PRIEST, Vol. 19: 830-834, October, 1963
WHITHER – IF A WAY?
W.A.G. – ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
So many speakers at A.A. meetings with the utmost sincerity say that A.A. is a Way of Life for them. Up until they had joined the fellowship, either they had no way of life or, having had one, they had abandoned it through drinking. For both types, A.A. did mean that a new life was opening up for them – if not new in all respects, still new to them as they began to live it.
This recurring expression, a Way of Life, used to invoke in me, at my earlier meetings, mixed feelings. It alternately annoyed me and puzzled me. I did not doubt that the speakers were saying something that was very real to them; the excitment in their voices, the quietness of their facial expressions, the intensity of feelings mirrored in their eyes – all these bore eloquent testimony to the reality. They did begin to live; a new dawn did break for them; a new day that promised no end did open up to them.
So, why was I annoyed? This idea was so insisted upon that I felt, in my confused state of mind, I had to accept it at face value or face the alternative that I was not accepting the A.A. program of recovery. And I resisted this insistence. I was sure that I had a satisfactory Way of Life, one that was perfectly satisfactory. The only unsatisfactory feature of it was that I was not following it as I ought. I knew how I ought to live; no one needed to tell me that. I had known it all my rational life. I knew, too, that if I stopped drinking, I would be able to live that life, at least less imperfectly than when I was drinking. So why this constant insistance on a Way of Life? In those days, had anyone suggested to me that I had to adopt a new Way of Life, one associated with A.A. or any other fellowship, I would indignantly have refused even to consider it.
Why was I puzzled? Well, a way, to me, brings up the picture of a road, a path, a channel, an avenue, a via, to something. I can go to Chicago over the road, on rails, through the air. This is the way 1 go; this is the means by which I reach my intended destination. But it is not itself a destination. Thus, when people said “A.A. is a way of life,” I waited to hear “to what?,” “wither away?” (if you’ll pardon the expression). To what goal, what destination? To sobriety, of course. Fine; but is sobriety itself a final goal for human striving? Or is sobriety itself but a means to a further goal, and if so, what is this further goal?
At this point, then, let me say that from the beginning of my membership in A.A., the program has been to me a means by which to obtain and maintain sobriety. Sobriety, in turn, is a means whereby I can more fully and properly carry out the obligations of my state in life. I feel quite sure that the majority, if not all, of those who use the expression intend the same thing. Yet, I still feel not a little uneasy with the expression because of certain overtones which often accompany it.
These can be reduced to two exaggerated versions of it. The first is that of the people for whom A.A. now represents the whole of life, the whole of their daily living, the be-all and end-all of their existence. The other is the raising of A.A. to the status of a religion or something very much like it. Perhaps there is little or no difference in the two views. And it will not matter for what I wish to say, if they are considered identical. Because I am interested rather in the effects thereof both on individual members and on A.A. itself.
It might be useful at this point, to describe in somewhat greater detail the people to whom I refer. A representative person might be such: he had reached bottom, lost wife, children, home, job, friends, respect of others, self-respect. There was nowhere to go. Up? He had nothing to get him up ! Down? There was no lower level for him to reach.
Then A.A. came into his life. He was fortunate in getting a sponsor who shepherded him to meetings every night, was available for a chat during the day, introduced him to others who had the same problem as himself. He accepted willingly all suggestions; he concentrated on the “one day at a time,” he began to hear and to heed what was said by speakers. Gradually, he had come a long way. He got back his self-respect, the respect of others, a job, friends, home, wife and children. Most importantly he had faith in a Higher Power, in God. And all this through A.A. and, he said, the grace of God. These did not appear to him as two distinct things or experiences; they were somehow one.
Through the grace of God, he found A.A. Through A.A., he found God. They are linked intimately and indissolubly in his mind and heart. With them, he needs nothing more; with them he has everything. In his own thinking and in his talks at A.A. meetings, he may go further. He may specify that it was not a doctor nor a psychiatrist nor a marriage counsellor nor a clergyman nor a church, that brought him to sobriety. No; he may have tried some or all of them and found them wanting – each and every one of them. Thus A.A. is the beacon light of his life; A.A. is his life; A.A. is his Way of Life. In it he finds the answers to all his problems; here are all the solutions he needs or will ever need.
After Sobriety, What?
So far, so good. I shall offer one comment on the member himself. Let me pose it in the form of a question. Beyond sobriety, what? Is this the end of the thing? Isn’t there something even more fundamental – the purpose of human life itself? Is this a temporal goal, one bound by the limits of one’s span on earth? This God in whom he believes: Is He Creator – Has He set a goal to each human life? Is that goal in some way Himself or linked with Him? Is man destined for life beyond the grave? – a life of happiness with God? Is He the “Our Father” to whom he addresses the prayer at the close of each meeting?
