CATHOLIC WORLD, September, 1947
By Joseph McAllister
A member of Alcoholics Anonymous managed to get Joe out of jail after he let them know where he was. He had phoned the association because it seemed the only way to escape a sentence of thirty days for vagrancy. But what began as a expedient became decisive in Joe’s career. Alcoholics Anonymous was in the way of doing for Joe what it had done for countless others who had come to it acknowledging their weakness and resolved to take the means to stay sober.
On more than one occasion Joe had tried to break with drink. He went on the wagon, took pledges, vowed the most solemn and holy and usual vows – and kept them for a time. He made the old familiar brave efforts which so often prove simply futile for such a person.
But Joe would not admit he was an alcoholic. Like so many others he harbored the illusion that his weakness was temporary, passing, beatable, not his fault but due to family or business troubles. The latest slip would be the last absolutely! He would prove who was master.
When Joe came out of the sanatorium, where some members of the association had placed him, for the first time he frankly and humbly confessed his helplessness. He was an alcoholic and realized that if he was to recover he needed help. He could not do it alone.
Separated from his family for a dozen or more years, Joe bummed around the United States from coast. He followed the bitter pattern of a clever and personable middle-aged man, finding jobs with astonishing ease, holding them briefly with distinction, getting drunk and losing them, again sinking into penniless and sick degradation to wake up parched and hungry and dirty and emaciated to start the cycle all over again.
Meanwhile his family suffered the privations of a fatherless and poverty-stricken home. Joe’s wife with a brood of young children made heroic efforts to be breadwinner and mother and father and housekeeper. As the children grew up they did their part to keep the home together. Difficult as it was, all managed to finish high school and some went on to college. They were a family any father could be proud of.
This brief glimpse of Joe’s background is not by way of biography. It is the necessary preface toward understanding a mistake I made in trying to help him. While he was on the way to making good, though not yet united with his wife and children, I wrote a letter, pointing out all he had to gain by keeping sober and all he had to lose by crashing. His reply was a succinct explanation of Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy, which showed how unrealistic and dangerous my ideas had been. For this I was grateful. But I was no less astonished at the apologetic attitude Joe took toward the motive of keeping sober for one’s own sake.
“Speaking of Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy,” Joe wrote, “I reminded James yesterday of one of its first and foremost precepts: that is, to stay sober for ourselves and ourselves alone. It was always for someone else and I always failed in the end. The theory has been proved time and again that when an alcoholic stops drinking for his wife’s sake or for the children or in order to get a job or gain someone’s favor, it never succeeded permanently. When the family’s good will was restored, the job secured or favors received, invariably the person returned to the habit.
“As you know Alcoholics Anonymous is not a pressure plan; in fact, pressure is like emery in its smooth design. We promise nothing, we take each day as it comes and resolve simply to avoid that first drink that day, never anticipating tomorrow’s trials, much less next week’s, month’s or year’s. I am sober today for myself, not because I might disappoint James or anyone else, and although I am fully aware of how many chips are at stake, I am not to consider the risk, but leave the whole matter in God’s hands when I commit my will and desire to avoid drink that day.
“There is no doubt that pressure from the outside works inversely on the alcoholic. To remind him constantly of his tremendous undertaking (which is really nothing more difficult than avoiding the first drink for one day) and continue to point the terrible consequence of failure, is like having a man walk across a mine shaft over a six inch timber and let him see the certain destruction which awaits below if he falls. Whereas if he can be distracted from the danger by even some flimsy covering to hide the specter below he is more apt to retain his balance and cross successfully.
“When I remain sober for myself I risk nothing and have everything to gain. That is a pleasing, comfortable thought, and puts me completely at ease. But when I consider I am doing it for James, for you and others, for my job, I find I am risking everything with nothing to gain and everything to lose. Soon I am teetering precariously, with a tight apprehensive feeling and a constant specter of defeat. I am robbed of my easy comfort and begin to look around for some distraction, finally winding up perhaps by getting drunk again, the very thing to make my fears materialize.
