STAYING sober is largely a matter of
right thinking. If a person is thinking "straight,"
he will see to the other things that protect his sobriety:
work with beginners, constant inventory, fairness in
all relationships. He will avoid the dangers of resentment,
jealousy, self-pity, arrogance and anger.
AAs will argue with this, but how many of us ever ask
why an individual's thoughts and feelings should
have so much bearing on his life. After all, what does
a resentment have to do with drinking? How does jealousy
injure a person? What harm is there in a few rounds,
more or less, of self-pity?
found answers to these questions in Emmet Fox's The
Sermon on the Mount, an amazing little volume
that seems to be in almost every minister's library.
Thoughts are things: Fox insisted that one cannot have
one kind of mind and another kind of life. Any thought
pattern that is persisted in must sooner or later materialize
in a person's outer circumstances. If you would change
your life, change your thoughts first.
I did not buy this right away. It seemed
to me that some of my drinking acquaintances harbored
very little resentment or jealousy, yet they still got
drunk. Do lynch victims arrive at the end of a rope
because of their thinking? Are tornadoes created by
the thoughts of the people living in the areas they
strike? Had Chinese coolies "thought themselves"
into the destitution and drudgery of their lives? "Thinking"
may have some effect, but it certainly couldn't be as
important as Fox thought it was. . . .
Of course, I was fogging the issue,
chiefly because Fox's propositions didn't jibe with
my present conception of things. This was understandable;
the AA program had also seemed preposterous and impractical
when I first heard about it in the shadowy comfort of
a barroom. But as later events proved, it was the barroom
state of mind that was wrong, not AA.
Nor was it fair to reject an idea simply
because it was difficult to prove that it applied to
all human problems. It really wasn't necessary for me
to determine the role of thought in lynchings or tornadoes.
Such matters should rightly be deferred until I had
seen how thoughts worked in my own life.
At least, I should keep an open mind
on the subject. As a quotation attributed to Herbert
Spencer puts it, in the first edition of the book, "Alcoholics
Anonymous": "There is a principle which is
a bar against all information, which is proof against
all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in
everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior
Anyhow, I had been exposed to Fox's
ideas; now the AA experience began to show how right
he was. As the months of AA sobriety rolled by, the
external conditions of my life began to change. Not
rapidly, but steadily. I developed a wider range of
interests; my physical health seemed to get better.
I took better care of my clothing and started a small
bank account. By the end of a year I had a brand-new
automobile for the first time in my life.
My automobile was certainly a "thing";
it had come as a result of thought! Not only had it
required a change of thought to earn and save the money,
I had also needed to get a belief that I could accept
better things. Sure, I had often dreamed of getting
a new car, but deep in my heart I hadn't really felt
I was entitled to one. I had always kicked away opportunities,
destroyed most of the material things in my life.
The automobile was only a beginning.
I began to notice that my thinking had a bearing on
the kind of place I lived in and the type of people
I associated with. It is not by chance that writers
speak of "a room taking on the character of its
occupant," and there is profound truth in the old
saying: "Birds of a feather flock together."
If I didn't like where I lived or the people in my environment,
I had only myself to blame. If I wished to change my
surroundings, I had to change my thinking first.
The effects of thought are rather easy
to trace in close personal relationships. It is sometimes
astonishing to observe what happens when a person gets
rid of strong feelings of hatred, fear or dependence
in regard to another person. Most likely the relationship
changes drastically, or the other person simply drops
out of one's life. Soon comes the breath-taking discovery
that people tend to draw unto themselves the very persons
they claim to detest. Hatred, it turns out, is every
bit as strong a bond as love. The unhappy persons thus
affected are not the prisoners of one another but of
their own tortured thoughts and feelings.
It would be a poor law that did not
work both ways. Just as bad thoughts attract wretched
conditions and troublesome people, so do good thoughts
put one in touch with better conditions and more congenial
people. A close friend tells me that in his AA experience
he has always had people entering his life just when
he needed their association most. It worked so often
that it was obviously beyond mere coincidence. Was there
some hidden magnetism or force that brought them together?
I cannot explain it except to say that
something is there and it works, just as the AA program
works. Perhaps some great network of subconscious communication
exists among people. More than likely it is a facet
of what we call the Higher Power. In any case, I believe
that a man's thoughts go out to his fellow men, and
do not return to him void. This may have been what brought
Bill and Dr. Bob together so many years ago, and has
helped accomplish so much since.
Simply recognizing that thoughts are
things is not enough. We must face the formidable job
of building up the good and starving out the bad. It
is no easy thing for a person to change something so
close to him as his own thoughts. It is a rare individual
who can stand back from himself, so to speak, and erase
bad thinking from his mind as he would sentences from
a blackboard. Sometimes so much strong feeling surrounds
a particular problem that it is virtually impossible
to "switch it off" in the mind.
Fortunately, we have learned in AA to
seek progress, not necessarily perfection. If we can
improve our thinking from time to time, we are accomplishing
a great deal. The change is bound to express itself
in our lives, though perhaps not as quickly as we might
desire. If we can definitely see that our thinking is
gradually improving, we are at least on the right road.
Thinking is best improved by concentrating
on good things rather than dwelling on how to get rid
of the bad. As a matter of fact, this may be the only
way of eliminating wrong thinking. We relieve the darkness,
for example, not by trying to drive it away, but simply
by turning on a light. In the same way, a bad trend
of thought can be reversed by replacing it with something
better. If I find myself being consumed by indignation
over a certain injustice, the best solution for the
time being is to turn my attention to a less upsetting
matter. We can think of only one thing at a time; when
we are dwelling on something good it means that bad
thinking isn't getting a chance to intrude.
Though I didn't understand it well then,
this technique worked for me during my first few weeks
of sobriety. Each morning, as I started the day, I would
find myself thinking about all the possible difficulties
that might arise; I would also fret over similar troubles
from the recent past. But I was able to quiet the disturbance
in a few seconds by remembering that my most important
task for the day was to avoid taking a drink, and that
life was going to be beautiful and successful if I observed
that, a day at a time.
We also have working in our favor the
fact that thinking patterns become habitual. If one
trains oneself to seek good thoughts, the time comes
when it is almost automatic in one's life. It is like
learning a new way of swinging a golf club. At first
it seems difficult and unnatural, but when the correct
way becomes seated in the mind, it takes over and supplies
its own momentum. When that happens in the thought-life,
one undergoes a change of character or personality.
Since changing one's thoughts lies within
the power of every person on earth, why don't more people
do it? We know that most of the severe problems in the
world stem from the way people think and feel. Why don't
they do something about it?
For some reason, few do. Many people
seem to believe that their problems are caused by society
as a whole or by certain other people, and scoff at
the suggestion that miraculous changes could occur in
their own lives simply through finding new attitudes.
Should they ask (with some sarcasm)
if people living where a tornado strikes invited it
with their thoughts, I'd still have to say, despite
my own deep convictions about the power of thought,
that I don't have an answer to that kind of question.
But about the possibility of changing
much of our lives by changing our thoughts, I'd say
what we used to say in the gin mills: "Don't knock
it until you've tried it."
& Brothers, New York City, 1938.