Monthly Archives: June 2014

Who got sober, the chicken or the pig?

If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly. – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 44-45

There is a tendency on the part of the general public to confuse AA with so-called “self-help” programs. Many of us have tried these approaches and, however benevolent they might have been in other respects, they were completely useless in addressing our alcoholism. Most of them are based on the assumption that there exists in all of us some core of goodness that we merely need to uncover to achieve a lifetime of happiness. The fact that whole sections of bookstores are devoted to these programs hints that such programs may not all deliver as promised. Instead, I would prefer to call AA a “self-helpless” program. Here’s why.

After Bill had his spiritual experience in Town’s Hospital, he struggled to understand what had happened to him. Ebby brought him a a book, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. I would urge you to read page 124 of Pass It On to get a fuller understanding of how crucial this was to Bill’s later thinking. Varieties is a difficult book to master and when I read it I found it tough going. But the most important thing that I took away was the difference between the “once born” and “twice born” human natures. There is a good explanation of this at http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/william-james/. I am not endorsing this site, but the explanation of this concept is as good as any I’ve seen. Here is a description of the “twice born” personality.

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes. – Varieties of Religious Experience, p.169

It should be no mystery as to which of these types Bill identified with. “Once born” people are the ones who write the self-help books. Ironically, they are the ones who need them least while their intended audience is the least likely to benefit from them. Instead, I would suggest that you read The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz. A highly enjoyable read with profound insights. One of my favorites.

I love the line “Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly.” This is key. There are some problems for which any partial solution is no better than no solution. “Half measures availed us nothing.” Half measures did not get us half a recovery. Even ninety-nine percent still got us nowhere. The analogy I like to use is to imagine you are trying to get from the roof of one building to the roof of another. Twenty five feet separate the two and all you have is a twenty four and a half foot ladder.  I assure you, you will not get 98% across. You will fail utterly.

I will close with a little AA gem told to me by one of my first sponsors. He said “this program is like ham and eggs: the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.” Chickens don’t get sober.

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Alcoholic death or spiritual life? Let me get back to you on that.

In the preceding chapters you have learned something of alcoholism. We hope we have made clear the distinction between the alcoholic and the nonalcoholic. If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic. If that be the case, you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.

To one who feels he is an atheist or agnostic such an experience seems impossible, but to continue as he is means disaster, especially if he is an alcoholic of the hopeless variety. To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face. – Alcoholics Anonymous – p.44

 A conversion experience is not for me: I’m an obstinate Vermonter. Besides, I can’t buy it. People say to me, ‘Have faith.’ And I believe I’d have faith if I could have it but I can’t. – Bill W. in his Guest House talk.

I made a casual decision around the age thirteen that would have profound effects on my life. In the soaring arrogance that only an adolescent can muster, I determined that there was no God. This was a decision of convenience because the life of self-centeredness I was planning for myself didn’t really allow for any authority outside of myself, God being chief among them. In this I was profoundly unoriginal. Imagine that, a rebellious teenager!

Now as Bill will point out later, that decision was really an act of faith. I was gambling that life was best lived in the basis of “self determination” to put a nicer spin on it. Of course I didn’t see it that way and I carefully insulated myself from anyone who might put a rational wedge in my smug self-assurance.

As life became more and more unlivable I began to find myself surrounded by people whose lives were attractive. These were people who seemed to have the ability to live life on its own terms, to be generous and humble, and most of all to know joy. I would have gladly given up all my misery to be like them except for one insurmountable issue: they all believed in God and lived Christian lives. I wanted faith, but had become so entrenched in my irrational atheism that it seemed beyond me. It was as if someone were trying to convince me that life would take on new meaning if I could just bring myself to believe in the Tooth Fairy.

One Sunday morning I was by myself at work in the basement of a phone company building. I was there on Sunday because I had to make up the work I hadn’t done the day before while I was detoxing. I had an appointment at the bank Monday morning to get a loan to cover the balloon payment on our little dump in Roseville and I thought it would be bad form to show up drunk at 9:00 am. So I went cold turkey on Friday knowing that it would be a couple of days before I would stop shaking. I also had another little problem: I had written a bunch of checks that I had to cover on Monday as well, and my car, such as it was, was not dependable enough to take me to Puritan and Greenfield where the Credit Union was. This was not a neighborhood where you wanted to break down.

So there I was, swimming in self-loathing and maudlin self-pity and all I could think about was the people who had God in their lives and how much I yearned for that simple peace. It was then that a very remarkable thing happened. For a brief moment I became ever so slightly open minded about this God stuff and wondered if I might have gotten it just a wee bit wrong. I suddenly realized that I had been living my entire life based on a decision made by a thirteen-year-old brat. I was thirty three at that time and the results of my atheism experiment were in: not working out too good.

What I did next was as simple as it was profound: I made a decision, not one whit more rational than the one I made at thirteen, that I would begin living on the assumption that God existed even if there were no concrete evidence of it. At that moment, I was instantly freed from the cares and anxiety that had been dominating me and I felt that I was surrounded by infinite love, and that everything was going to be okay. Needless to say, when I read Bill’s account of his experience in Towns Hospital I was flabbergasted at just how much it paralleled mine.

I went home and got my brother’s bible and flipped to a random page. (This is not a very practical way to study Scripture.) It opened to the parable of the prodigal son. If I had any doubts about the validity of my experience that pretty much quashed it. I must assure you that this is not typical of the spiritual life but it does seem to happen to us more often in those first “pink cloud” days.

The twenty years of my life lived on the assumption of God’s non-existence were followed by twenty more based on the opposite assumption. I needn’t tell you that the latter was indescribably better. I won’t say that this proves the existence of God but it does prove one thing: that faith in God is beneficial in the extreme. Whether or not God exists I may never know. But I know no other way to live.

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