From surrender to transformation

Why does A.A. work? To answer such a question, we have to take seriously the spiritual basis of the A.A. program, which brings us face to face with what might be called the "God stuff." Many skeptics, like most actively drinking alcoholics, are put off by the importance of God to Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Steps, and view participation in AA as a substitution of one addiction for another, supportive therapy, or group persuasion. AA's embrace of a Higher Power, or "God as we understand Him," almost inevitably elicits images of hypocrisy and smug piousness that are often associated with organized religion.

AA early on made the distinction between religion and spirituality, a distinction that is only now becoming more widely understood. Religion more often involves accepting a specific dogma about the attributes of what is called God, understood as being separate from the universe and from human beings. In religion, belief may be more highly valued than a direct experience of a Divine Presence. With spirituality it is just the opposite. The direct experience and relationship with a Higher Power are primary, and belief systems are secondary, or may even be considered an impediment, to developing the relationship. The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, states that to make use of spiritual principles one need accept nothing on faith but only ask, "Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a power greater than myself?" Only this provisional belief is required to open the door to a radical shift in experience.

In addition to the confusion between spirituality and religion, there is another aspect to the resistance to the possibility of God. Western society is heir to the Freudian or naturalistic mind-set that maintains that ifit can't be measured or analyzed it doesn't exist. Until 12 years ago, I was convinced that all spiritual experiences were illusions reflective of an underlying neurosis, and until five years ago, never having read Carl Jung, I was convinced that he was a woolly-headed mystic who was out of touch with reality. My experience since then has persuasively demonstrated to me a reality that I once thought was just wishful thinking, and my prior presuppositions have been called into question.

It's as if they divorced-Freud getting custody of the neuroses, Jung getting custody of spirituality and its application to the addictions-and there has been a family split ever since. Freud's heroic stoicism in the face of the suffering associated with his cancer, his attitude that "my head is bloody, but unbowed .... I am the master of my soul," is simply inappropriate for the addicted person whose task is to stop attempting to control by exerting willpower and open up the discovery of a Higher Power. An alcoholic has to give up willfulness in favor of willingness.

Many alcoholics are sure that if they just change their thinking or act differently, they will be able to control their drinking. Initially they are often profoundly repelled by the "God stuff." Similarly, many therapists don't understand why conventional therapeutic techniques are not enough to resolve a serious drinking problem, and, after trying to apply such conventional approaches, will dismiss the alcoholic or family as "Unmotivated," not realizing that the task of recovery is to discover a new way of being that is not based upon conventional motivation or willpower.

Alcoholics Anonymous is ingeniously arranged to generate what might be called a planned spontaneous remission. One does not know when it will occur, but one knows that it will occur if the drinker participates in the AA program.

AA is designed so that a person can stop drinking by either education, therapeutic change, or transformation. A small percentage of people who attend AA may be able to stop just by hearing the information presented about alcoholism as a disease. The majority will go through a second-order change similar to changes brought about in therapy. They bond to the group and use it as a social support and a refuge to explore and release their suppressed and repressed feelings. AA serves them as a "protective wall of human community." A distinct minority will have a full-fledged transformative shift or "real religious insight."

Our world had become polarized between a doubting, self-willed secular humanism and a dogmatic, repressive fundamentalism. This century has been marked by erratic oscillations between fragmented individualism and totalitarian collectivism. What Buber called the genuine third alternative, the context of I -Thou relationships, or the "between," has been almost totally occluded in our time. Recovery from life-threatening addiction may be necessary to see that there is a reality that cannot be reduced to individual fantasy or to collective dogma.

The AA book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions states: "Everywhere ... people [are] filled with anger and fear, society breaking up into warring fragments. Each fragment says to the others, 'We are right and you are wrong.' Every such pressure group, if it is strong enough, self-righteously imposes its will upon the rest.. ... Therefore, we who are alcoholics can consider ourselves fortunate indeed. Each of us has had his own near-fatal encounter with the juggernaut of self-will, and has suffered long enough under its weight to be willing to look for something better. So it is by circumstances rather than by any virtue that we have been driven to AA, have admitted defeat, have acquired the rudiments of faith, and now want to make a decision to turn our will and out lives over to a Higher Power."

"Turning our will and our lives over to a "Higher Power" needn't inspire visions of the abdication of responsibility, of religious cults, or Jonestown. If we look more deeply, we can see that Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps unique among organizations in our culture in that it has been able to tap into the human thirst for oneness and belonging, while respecting individual dignity and avoiding coercive tactics, exploiting its members, or relying upon external support. Surrender by AA members to a Higher Power, in fact, consistently leads to expanded, not diminished, responsibility for self and others. AA serves as proof that it is possible to surrender to a Higher Power without giving one's individual power away.

-David Berenson

-Family Therapy Networker

Excerpted with permission from The Family Therapy Networker (July/Aug. 1987). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from The Family Therapy Networker, 8528 Bradford Rd., Silver Springs, MD 20901. Back issues $4 from same address.

Utne Reader November/December 1988


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