A pint of dignity, a sip of humour


JIM COYLE Toronto Star

Tonight, in a Toronto church basement that's bright and cheerful as such places go but is still a church basement, a man I know will receive a medallion marking 20 years of sobriety.

To say the least, 7,305 days is a long time between drinks. To illustrate just how long, the year the last one was taken Wayne Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles summer Olympics and Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" was a top single.

If it's a long time, it's also a long way from a life of self-centredness, irresponsibility and despair to one of generosity, duty and contentment. To some, such a transformation is a miracle. At the very least, it is astonishing. And this one happened, as such things frequently do, in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

If tonight's medallion is a celebration of the power of AA, so too is a new biography by Susan Cheever of Bill Wilson, co-founder of what's come to be regarded as one of the more important social breakthroughs of the 20th century.

In My Name is Bill, Cheever says the method Wilson devised for addressing alcoholism "didn't work perfectly. It didn't work all the time. But it worked often and fairly well, which was worlds ahead of anything else that has been thought of to combat addiction before or since."

Some regard Wilson as having been divinely inspired in drafting AA's 12 Steps. Whatever one's view on that, there can be little argument that his fusing of ideas from medicine, psychology, philosophy, religion and the power of storytelling into a program of recovery was no small act of genius.

As it happens, the writer Christopher Hitchens has a bash at AA in the current issue of Vanity Fair in an entertaining but facile review of U.S. President George W. Bush's battle with alcohol. Hitchens calls it "a quasi-cult that demands surrender to a higher power." He dismisses what goes on there as "church-basement babble."

In truth, far from acting as a proselytizing cult, AA has resisted even much in the way of advertising since its founding in 1935, believing in attraction, rather than promotion. In his day, Wilson even turned down honorary degrees and other public tributes in order to avoid the cult of personality.

In reality, AA demands nothing. Those who arrive at its doors - and nobody does by accident or without having made rather a botch of things - are free to take it or leave it, their misery cheerfully refunded.

But should they wish to try a different way, they are shown what has worked for millions of others like them around the world. And considering the toll untreated alcoholism takes on families, highways, in workplaces, the health and justice systems, anything that transforms so many of the perpetrators of such mayhem into responsible citizens must be doing a lot more than talking babble.

Actually, you'd think AA and its founder, who was a lifelong conservative and staunch Republican, might appeal to Hitchens. As Cheever notes, AA is a society with no laws, one that is fully self-supporting. Its leaders "are but trusted servants, they do not govern."

To be sure, it is a program often perplexing for being so counter-intuitive and rooted so much in paradox. It is about personal responsibility and mutual support, surrender as a means to freedom, concern for others as the route to understanding the self, and selfless service as a path to personal gain.

For all it accomplishes, Hitchens might be pleased to know he would still probably run into as many practicing rogues as holy rollers at most AA meetings. Wilson himself dabbled in spiritualism, psychedelic drugs and regular adulteries after sobering up. AA doesn't get you saintly. It gets you sober. What you do after that is pretty much up to you.

If nothing else, it will probably involve some laughter. Given the horror stories told at AA meetings, newcomers and outsiders often find that odd. But there was probably no greater expert on humour than E.B. White, and perhaps he said it best. "There is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying," he once wrote. "(Humour) plays close to the big hot fire which is truth." And, as has been famously said, the truth will set you free.

On the back of the medallion my friend will receive tonight is engraved his first name and last initial, his group, his dry date - July 20, 1984 - and the word "merci."

In any language, gratitude is hard to miss. It gives warmth and light and hope and example. One day at a time.
And sometimes for a good long time, indeed.

This is from the Toronto Star
Jul. 20, 2004. Jim Coyle usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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