What does the phrase of the third step mean to him: God as we understand Him? Is He bound within the finite and imperfect limits of A.A.? After all, this is a fellowship of men and women. Surely, God is something more; surely, God transcends A.A. Granted that God has graciously and wondrously given us this marvellous fellowship; isn’t even this only a means to bring us to Him, to a striving to realize in our lives the basic goal God set for man when He created Man? Enough. I merely wished to enter the caution, offered in all charity, to the member who may tend to exaggerate A.A. beyond any intention of the program itself.
Let us consider then the effect, at any rate the possible effect, on other members, with special reference to newcomers. There are certainly some people who recognize that they need help with their alcoholic problem. They are grateful that they were introduced to A.A. They are prepared to accept the entire recovery program. They have no problem about faith in God nor about turning over their wills and their lives to the care of God. But they are not prepared to accept A.A. as totally embracing their lives; they cannot eat, drink, sleep, breath A.A. 24 hours a day. They have very definite responsibilities are serious moral obligations to them.
They will attend as many meetings as they can; they will read as much A.A. literature as they can; they will try to carry out in their daily lives the principles of A.A. (which they discover perhaps to be in no way different from what they were taught at home, in school, in church) as best they can. But they will not accept the proposition that henceforth A.A. is to absorb their total thinking, their total willing, their total living. They will accept it as a means to an end; an admirable means, a necessary means, a helpful means, but a means. They know their “whither”; they accept A.A. as a way to that “whither.”
But they will not exalt A.A. to the pedestal on which some misguided persons would put it.
What now of A.A. itself? I know no more dangerous enemy to the fellowship and to the great good it accomplishes than the exaggerated notion of A.A. entertained by the people I referred to earlier. They tend to put A.A. in the place of medical science, which was never intended by the early members and which appears in no place in the recovery program nor in the A.A. traditions. They tend to put it in place of psychiatry, of marriage counselling, of the clergy, of religion. They tend to substitute A.A. for all of these.
They want to make it co-extensive with human living and the purpose of human living. And they are wrong, frightfully wrong, though perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly. They do no service to A.A. but a great disservice, when they speak disparagingly of medicos, head shrinkers and the like; when they ask “Why do you go to a clergyman? What can he tell you that we can’t tell you?” When they rant against any person who takes pills of any kind, even cough medicine, even though prescribed by a competent physician. I could go on and on with similar such exaggerations.
What is important to grasp is the simple fact that these people are in danger of making A.A., it principles, its traditions, its spirit, its purpose, its whole essence, distasteful, unpalatable, repulsive, not only to the general public but more importantly to the sick and suffering alcoholic who needs A.A. – but does not need their personal and untypical brand of it.
The Middle Road
Someone has said that our vices are the excesses or the defects of our virtues; that virtue always holds to the middle road, to the via media, avoiding extremes. A.A. to me is such a via media, a real middle road. The people I have referred to have carried it to excess on the one hand, first, in excluding the often necessary help of other fields dealing with the alcoholic and, secondly, in trying to make A.A. a cure-all. They have also erred by defect on the other hand, by not realizing that a spiritual program, in itself of a general character and thus having the appeal of universality, must in the concrete assume a religious aspect.
I trust my meaning will not be mistaken; I know A.A. is not a religious program. But individuals do have religious obligations. The very word religion bespeaks obligations, principally to God and derivatively to self and one’s neighbor. And a man by his very nature and origin and destiny has obligations to his Creator. That is why I say that, in the concrete reality of human living, individual men and women, if they are to live spiritually, must do so within the context of religious beliefs and practices, however diverse these may be in themselves. A.A. does not prescribe any such specific religious beliefs and practices. They are derived from another source antecedent to and independent of A.A.
But A.A. does prepare the raw material if you will; it does prepare the mold on which can be imprinted the religious life of its individual members. A.A. is, if you wish, of itself neutral with respect to religion. But individuals may not be nor does A.A. say they may. As far as A.A. is concerned, each member is free with respect to religion. But the member himself is in no way free to accept or reject religious obligations.
I think it can be safely said that A.A. members are reminded through their spiritual A.A. awakening of their previous religious commitments or they undertake to formulate such according to their temperament and dosposition if they had done before. But in no case does A.A. substitute for religion. And any member who makes this substitute and so lives is doing harm to A.A. itself, to potential members, and to the public image of A.A. which is vital to its very being and purpose.
A.A. rejects nothing that is good, embraces everything that is good. And it is good that individual members embrace religious beliefs and practices. This is the surest way to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God. This is the surest way to bind oneself in closest harmony with our fellow alcoholics and our fellow non-alcoholics. This is the surest way to make ourselves the best person possible and thus the best possible alcoholics anonymous.