for Today card encourages acceptance of ‘life on life’s terms.’ The principle of acceptance can be traced back ‘thousands of years in both Eastern and Western culture.’ Paradoxically, ‘the acceptance of oneself, other people, circumstances, and the world at large can be a force for personal change.’ (1) When we stop resisting and attempting to control life and let life happen it often evolves in a beneficial way, although not necessarily in the way we desire. This is a core teaching of Taoist philosophy (go with the flow) and a key principle within the Person-Centred, humanistic approach to psychotherapy, which attempts to facilitate self-actualisation within clients through a non-directive relationship. The therapist meets the client ‘where they are’ and doesn’t try and impose judgement or analysis upon the client.

Acceptance isn’t having to like a situation and doesn’t mean we can’t respond to circumstances or make efforts to achieve things in life. It means we accept ‘what is’ and what has already happened and by doing so we aren’t fighting reality and things that are immutable. In modern parlance, ‘it is what it is’ whether we like it or not and the sooner we accept reality the more at peace we’ll feel. Acceptance of life on life’s terms is an important aspect of the emotional sobriety many of us seek in recovery.

When contemplating the Just for Today card over the years the innate wisdom within its passages has helped me to nurture my mind, body, and soul. The fourth affirmation in Crane’s original text specifically promotes taking care of one’s body, as well as the mind and soul as is also suggested in the current AA version. Even though taking care of the body is not directly suggested in AA’s current text, I’ve always interpreted AA’s version holistically to include self-discipline in relation to my physical health and wellbeing.

The affirmation promoting spiritual self-discipline (number 6 in Crane’s text and number 5 in AA’s) instils an attitude of unselfishness and encourages a renunciation of the ego by not seeking praise when helping others. Helping others without expectation of or desire for reward is a difficult task for my ego, which wants to be acknowledged for its altruism – which isn’t really altruism is it! However, it is something I can try to practice and work towards each day.

The affirmation goes on to suggest not expressing hurt feelings, which no pun intended, I have mixed feelings about. In my case, I have a history of expressing anger in an unhelpful way towards others which has often been damaging to my social relationships. This affirmation has encouraged me to think about how and when I express my feelings and to do so in a healthy and more timely manner. Good judgement and emotional self-regulation often need to be developed for many in recovery from addiction, but we must also be careful not to be too literal with this particular suggestion of spiritual and emotional self-discipline, as it can lead to the unhealthy defense mechanism referred to as spiritual bypass.

The seventh affirmation in Crane’s version of the Just for Today card encourages the practice of good social skills. The passage reminds me of Dale Carnegie’s book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, which is a famous piece of literature published in 1936 about the human ego and how best to win the favour of others. Crane’s affirmation reflects the social values and virtues of the time it was written but still holds true today in my opinion.

The next affirmation suggests having a plan for each day to avoid hurry and indecision. Those who’ve suffered addiction often have a chaotic and unmanageable past and developing a more ordered life can be an important goal for many in recovery. Crane’s version is more specific in detail than AA’s text and encourages a daily version of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART) goals. While I support making productive plans and goal setting in general, I would warn readers not to be too rigid in planning your day as it can lead to inflexibility and a lack of spontaneity, compounding any existing anxiety-based behavioural traits. For this reason, I prefer AA’s more liberal suggestion in relation to having a plan for each day.

The ninth affirmation (number eight in AA’s Just for Today card) encourages spending some time in silence each day. This has become increasingly important in the 21st century with the explosion of the internet, smart phones, tablets computers, and other modern tech devices. Noise and distraction is everywhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it is not good for our wellbeing and stress levels. Spending some time in silence regularly is good for our physiology, it lowers blood pressure, stress hormones and boosts the immune system.

Silence is also good for us psychologically as it calms the mind and ‘expands are sensory and spiritual awareness.’ (2) Crane’s version of Just for Today suggests reflecting about God, and for those who are religiously or spiritually minded this resonates well with AA’s Step 11 suggestion of seeking conscious contact with a spiritual or higher power. AA’s current Just for Today card only suggests being quite and trying to gain a better perspective on one’s place in life. This can be thought of in a purely secular sense for those of an agnostic or atheist persuasion and can be a period of quiet mindfulness, the benefits of which I’ve outlined already.

The final affirmation suggests being unafraid and to focus upon the beauty in life. Crane’s version also suggests being unafraid to love and to believe that love is returned. AA’s Just for Today card makes a similar suggestion – to believe that what you give out to the world, you will receive in kind.

I interpret this last affirmation as a suggestion to trust in the beauty of the world and in people, and to practice faith in myself and in life. Unfortunately, traumatic life experiences can cause a tendency to focus upon the ugliness in the world and not to trust in myself, others, life, or any conception of a power greater than myself. A negative self-fulfilling prophecy for sure. Therefore, this last affirmation is a necessary and worthwhile practice for me to adopt as it promotes a positive view of life and encourages me to give love to others and the world in general. Trusting in myself, others, in life, and that I’m part of a wonderful, mysterious, interconnected, and loving greater whole is a beneficial and life enhancing philosophy that I can choose to follow.

References

  1. ‘Acceptance: An Historical and Conceptual Review’, by John Williams and Steven Jay Lynn.
  2. Science and Spiritual Practices’, by Rupert Sheldrake.

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