Category Archives: Recovery

A Resentment Averted

It’s all well and good that I share the things I have learned from my years in AA, but it is better still when I can relate the principles to things that are actually happening in my life.

Such was the case a few days ago. I was in Rochester Hills, my old AA home, sitting at a table with a few people I knew and I few I didn’t. (In Michigan, we break into separate discussion tables.) The table was small (six people) and everyone was indulging the luxury of not having to limit the length of their “share.” The person who spoke before me talked for a fairly long time and then it was my turn.

Those of you who know me well are aware that I am prone to speaking longer than I need to, or at least longer than people are willing to listen. I guess it was one of those days. I finished a sentence and before I could start the next one, the man who had just spoken said, in a loud voice, “Thanks Steve.” This is something only the table leader should say to stop someone from rambling, but he wasn’t leading and I (in my opinion) wasn’t rambling. He was wrong. I was insulted. And before the sound of his voice had echoed off the wall, I had the glowing hot seed of a grade-A resentment burning a hole in my normally serene and extremely spiritual self.

Here I am, loved by all, and in the bosom of my old company and this upstart was putting me in my place. I thought to myself, “Do you have any idea who I am? Have you never heard of Mr. A.A. and his triumphant return?” I do not say these things out loud for obvious reasons, but clearly if he knew who I WAS, he wouldn’t have done that.

So here I was, faced with some unsavory alternatives. I could take him aside, point out that he had no business doing what he did, and make sure he was just as uncomfortable as I was. But I know enough about the program to know that was a lose-lose, so I scratched that from my list of “to-dos.” I thought perhaps I should just walk away and say nothing. But I didn’t want to leave a meeting feeling that way. As I simmered, I tried to think what the best course of action should be, what the way of humility would be. In other word’s, God’s will.

Then I remembered a line in the Big Book regarding the Ninth Step:

It may be he has done us more harm than we have done him and, though we may have acquired a better attitude toward him, we are still not too keen about admitting our faults. Nevertheless, with a person we dislike, we take the bit in our teeth. It is harder to go to an enemy than to a friend, but we find it much more beneficial to us. We go to him in a helpful and forgiving spirit, confessing our former ill feeling and expressing our regret.

Step Nine is about restoring relationships, but it is also about creating healthy ones. Was he totally wrong and was I totally right? Did it matter? Even if I couldn’t find where I had been at fault, I certainly harbored ill feelings.

The table finished, we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer and I turned to him. “I guess I may have been going on too long,” I said. “Thanks for keeping me on track.” He laughed it off and the problem went away. I may have made a friend when I might very well have made an enemy.

Lest you get the idea that I’m some kind of spiritual giant, let me be quick to point out that I was a millimeter away from storming out (or worse). But the more we attempt to live a life based on humility and service to others, the more natural these things become. The next time I am faced with a similar situation, I may not act as well. (In fact, I went off on a customer a few weeks ago and am still paying for that lack of restraint.) But I will go into it with the memory that I found a way through it before and, by God’s grace, I can find a way through it again.

 

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An Abundance of Pitfalls

Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn’t strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, of our sins. – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.65

I don’t believe that God made any mistakes in creating my human nature. Bill makes it pretty clear in this passage that our desires are not our problem, but rather how we choose to satisfy them that drives our defects. Hunger is not a defect. Gluttony is, but so too is self-starvation. Sexual desire is not a defect, but harming others to satisfy it is. Our need to feel loved and accepted is good and God-given, but when we lie and manipulate others in order to feel loved we are clearly no longer in His will.

When we take inventory in the Fourth Step, we ultimately come to see that virtually all of our defects can be traced back to self-centered fear. When we discuss (actually confess) these things to another person, we have begun a process that will bring light to those dark and devious motives. But that in and of itself is not sufficient. If my problem is self-centeredness , then my focusing on my defects may not be the best means of ridding myself of them. Consider the compulsion to drink. Isn’t it true that the harder we tried to change that behavior the more uncontrollable it became? Can we assume that there is something inherently different in our other defects. Bill makes this point earlier:

Having been granted a perfect release from alcoholism, why then shouldn’t we be able to achieve by the same means a perfect release from every other difficulty or defect? This is a riddle of our existence, the full answer to which may be only in the mind of God. – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 64

I believe the answer to the riddle lies in the Third Step and Seventh Step prayers.