“So as I told James, if you think that reminding me of the consequences is to strengthen my resolve, don’t believe it. That could be as bad as sympathy. Rather accept my daily program for what it is worth, and believe that I will succeed that day at least, and tomorrow – well, tomorrow is another day …. I am convinced that the Almighty is lending aid to this movement, but there are no natural or spiritual laws being violated, and a man still has to be willing to do his part in the age-old way. It works simply because it is extremely practical and because God is a friend.”
I was happy to have such a helpful exposition of Joe’s philosophy. However his statement that keeping sober simply for oneself was harsh rather astonished me. Discussing it with him later on I got the impression that such a motivation needed an apology. This seemed likewise to be the attitude of the organization. The psychology seemed correct in the sense that it worked. But apparently many members were a bit ashamed of it as being on the selfish side, and thought it needed an apology. Emphatically it does not.
The reason for this attitude is not hard to find. It stems from the false altruism which characterized many earnest and unselfish thinkers and writers of the nineteenth century and which has carried over into our own day.
An instance of this occurred not so long ago. To the question of whether it was right or wrong for a man to drink to intoxication in his own room without hurting anybody else, an astonishing number of students thought it was all right. They reasoned that as long as the man hurt no one but himself his conduct was not evil.
It need not be emphasized that to love one’s neighbor, to do good to him, to aid him in his physical and material and intellectual and spiritual needs, to think and speak well of him certainly is virtuous. But the pro-social character of the conduct is not the sum total of virtue.
Contrariwise, to hurt one’s neighbor, in his property or person or good name or in his family is evil and vicious – but the anti-social aspect of the crimes is not the essence of their moral evil. In other words, moral goodness and moral evil are not simply factors of the loving or unloving character of a man’s dealings with his fellow-man.
In the last analysis the motive for a man’s leading a good life must be sought in his personal relation with the ultimate goal of his existence.
Man’s destiny is not just to serve as a tool for social betterment in general nor for the welfare and happiness of some human beings in particular. He has the obligation of self-fulfillment untainted by selfishness.
Selfishness is not self love. The two are opposed as vice and virtue. For a man to give his life for his friend is self-love. For him to benefit himself to the injury of his neighbor is the vice of selfishness. Self-love is the obligation a man has to conduct himself relative to himself and to his neighbor in such a way that his conduct will conform to his destiny, which is his inherent and over-all perfection measured in terms of his highest and most truly human ideals.
If a man strives for these ideals, he is bound to fit into the social pattern. For by his nature man is a personal as well as a social being – not two things artificially sandwiched together, but one thing with an intricate dual aspect. True human perfection implies development along all truly human lines.
Consequently man’s first duty is to provide for that development which can not be divorced from himself. True self-love means that he will strive to attach himself to such things and conduct as will advance him along the path of his truest good. Unlike selfishness which draws man away from his perfection, self-love urges a man toward true and complete personal moral goodness and his ultimate goal, a share in God’s infinite goodness.
Man’s destiny, then, is personal-not, of course, in the sense that it is exclusively centered in himself, but in the sense that it is primarily related to his own person. There is absolutely no reason for a man’s feeling apologetic about clinging to sobriety for his own sake. It accords perfectly with a reasonable view of life.
If along with reason, revelation is appealed to, it is evident that Jesus Christ never condemned self-love in its proper meaning as opposed to selfishness. Far from castigating self-love or subordinating it to love of neighbor, even if the neighbor be wife or husband, son or daughter, friend, acquaintance or enemy. Christ made self-love the standard of loving others. Love thy neighbor as thyself is the way the Savior put it.
No one, certainly, can accuse Christ of favoring a selfish way of life or of encouraging His followers not to love and to do good to their fellow human beings. Rather He was simply expressing the due order which should characterize love of self and love of neighbor. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? is another expression of the Savior’s message, that salvation is personal. And to want to be saved means to love oneself properly. The Brotherhood of Man is a profound reality. But all the reality it has comes as the consequence of the Fatherhood of God.
