Wednesday, June 23, 2010

AA and the power of powerlessness (Sunday Reflections for June 20, 2010)

WIRED is a magazine that reports on technology and its impact on culture and society. Its articles are all about things that are hip, cool and cutting edge (including reports on words that have fallen out of favor—like all of these, I’m sure—and their replacements). So I was surprised to find in its latest issue a story about a social phenomenon that wouldn’t seem to fit any of those terms: Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA was started about 75 years ago by a New York stock broker named Bill Wilson. Battered by the Depression and in and out of detox centers, Wilson finally “hit bottom” (a key AA experience) and, in response to a friend’s urging, decided to give God a try. The result, he later said, was that “I was a free man.”

It’s interesting to wonder if this wasn’t the beginning of the now common “spiritual, not religious” movement. For while Wilson took his experience of God very seriously, he never affiliated himself or the AA movement with any particular religion or even with religion generally. Indeed, this became one of the hallmarks of AA, that it not be affiliated with any other organization, religion, philosophy or tradition. It stands entirely alone and independent.

Wilson’s best know contribution to AA is the 12 steps. Written in the past tense, they summarize the steps taken by Wilson and now countless others to achieve sobriety and health and are the cornerstone of all AA meetings. In composing them, Wilson borrowed a variety of well-known concepts from religion and philosophy, thus their appeal and usability for people across a wide spectrum of traditions and cultures.

By design, AA is enigmatic and unclassifiable. One of its cornerstones is the principle of anonymity. Participants use only their first names (hence the bumper sticker “Friend of Bill W” as in Bill Wilson). There is no formal membership and little organization. And is AA a religion, a philosophy, a treatment program? Yes, no, all of the above—yet it really is something unique.

As WIRED says this has made it difficult to understand or affectively evaluate AA’s widely recognized success. Thus it’s not really known what about AA is most important, why it works for some people but not for others, or just how successful it really is. That it clearly has saved the lives of millions of people, however, is why it continues to be popular and taken so seriously by people studying addiction and its treatment.

The value of the 12 Steps and other aspects of AA have been widely recognized and applied in many other settings. During seminary I spent my summer CPE internship working at a treatment center that followed AA principles. I found much of it very rewarding and a good overall approach to the limitations and failings we all experience, in ourselves and in others. The 12 Steps have been adapted for countless other addictions and the wisdom of one of its central principles of daily living is accepted (even if not always practiced) by nearly everyone: One day at a time.

One of the things which makes AA standout is how it doesn’t. It does none of the things contemporary culture says should be done to be important. It scrupulously avoids affiliation with any political or religious organizations or movements. It has no media presence. It endorses no products or programs. It has no recognizable leaders. Yet almost anywhere in the country you can locate an AA meeting in a moment.

To guide the movement, Wilson later wrote the 12 Traditions and opted for what WIRED describes as “organizational chaos.” In doing so, he kept AA from being distracted by organization concerns (dues, officers, internal politics, etc) and virtually forced it to focus on one thing and one thing only: helping people become sober. Remarkably, 75 years later, for millions of people, it’s still working.

We are just beginning to understand the bio-chemical nature of human addiction and science still has a long way to go. Researchers are spurred by the enormity of the problem and by the reality that approaches like AA aren’t perfect; they doesn’t work for everyone. We have learned that explaining human misbehavior is a very complicated endeavor. It’s easy to understand why in the past drunks were simply dismissed as bad people or as sinners. What we can’t explain we label.

AA has taught us the inaccuracy and the pointlessness of such labels. Often in frustration, we still want to classify people who do bad things to themselves or others. We’re still tempted to endorse a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to both crime and addiction. Yet we all know instinctively what Bill Wilson realized, that the line between “us” and “them” is not very thick at all. We all have those aspects of our behavior and personality which we don’t understand and can’t control. We all encounter things in this world over which we are “powerless.”

We also know the other thing Bill W recognized. When those parts of our life get out of control and we begin hurting ourselves or others, there is only one thing to do: find help. We’re not going to fix ourselves. And oddly, when it comes to problems of behavior, the people that seem able to help us the most are people who recognize they have the same problems. For by coming together and sharing honestly our weaknesses and failings comes one of the most powerful forces of healing that there is, human compassion.


Obie Holmen said...


Excellent post. As one with 32 years of sobriety, I think you accurately portray the experience and the mystery of AA and its success. I've given talks entitled, "I learned all I needed to know about grace in AA." A pastor friend, who was not addicted but wanted to experience AA in order to benefit his ministry, said he never sensed the presence of God so profoundly as he did at an AA meeting. You mentioned the trite "one day at a time" slogan. AA offers a series of similarly disarmingly simple slogans "there but for the grace of God go I," "keep it simple, stupid," etc. It is a place of radical equality, radical acceptance of oneself and the other, radical surrender to one's own powerlessness and the hope of a higher power.

I can't think of a better definition of grace.

Doug said...

Thanks Obie, and thanks for sharing your experience. I have to think that the success of AA was also one of the first cultural warning signs that the American church was in serious trouble--a sign it still hasn't understood or heeded.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I have found a lot of wisdom and acceptance in NA meetings way more than I have at AA meetings. In my experience, AA members are alcoholics, not addicts and some can get really nasty if you admit you are an "addict". That's always been a bone of contention with me, but it also may be my disease talking. I hope I haven't freaked you out with this post. You do know about my history, right? Thanks for posting this, Karen

Doug said...

Thanks for posting, Karen, and yes I know a bit of your history but not a lot. My main experience with AA was during a summer seminary internship experience called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) when I worked in an AA based treatment center. In that case, all addictions were treated pretty much alike. Thanks for sharing your experience. I suspect groups vary quite a bit and the key is finding one you are comfortable with.