God, I offer myself to Thee-to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always! – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63 [emphasis mine]

My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 76 – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63 [emphasis mine]

Note what the prayers do not say. We’re not asking God to take away our difficulties to make our lives easier. We are asking that they be removed as a demonstration to others of God’s power. We’re not asking God to remove the defects that stand in the way of our sobriety. Rather, we are asking to have them removed to make ourselves more useful. As we begin to see our recovery not as something for our benefit, but rather for the benefit of others, we lose that focus on self that was such a stumbling block to spiritual growth. In other words, our defects are removed as a consequence of selfless surrender to God’s will. It’s a flanking attack, not a head-on assault.

Yet we all continue to fall short. Does this mean we are not sincere in our desire to have God remove these things? Hardly. As they say, old habits die hard. All those things that I identified as defects were my best attempts at living. They were my coping skills. Having to give these up is frightening and and difficult. And we will often slip back into them without intending to. That’s why we continue to look at our behavior through the lens of our usefulness to others. Look at our evening examination on page 86.

When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others. After making our review we ask God’s forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken.

We have the means to gauge our behavior. Did we do anything that impeded another person’s spiritual growth? Did we behave in such a way that someone observing us would not want what we have? Did we do anything that might have driven a wedge between God and one of His children, or did we create an atmosphere of love and acceptance that mirrors our Father’s care for us? If we continue to see recovery in this light we have a good chance of maintaining it.

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This is my prayer as I begin this day

Lord, there is more to do today than I can possibly accomplish. I don’t believe that You spun the Earth too fast, so grant me the grace to do only those things You expect of me so that, when the day is over, I will know that I got everything done.

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Prophylaxis

Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 60-61

This was our course: We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, “This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”

 

We avoid retaliation or argument. We wouldn’t treat sick people that way. If we do, we destroy our chance of being helpful. We cannot be helpful to all people, but at least God will show us how to take a kindly and tolerant view of each and every one. – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp.66-67

In the last few posts, we have been looking at the ways fear and anger have poisoned our well. We saw how old “stale anger” from the past reached into our present lives and made living such a chore. We also saw how fear could cast a cloud of worry and suspicion over the future. And, as I said earlier, there are direct measures we can take to “cure” this spiritual malady.

But there are also steps we can take to nip he problem in the bud. As any doctor can tell you, it’s far easier to prevent disease than to have to cure it. The term for this is “prophylaxis.” Here’s a definition:

prophylaxis

Measures designed to preserve health (as of an individual or of society) and prevent the spread of disease.

I always read that first quote from pages 60-61 as applying specifically to alcoholics.  I completely missed the “most people” part. Of course I would. We’re so convinced of our alcoholic uniqueness that we don’t realize that “most people” labor under the sames burden of self-centeredness and fear that we do. Let me make haste to point out that we are prone to saying the “sick man” prayer and forget that we are probably sicker. It’s really a prayer of humility, a spoken admission that we’re all pretty much in the same boat and that other people are probably doing the best they can

So the key to spiritual prophylaxis lies in our realization that the people who wrong us are themselves dealing with same spiritual malady. The difference is that they CAN in some measure “afford it.” It may make them miserable, but they have the option of being miserable the rest of their lives. We all know people like that. But we also come across individuals who can spot it and take corrective measure. We know people like this as well. They have recognized a need in their life and have followed a course of spiritual action to remedy it.

We alcoholics, on the other hand, can’t “afford it” because it kills us. We don’t have the option of suffering through it because our only response to pain has always been escape through alcohol or drugs. So, if we are to survive, we also have to find a course of spiritual action that can solve the problem. The AA program is not unique. It is not even original. It is simply a synthesis of the most effective and proven methods for overcoming this human condition. And it is extremely pragmatic. AA does not require years of rigorous discipline before results are seen. Quite the contrary. It cuts straight to the core of the problem and offers a “kit of spiritual tools” that have proven over the years to be extremely effective. That does not mean that we never grow beyond this point, only that AA offers first aid to the alcoholic so that he or she can survive long enough to become the healthy spiritual being that He intended.

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The wreckage of the future

I’ve been structuring these posts around the discussion of time I laid out a few posts earlier. In our review of the Fourth Step inventory, we saw how our old response to fear had created in us a stubborn unwillingness to forgive, and we remained mired in resentments that were eating away at our lives. A good deal of the “obsession of the mind’ consists of our inability to feel comfortable sober. And these old resentments played a big part in that. Further on, we will discover the complete solution to resentments, but for now I want to focus on the way that fear distorts our view of the future.

All animals are imbued to a greater or lesser extent with a natural fear response, often termed the “fight or flight” instinct. In mammals (including humans) it arises out of a very primitive part of the brain, is mediated by neurohormones, and is entirely beyond our control. Sometimes we get addicted to the feelings and seek out activities designed to trigger it in a controlled way. I think this is why amusement parks exist. A “thrill” ride is designed to elicit a primitive fear response but in a way that our conscious minds know is still safe.

