by Ernie K.
Alcoholics Anonymous is fellowship as well as program, and it is significant that the first word on WAFT, as in the Twelve Steps, is “We.”
No One is an Island
“We”: an acknowledgement of our ties with others. “No one is an island,” we all know. But how well do those who are “using” live that? Alcoholism is a lonely disease. Oh, sometimes especially introverts drank to feel more sociable, to feel that they “fit in” rather than standing uncomfortably on the edges of some social gathering. And then? At least in some cases the event would go on too long and one might get sloppy, or eventually retire home for some real “social drinking” and wake up on the floor or worse.
Friends? Pretty much out of necessity choosing those who drank pretty much the same way. Many good conversations, but rarely remembering what was said. Which was all right – you could have the same conversation the next evening, and the next. But so what? After all, “getting together” was not to talk or to listen but to drink. And God help any who tried to “help!” But “God” usually didn’t – unless in some form not very recognizable. More likely the doc or the judge, or sometimes, for the very fortunate, someone who was still able to love.
But then what? How did the drunk get from there to here, to something called “recovery?” According not only to Alcoholics Anonymous but to many serious students of alcoholism, essential to recovery is some form of “spirituality.” But what of those who have difficulty not so much with the term spirituality as with its so frequent association with various forms of religion? Well, for most, the understanding of that “spirituality” – the spirituality that allowed the drunk to become “an alcoholic” – evolved, changed over time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, spirituality is “that which has a spiritual character” – fair enough, because the same source defines spiritual as “of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities.” That, pretty much anyone can live with. Except, for some, for the baggage of their history, the story of a sad and often twisted experience.
Even before the dawn of Alcoholics Anonymous, many who were troubled by the devastation that some drinkers caused in their own lives as well as those of others thought that some sort of spiritual experience had to happen for an alcoholic to triumph over his (rarely her) drunkenness – only they usually called it a “religious” experience. And especially in the United States, there were just too many religions. Some thoughtful individuals, like the philosopher-psychologist William James, thought such experiences could be generic – not connected with any particular faith but the result of contact with some reality outside of and in some way larger than the self. For most people, that “power greater” or “higher power” is some transcendent being. Others, such as those in the 19th century termed “village atheists” and, more recently, the members of AAAgnostica and WAFT, find that power in some more immanent reality. Most in recent times have fortunately gotten past doorknobs, and find that power in “good orderly direction” or their AA group or the larger reality of Alcoholics Anonymous itself.
Observing all this as a longtime student of American religious/spiritual history, and immersed in it from my own experience with alcoholism and addiction, it seems to me that any/all spirituality can be summed up in two prepositions: beyond and between. Beyond: the first task of any spirituality is to help one escape being wrapped up in self: selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.” The first definition of transcendence in the O.E.D. is “the action of surmounting, or rising above.” Fair enough: if we are going to live as fully human, we must escape, transcend, get beyond the narrow prison of self. The same source defines prison as “a place of captivity.” How accurate a description of alcoholism, of any addiction!
Trust and Confidence
Yet how comfortable that prison could be! One can get accustomed to the privations of addiction. The chemical is a faithful friend. Faithful. We can put our trust in it. The alcoholic knows what alcohol can do for her/him, for those feelings of emptiness or unease. Booze can be trusted. And that is what faith is: trust and confidence. We may not like to admit it, but we are all believers. And that belief is always in some kind of a higher power: the term “getting high” has layers of meaning. Belief is defined as “the mental action or habit of trusting or having confidence in a person or thing” – a pretty good description of how the active alcoholic relates to alcohol.
Transfer of Belief
In recovery we do not give up belief: we transfer it, and in that transfer is the dawn of spirituality. Most find a capitalized Higher Power, one Who transcends all ordinary reality, one customarily referred to as “God.” Others – may I call them “unconventional believers”? – do not make that discovery. Nor, usually, do they settle on some belief in doorknobs. And here is where the second preposition – between – comes in, for some find sufficient power greater than themselves horizontally, in others with whom they connect not in I-Thou or I-It relationships but as I-You, in a relationship of full equality. There are other such communities, but most find in their AA group, or in the larger reality of Alcoholics Anonymous itself, sufficient power to pull them beyond themselves and into some genuinely higher form of being than “getting high.” I am a conventional believer, but I think that I have some grasp of this in that I do find that my Higher Power seems to speak to me most often through others in my group at various meetings.
Others, I know, posit their belief in the grandeur of nature, or the wonders of science, or the magnificence of a universe that so transcends our petty attempts to understand it. How one understands “spirituality” or “recovery” is beside the point. The point is that they are real, and that we live them, and that whatever may happen no one can take them away from us.
A We Program
My admiration for WAFT and AAAgnostica and any other such groupings that may exist of what I prefer to term “unconventional believers” is rooted in this conviction: the future of Alcoholics Anonymous lies with those who do not have an overly rigid understanding of their “Higher Power.” Those who are too sure of themselves, too sure about just about anything, are a plague on serenity. Here as in so many areas concerning our sober lives in the fellowship, the virtue of tolerance suggests that we “live and let live.” The A.A. Big Book suggests, as I recall, that “we have ceased fighting anything or anyone – even alcohol.” It is my hope and even tentative faith that, perhaps inspired by the example of WAFT and AAAgnostica, all members and even camp-followers of Alcoholics Anonymous put this into their daily practice – their daily living of spirituality. For we are a “we” program as well as fellowship.