From a practical point of view the best argument for the motive of keeping sober for one’s own sake is that it works. This is not to suggest that it works alone or that it is something which all by itself can bring a man or woman to forgo that first drink day after day. In no instance does the motive of self-love stand solitary. Clustered about it with more or less clarity are any number of motives. The important thing about this motive of keeping sober for ones own sake is that being dominant it fits into the psychological needs of the alcoholic.
To agree with Joe’s analysis of the alcoholics state of mind is not in the least to minimize the terrific importance of motive. It is merely to select the motive which experience has proved to be the most helpful and involving the least risk and which should be cultivated most carefully.
Joe’s example of a man walking a narrow plank over a deep mine shaft illustrates the psychological situation perfectly. Now add to the facts of self-consciousness the special problems of the alcoholic who is trying to reform. He knows with all the sharpness of heartbreaking memories what a fall will involve. He remembers what it is to lose the respect and perhaps love of wife and children, to lose his job and home. He knows as the non-alcoholic can never know the semi-conscious existence of alcohol-sodden days and weeks. He knows the misery of coming to and finding himself dirty and hungry and sick and alone – with the damming knowledge of what he has done to those he loves. That memory with the thought of its possible repetition is the abyss the alcoholic is crossing on the narrow plank of his not taking a drink. To remind him of the chasm is to weaken him and invite disaster.
All this is clear to me now as it was not when I wrote Joe that letter. The motive of self-love has philosophy and theology as well as solid empirical and psychological considerations in its favor. For all things which it does not need is an apology. But of all things that it does need and most needs is humility.
Self-love is not selfishness. It is not pride. It is a just appraisal of a difficult situation and on one’s own worth and weakness. All this involves humility.
Humility is not weakness any more than pride is strength. It is not weakness which leads a man to a just estimate of his own resources before he begins building a house or meeting an opponent on the golf course or challenging an expert bridge player or meeting the disastrous attraction of drink. Humility is just plain honest common sense.
As such it plays a tremendous influence in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most alcoholics have tried to recover but for the most part it has been on the assumption that they were not alcoholics, that they were men who “could take it or leave it alone.” Until they are prepared to admit that they are not men who can take it or leave it alone, there is not much hope for them. Hope begins to shine when they admit they cannot meet the challenge of alcohol, when they admit they are not as other men, when they confess they have drunk up their privilege to drink and are sick and weak and cannot cure themselves. It is the truth; it is humility. Humility is one of the consequences of truest self-love.
Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion. Any attempt to think of it in those terms is to convert it into a false thing. Nor is it a substitute for religion. So to consider it turns a good thing into a counterfeit. But Alcoholics Anonymous does urge its members to consider themselves in alliance with a power greater than themselves. This is a product of humility.
In trying to appeal to all men and to escape the differences of religious beliefs Alcoholics Anonymous purposely leaves vague the definition of this power greater than oneself. It is phrased to fit into any man’s or woman’s concept of the Deity. But this dependence upon the Supreme Being effects the perfection of truest self-love and sincerest humility.
For in the last analysis, man’s destiny as measured in terms of his being a creature of God signifies his journey through life toward the goal of fulfilling his heritage. There is no relation of himself with his fellow-man which can take priority over his relations with his God.
Characteristic of his relation with God is his acceptance of God’s dominion over the world and all that it contains and all that goes on in it. He trusts God as his ally. He faces each new day with a quiet moment Of thought and reflection, that his battle to keep away from from that first drink is in company with his Almighty Friend.
These two things, then, the motive of self-love and an honest humility which brings a man to admit his own weakness and find strength in God make a strong team. Of course, they are proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous on the purely empirical basis that they have worked and will work – granted that the man or woman takes up the entire program in earnest.
But the purely empirical basis for the motive of self-love is not enough. It leaves the person of deeper thought dissatisfied and leads him, perhaps, to be distrustful of the program in theory even while he admits its practical usefulness. For this reason it seems worthwhile to vindicate not only its utilitarian worth but its psychological soundness and philosophical and theological justification as well.