But we differ from every other animal in one important regard. We have the mental capability to anticipate future events based on our past experiences. As a child, I learned pretty young that Christmas came once a year and that it was going to be the very best day of the year, even better than my birthday which I also eagerly anticipated. (I wish I still felt that way.) This also means that we can project our fears into the future and anticipate them with dread. When this is conscious we call it worry, but it isn’t always conscious. Sometimes we deflect these feelings onto other people or situations and (surprise!) get angry at something that hasn’t even happened. My friend Don C. tells a very funny story that illustrates this perfectly. Allow me.

A man is returning from a trip, and while driving home one of his tires goes flat. As he gets out to change it a steady rain begins to fall. He is quite angry at his circumstances already, but as he opens the trunk he sees that the jack is missing. His son was probably using it to work on his car and forgot to put it back. Now he’s really getting perturbed and very angry at his son. Thinking of what to do, he remembers passing a house a mile or so back and there were lights on. He decides to take the long walk in the rain to see if he can borrow a jack. As he approaches the house, he notices that there are no longer any lights on. He thinks to himself, “This family has already gone to bed. I’m going to wake them up and they’re going to get upset. They may even tell me to go away and this entire walk would have been for nothing!” Reluctantly he arrives and rings the bell. No response. He rings again and sees a light come on. He’s now convinced that he’s going to have to deal with someone who is more concerned about their own sleep than his plight. The nerve of some people! The door opens and a man asks, “What can I do for you?” “I’ll tell you what you can do,” he yells. “You can take your jack and shove it up your ***!”

It’s funny because we have all had these kinds of experiences. Have you ever had that unpleasant talk with someone in the future? We imagine how the conversation will progress based on nothing more than fantasy and fear. I still go through that every time I have to let an employee go. I will ruin an entire weekend re-running the scenario. Of course, when it actually happens, it’s nothing like what I expected.

In reality, the future we fear almost never happens, and we never anticipate the bad things that sometimes do. In other words, we never worry about real things. If we could all adopt the attitude “Don’t worry; be happy” life would be a whole lot better. But this is not natural for an alcoholic. It is a skill we must learn and practice until it becomes a part of our nature. The Steps provide a practical and proven way to get there, but it will always be a lifetime struggle.

My next post will discuss just how we go about that.

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The Step Four Chart and That “evil and corroding thread”

Notice that the word “fear” is bracketed alongside the difficulties with Mr. Brown, Mrs. Jones, the employer, and the wife. This short word somehow touches about every aspect of our lives. It was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it. It set in motion trains of circumstances which brought us misfortune we felt we didn’t deserve. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 67

Maybe this should be split into more than one post. But I think the point is better made if I can maintain some continuity, so here goes.

On page 65 of the Big Book, we find that familiar chart we use to begin our Fourth Step inventory. It looks like this:

chart

I was taught that the most effective way to approach this was systematically, one column at a time. So first we list the people, institutions or principles that we resent. This should not be difficult since most of us came into the program with a lengthy “sh*t list.” All we need to do to get started is take that mental list and put it on paper. Column one only. Don’t get into column two yet. Once we are certain that column one is complete we move to column two, listing the harms these people had done us. Again, not difficult since we’re pretty aware of why these folks are on the list.

After a period of reflection, we now begin to ask ourselves what it was in us that was threatened. Bill uses the 3S list: sex, security, society. Our sexual lives, our emotional and financial security, or our self-esteem and acceptance by others. It’s only an aid. You can modify it to suit yourself.

This is the actual start of the inventory process because we are now looking into the “causes and conditions” in ourselves that informed our behavior and attitudes. The step refers to “a searching and fearless moral inventory…” We’re taking a hard look at ourselves, but not a negative look. For people like me, I already had a very complete list of the positive qualities of my personality. Others come in with a unrealistically negative view of themselves. Neither is accurate and actually reflect  deep-seated self-centeredness since it is an image of ourselves which we have carefully guarded from objective scrutiny by others. We face facts, admitting where we have been wrong, but with the awareness that nobody is perfect: neither perfectly right nor perfectly wrong. (I love it when people say “I’m only human.” I like to ask, ‘Is that “Mother Theresa” human or “Jeffrey Dahmer” human?”)

The book now makes reference to the fact that every one of these resentments can be traced back to fear of some kind, fear of losing something we have or not getting something we want. In other words, the “stale anger” was once “present anger” triggered by fear. Or to put it more succinctly, our unconscious response to the feeling of fear was to become angry at the person(s) who threatened us. And since the threat never simply went away on its own, the anger hardened and became resentment.

