Monthly Archives: July 2014

“I Don’t Know” is on the Third Step

Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 45

Abbott: Strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names.
Costello: Funny names?
Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third–
Costello: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.
Abbott: I’m telling you. Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third–

This isn’t in the Big Book. But as I was thinking about the term “agnostic” I realized that it is a term with a variety of meanings. I won’t bore you with all the nuances but you can Google it.

In the sense that Bill is using it in this chapter, I think he is referring more to people who evade or ignore the subject. This is not real agnosticism. Rather, it is a habit of mind that refuses to ponder the ultimate questions. On page 53, Bill calls that kind of thinking “soft and mushy.”

We tend to think that true believers and virulent atheists are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But in reality they are both people who have passionate feelings about the issue of God. It is not so much like a line as it is like a clock. Atheists are 11:59 and believers are 12:01. That’s why conversion experiences seem so unlikely. But in reality it’s a small step over the line. So it was with me and with many others of my acquaintance.

Bill’s “agnostics” prefer to live down around 6:00. And these people, it turns out, are the toughest to reach. It takes something quite profound to rouse them from their stupor. Again, on page 53, Bill refers to a self-imposed crisis we could neither postpone nor evade. Here’s where the latex encounters the macadam. We evaded the ultimate question until there were no questions left. And on that important page 53 the question is posed.

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Not so “Obviously”

Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power? – Alcoholics Anonymous, p.45

It would be impossible to participate in AA without using a number of common phrases like “character defects,” “turning it over.” ” personal inventory,” and of course “Higher Power.” But sometimes we use them without really giving much thought tot he words themselves. What I want to do here is dissect this phrase “Power greater than ourselves.” It’s not so “obvious.”

Just before Charlotte and I got married, I moved in to her house. The weekend I chose to do it was the blackout of  2003. At first I didn’t think that a power outage would stop me from moving, but it became clear after a little while that electrical power was essential for a lot of things I took for granted. For instance, when I got to my apartment in Farmington Hills, I went to use the bathroom only to discover that there was no water pressure. The city used electrical pumps to maintain the water flow. We had made one trip and decided to get some gas which, of course, was not available because the gas pumps ran on electricity. Then the basement started flooding. We had an electric sump pump and it never occurred to us that our dry basement was the product of a few watts of power every few minutes. I ran a long extension cord from the basement to my car and used precious gas to run an inverter in the car. I’m sure you can remember that weekend and I’m also sure you remember how grateful you felt when things got back to “normal.” But normalcy, it turns out, is a very delicate thing. That can be a very unnerving revelation.

In AA we get quite accustomed to seeing each other sober.That becomes our new “normal.” But in fact, sober is the least normal thing an alcoholic can be. We ought to be greeting each other with slack-jawed astonishment. “You’re still sober??” Yet how many times have we heard people talk about their early days and describe how they were more impressed with someone with a couple of months of sobriety than they were with someone who had been sober twenty years. In the former case, the power was more obvious. You could dismiss someone with many years because they probably “weren’t like you.” But that person who was just ahead of you? That person must have found some kind of way to do what still seemed impossible.

Power is not like talent. It’s not ability or skill. These things all seem innate. Power seems to come from outside ourselves. Power is a resource we must locate and “tap into.” In Cristian theology, the ability to do God’s will is a gift of the Holy Spirit. So when Bill talks about a “Power” with a capital “P” he’s revealing the essentially Christian roots of AA. However, that does not mean that you have to be a Christian to find that power.

The whole purpose of this chapter (and by extension the whole book) is to enable the sufferer to find that Power. I won’t give away the ending here but I will tell you that it involves an attitude.

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