ABOUT seventeen years ago, a custodian at an Idaho jail drafted me and another inmate to carry stacks of old newspapers out of an adjoining storeroom for burning.
Taken by itself, it was simply one of those trivial and irksome things that happen to drunks in jail. But it was a turning point, for square on the top of one stack was a Sunday supplement with a feature article about Alcoholics Anonymous. I read it more carefully than anything I had seen up to that time about AA.
I didn't seek out AA then and there, but I did six months later, and by 1950 I was finally sober. I give that newspaper article a great deal of credit, and it may have been the most important single thing in pointing me to AA. That brings up an interesting multiple question: How was it that the article happened to be where it was at that time? How did it get on the top of the stack, and why was I picked out of a dozen or so men to move the papers?
It could have been a coincidence, or the law of averages working. Yet the same kind of thing has happened so many times since that I don't really place too much stock in coincidence any more, and neither do many of my AA friends. I believe that such a thing happens because there is a Higher Power, God as we understand Him, working ceaselessly in our best interests. This work was going on even before we were aware that we needed it, and it still goes on if we permit it. Far more power is available to us than most AA members are willing to accept. Our difficulty is not in persuading God of the legitimacy of our needs, it is primarily in convincing ourselves that He has our needs and interests at heart and knows the way to solve every problem.
If you think not so, consider the miracle of AA itself. In the early 1930's, people everywhere were pretty much disillusioned as to the possibility of solving drinking problems. The country had abandoned the idea that drinking could be solved by legal prohibitions, and, for the most part, groups of people were reduced to petty bickering over the subject.
The people who were to start Alcoholics Anonymous were, at that time, more in the dark than anybody. They were the social outcasts, the salt that had lost its savor, stretching out their tortured lives from one binge to the next. They, least of all, knew anything of the fine work they were to do.
But someone did, for already things were moving in their behalf. The Oxford Group had sprung up, and was particularly successful in using spiritual principles to help defeated, unhappy people; it was unusually strong in New York City at that time. There was also a growing interest in therapeutic methods of helping alcoholics, and it's likely that Dr. Silkworth of Town's Hospital--who was to give AA's Bill W. so much valuable help and advice--had studied these systems. One effective system, for example, was the notable Peabody method of counseling, which was enjoying promising success in the early 1930's. Perhaps Dr. Silkworth had looked into Richard Peabody's work, perhaps some of the Oxford Groupers had done so also, and had added the vital spiritual element which Peabody didn't use.
In any case, all of the ideas and information necessary for AA's launching were in place by late 1934 and, in seemingly casual ways, they came together. It could have been coincidence or the law of averages, but I choose to call it the work of God. Either He is everything or He is nothing and, if everything, then those things which we call coincidence are also subject to His will.
Consider also the work of the Higher Power in bringing individuals to AA. The ceaseless work of the Mighty Hand, in some of these cases, borders on the marvelous. One man finds AA while hitchhiking--the truck driver who picks him up is an AA member. Another drags himself to the bank to explain an overdrawn account and is led to our Fellowship by the bank manager, also an AA member. And the story of one of my AA friends is almost too incredible to relate. Deciding to die, he drove out to a lonely road and connected a hose from the exhaust pipe to the inside of his car. Shortly after he lost consciousness, a state policeman came by and rushed him to the hospital. What was the policeman doing on this deserted road? Well, he was taking a short cut from one main highway to another!
Some people may decline to accept the evidence of such examples on the grounds that God does not play favorites. They might ask: What about the people who weren't saved? The alcoholics who didn't find AA; those who died before the state policeman arrived? If God is the Father of all, why did He not spare them also? In this same vein, a columnist once noted that it was rather thoughtless for the lone survivor of a plane crash to state that God had spared him when thirty others had died.
The answer, of course, is that there is no complete answer to this question, for our knowledge of God and how He works is limited. But we do ourselves an injustice by brooding over difficult philosophical questions instead of going ahead by putting a simple faith to work in our lives. In my cups, I used to sneer, "If there's a God, why is there all this suffering in the world?" One possible answer--though it didn't occur to me then--was that much suffering was caused, not by God, but by people in their cups who sat around and knocked the universe and its Management instead of doing some work themselves.