And so we come to an inescapable conclusion. Anger is no more than one particular response to fear. When we get to AA, it’s usually the only one we know and it seems quite impossible to us that there could be any other way to react. But we will learn, as we continue to work the Steps, that it’s possible to “outgrow” fear, that is, to react to it in a way that reflects spiritual maturity and serenity.

This leads me back to my discussion of time and how fear also affects our future. Next post.

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Spiritual Offender #1

Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64

I’m finally feeling well enough to resume some blogging, so I want to continue the thread that I started last post. Thanks for all prayers and encouragement.

First and foremost I want to carefully define what I believe the book means by “resentment.”  There are a number of dictionary definitions which don’t fully convey it’s intended meaning here. Resentment is not the same thing as anger or being indignant. Resentment persists. It lives in the past and might best be defined as stale anger. The book nowhere tells us we should never be angry. Anger is a basic human emotion that we experience quite involuntarily (usually) when something is done to wrong us or those we love. It’s usually justified to a degree, although there are many of us who get a perverse delight in being handed the moral high ground and so go looking for injury.

So when I say “stale anger” I am referring to anger over a day old.

In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. – Ephesians 4:26 New International Version (NIV)

We experience resentment in part as old, unresolved anger, but also as a feeling of moral superiority. In fact, it is in this sense that we can find a way out, a way we can offer forgiveness.

When Jesus spoke of forgiveness He usually used a financial analogy, so we’ll do so here. If you borrow $1000 from me, there is a debt created. You, the debtor, have an obligation to me, the creditor, to repay the loan. Now suppose you come to me to repay the loan and I tell you that you don’t owe me anything. And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t convince me otherwise. Where did the debt exist previously? Clearly in the mind of the creditor, the one owed. It doesn’t mean you didn’t borrow the money, it doesn’t mean you never owed me. I can simply choose to “forgive” the debt.

So it is when someone wrongs us. A moral “debt” is created and we feel that person “owes” us something. We become moral creditors. And just as in the previous example, we can choose to “forgive” the moral debt. We’re not saying it didn’t happen, we’re not saying it was acceptable, we’re simply saying that it no longer applies. Forgiveness itself is not a feeling. You don’t have to “feel” forgiving to forgive. What happens when you forgive is more powerful than that: you no longer have the resentment.

I have tried in vain to find a distinction between unforgiveness and resentment. I don’t think there is one. So the cure for “stale anger” is to let go of it so it can drift into the Past. And that is why I made such a big deal about the Present. If we are going to learn to live there, we can’t be held back by the Past. Our Future will never brighten so long as we hold onto the things that are anchoring us there.

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It’s about time to talk about time

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. – Khalil Gibran

It’s been six days since I posted anything, but things were bubbling around in my head and I didn’t want to commit them to blog until I had a clearer sense of what I needed to say. It will take a few posts to get it all out so here’s a start.

Consciousness is a very slippery concept. Thinking about thinking can really get you thinking, am I right? I could write pages of thoughts on the phenomenon of consciousness but I want to focus here on a crucial aspect of it, namely our perception of time.

We know what the Past is (I’m going to capitalize these terms), at least if we have properly functioning minds. It is composed of memories of all that we have already experienced. There are some very interesting stories about people whose short and long term memory is compromised. Oliver Sacks has a number of good books about these things and I refer you there. Studying pathology often gives us a clearer sense of what “normal” really means. But for our purposes we’re discussing the Past as we experience it. And the Past is more than our own memories. We learn that other people have had experiences and we learn this by talking to them and even by reading accounts of things that happened long ago. The Past is real and those who love history love a real thing.

We also know what the Future is. It is, for the most part, a mental construct, an extrapolation of our Past, forward in time. In other words, we experience the Future as a projection of our Past. It is a sense that what has happened will again happen in some form or another. More on that later.

But this thing called the Present is a slippery beast indeed. We all have a sense of what it is but the more we try to experience it, the smaller it gets until it seems to have no substance at all. How can something so real have no dimension? Here’s an analogy that helped me.

Suppose you are looking down at a lake. You can certainly see the surface of that lake, so it really does exist. But how thick is it? Even when you get down to the level of the atoms that compose it, at some point there are water molecules below and air molecules above and the surface of that lake becomes the surface of atoms and where does that leave us? No further ahead than we were before.

If you think about it (and mostly we try not to) the surface is nothing more than a boundary, a point of transition from one material to another. It is real, but not in a tangible sense. It is a construct of our minds. And it is the same way with the Present. There is a boundary “in time” where “what has yet to happen” becomes “what has happened.” The Present is the boundary between the Future and the Past. And no matter how closely you observe it, there is never a measurable length of time that is the Present. It, too, is a construct of the mind.

Yet we live our entire lives there, and there alone. We cannot live in the Past, nor can we live in the Future. We live in that infinitesimally small place called the Present, and everything that we have ever done or ever will do happens there. But we often completely neglect it. We are constantly thinking about the Future or “dwelling” in the Past and are rarely, if ever, mindful of the moment that separates them.

There is a somewhat vulgar aphorism heard around AA to the effect that an alcoholic has one foot in the past, one foot in the future and is sh***ing all over today. It’s repeated because it speaks to the same truth I just elaborated, only reduced to its essentials. And we’ve all heard the same thought expressed various other ways, “living in the Now,” “…that’s why they call it the present,” and most certainly “One Day at a Time,” which we often shorten to “one minute at a time” or “one second at a time.” We can shorten it ad infinitum until we reach the same conclusion: that we must live our lives in the one instant we are given and in which to choose how we will live.

When we look at it this way, our Past is not merely memories of events. Instead, it is the recollection of the myriad choices we made in that place called the Present. (If you’ve ever had a severe regret you know what I mean.) So in one sense, the Present is eternal. There are an infinite number of “Presents” that make up the past. And there are going to be an infinite number composing the Future as well. If we truly live in the Present then we are, in one sense, living in the Eternal Now.

But, as I said earlier, the Future is no more than an extrapolation of our Past. To phrase it another way, the Future is illuminated by the Past. Why do newcomers feel so hopeless? Because the dismal gray light of their Past is the only lamp they possess to see the Future with. However, as we work the program, we make better and better decisions, and our past begins to grow brighter and brighter. And soon our vision of the Future is bright indeed.

A lot of our defects of character arise out of our distorted sense of time. That’s why I took so much time (pun intended) laying it out. I am going to do some posts on resentment and worry, so I wanted to make sure I explained my concept before launching forward.

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Big Book worship and the fallibility of texts

My wife, God bless her, bought me a beautiful “coffee table” book entitled “The Book That Started It All” which includes the complete marked-up manuscript of the Big Book (the one that went to the printers) as well as a great deal of the history behind it. This is not the multilith copy that many of have. This is what happened to it during the final editing process. I won’t get into a lot of detail here because I am still studying it.

Here’s an image of Chapter Five:

Chapter Five markup

Marked-up page from the printer’s manuscript.

As you can see, the final edit involved a great deal of fine tuning. You can see how the words we now know so well were actually the result of a deliberate and often chaotic process.

I make this point because we tend to think that the Big Book was “written” in the way you write a letter. In fact it is more like a snapshot of the group’s consensus at that time.

I spend a lot of time (too much) commenting in a fundamentalist Christian web site where the Bible is taken literally, and I mean very, very literally. And the one thing I find time and again is that no one who reads the Bible that way has the least interest in discovering how it came into being. Their perception of the book is unable stand up to its historical context because, quite frankly, it doesn’t jibe with their reading.

Guess what? A lot of AAs read the Big Book that way. Since so much of our survival depends on the reliability of that text, we are somewhat loath to see it as something that might have been very different. Here’s an exercise that might put that in perspective.

If you keep a diary or journal or save old letters, try reading something you wrote ten or twenty years ago. Even if it reflected you best thinking at the time, chances are you wouldn’t want to live your life based on that earlier understanding. It’s the same way with our text. If Bill and the original one hundred contributors were still around today, it’s pretty likely that their understanding of the program would be very different from it was when they first tried putting it on paper. Consider that Bill had about four and a half years of sobriety at that point and the rest of the alcoholic contributors had even less.

Does that mean we should disregard the text since it was a product of a particular time and place? Of course not. The truth it contains has stood the test of considerable time, and we would be fools to ignore it. But we mustn’t be drawn into the error of thinking that it’s infallible. In fact, some chapters have not stood up well at all (To Wives, To Employers) because these were not written to show how they had recovered, but rather they were written to instruct others as to how they should deal with alcoholics. I think these chapters are weaker because they got off-topic.

I see the Big Book as a marvel of God’s providence. Those early members wrote an astounding book that ultimately would change the world. But they were not trying to write a book the would endure through decades, they were just trying to solve an immediate problem, namely how to respond to the flood of inquiries coming in. If they had even an inkling of the impact they were going to have I doubt that it would ever have been finished. Good thing for us they didn’t.

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Nugget heard at a meeting

My brain is like two companies: one manufactures BS and the other one buys it.

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