If such a question does cause us doubt, even after we're safe and sober in AA, we should, I think, put it to rest as quickly as possible. Our duty is to absorb and radiate as much of the AA program as we can get, and we won't do that very well if we restrict the spiritual phase of the program to a small corner of our lives. One of the great teachings of the Christian religion, for example, is that man has free will, and another is that God is no respecter of persons. These are difficult ideas to digest, but in time they become more palatable and they help answer some of our most irksome questions. The idea of free will for example, keeps me from blaming my troubles on God or others, and the no-respecter-of-persons thought keeps me from imagining that I'm a member of a spiritual aristocracy of some kind.
In other words, we should focus our attention on what we know to be good and answerable, and not on what seems to be wrong and unanswerable. I believe the important thing is that a Higher Power, a Guiding Spirit or Intelligence, caused AA to be, and led us to become part of it. With this as my premise, I have gone on to believe that the same Power Who worked through men and events to create AA wants to go on working in our lives. He wants to move and to be known in every person's life. He wants man to acknowledge and accept his spiritual birthright as a child of God and is, in fact, literally moving heaven and earth to help bring this about. The reason this hasn't happened yet on a broad scale is that man is slow, painfully slow, to want it himself.
Perhaps I would have arrived at this picture of God and man much sooner if I hadn't been a bachelor for so many years. But now I'm the father of two small sons, and their painful growth teaches me something about our relationship to God. I have to let my sons make mistakes and sometimes fall, so they can learn by themselves. In the same way, God apparently lets His children make painful, sometimes tragic mistakes, but the needed lessons are slowly being learned. My two boys have insistent demands for excessive candy and dangerous playthings, and sometimes I must seem almost cruel and overbearing in my denials. Perhaps there are times when God makes similar denials in our behalf, to protect us from harm that would teach no lesson. There are also times when my boys seem unbearably wicked towards each other or a playmate, and then I have to curb my own fury. I am able to do that because I love my sons, and if we sometimes wonder why God does not sweep away the wrongdoers of this world with one mighty lightning bolt, we might reflect that His Universal Love goes out to all men, wrongdoers included.
As our own children grow older, and become responsible, we give them more responsibility and power. Does God do this for us also? I believe that He does, and that the way to avail ourselves of additional power is contained in the AA suggested Steps and other writings.
One Teacher-of-old put it this way: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you; For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."
AA's founders took the same idea and others and did this with them: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."
Did the Teacher-of-old, and AA's founders, intend to deceive us with these guidelines, which seem quite to the point and leave little room for doubting? Do they not say here. in as many words, that we can make a conscious contact with God, that He does have a will (or plan) for each of us, and that the necessary power can be supplied? All that's necessary is that we want it ourselves and that we seek it through prayer and meditation. We need bring nothing but ourselves; nothing more is required.
What happens when we make "conscious contact" with God? Do we see flashes of light and hear bells? Are we swept heavenward on wings of ecstasy? Do we wonder, momentarily, if we are losing our sanity?
A careful reading of case histories of spiritual experiences convinces me that light, ecstasy and other phenomena may occur but they are hardly necessary. Bill W., our AA co-founder, had such a sudden spiritual experience, but tends to minimize its long-term importance. What really matters is the change in attitude that develops, and as a person's attitude changes for the better, his life also changes for the better. A "conscious contact" with God becomes, in practice, a "conscious contact" with the heart of mankind. The more conscious we are that man is our brother, the more conscious we become that God is our Father. We are forgiven, and feel forgiven, if we forgive. We find mercy if we show it. We feel that we are loved if we try to love all others. When an individual knows this and practices it in all his affairs, a quiet change comes over his life--a change, in its way, no less spectacular than the breakup of ice on a great river in the spring.
This kind of thinking is a long way to come from a stack of newspapers in an Idaho jail. My point is a simple one: Somebody up there likes you, is seeking you, and has the gates of His kingdom wide open for you. The AA program suggests total submission to God's will and, because of this, it has what it takes to direct you all the way. If anything's needed, you'll find your way to it--the right persons, places and things will show up at the right time. Just make sure it's God's will you're truly seeking, and you'll find the power to do things that were previously impossible. And this isn't as big an order as it seems. For many of us, when we were in places like the Idaho jail, it was once almost an impossibility to smile!
M. D. B.