July 1967 AA Grapevine
Big Book Stories – Updated (1 of 5)
The Big Book of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, was first published in 1939. A revised edition was published in 1955. Now, twelve years later, the Grapevine begins an exciting new series of articles, to appear every other month for as long as the articles hold out: Big Book Stories – Updated. On page 336 of the Big Book (2nd edition) appears “The Professor and the Paradox.” Now the professor, from a vantage of another dozen years’ sobriety, reflects on why he became alcoholic and why AA works for him:
MIRACULOUS IS THE WORD
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., July 1967
I have tried hard not to be proud that my little narrative – “The Professor and the Paradox” – was included among the Personal Stories in the Revised (1955) Second Edition of the Big Book. Whenever I get too puffed up about it, I usually remind myself of an appropriate AA story I have told on several occasions. It concerns a young Canadian priest who was serving his church in northeast Canada, travelling about on snowshoes and dog sled, covering a territory about twice the size of Texas, and ministering to a total population of about twenty-eight people. After five years of this, his headquarters in Montreal decided he needed a short rest, and he was accordingly called home for a mild celebration. At the welcome banquet given in his honor when he arrived in Montreal, the master of ceremonies of course praised the young priest highly, and apparently overdid it. For later in the evening when the banquet was over and the young priest had retired to his room, he was overheard saying his prayers. Here is what he was saying: “Dear Lord, please keep me humble, because I am a very great man.”
There is at least one disadvantage in having one’s story in the Big Book. Most of us in AA have basically only one story, and that one in the Big Book is mine. As the evening’s speaker, before and since the Revised Edition was published, I have delivered that speech more or less word for word to many groups in many places, particularly in my own and a few neighboring states. Once after I had thus delivered it as part of a program at an AA State Convention out west where I was virtually unknown, I was standing alone among the crowd in the lobby of the convention auditorium and happened to overhear one man telling another about me: “That last speaker was a liar and a thief and a fake. He stole every word he said right out of a story printed in the Big Book!” In the rush of the crowd I never saw him again or got a chance to correct him as to my character.
In my original account of myself I described my advent into AA as a happening brought about by some forces at work that I did not – and still do not – understand. I knew only that something happened to me that had never happened before. At one time I thought I had simply made a decision instead of a mere alcoholic promise, but I discarded that idea in favor of assigning the cause to the guiding hand of God, following by my own attempt to take the Twelve Steps to Recovery. I ended by saying that “whatever it was that brought me in, I have been in AA and I have been dry ever since.” Very fortunately, I can still say so.
I have often wondered why – precisely and exactly why – I got myself into the horrible alcoholic condition I was in when I joined our AA group. I am not sure that I have discovered this yet. Of course, the alcoholic has been variously and diversely defined. It has even been suggested that he simply does not know what he really wants, or always wants something that he doesn’t have, and one of the humorous definitions of him illustrates this theory beautifully. An alcoholic (according to this definition, which I learned from a fine AA from Dallas) is a fellow who when he is rich wants to be poor, and when he is poor wants to be rich; when he is single he wants to be married, and when he is married he wants to be single; when he goes to a wedding he wants to be the bride; when he goes to the dinner table he wants to make love, and when he goes to bed he wants to eat!
But let us be serious. It is now generally recognized that alcoholism is a symptom of some deep-seated maladjustment of one’s personality, a symptom of some emotional conflict which one has been unable to solve. For example, in my case (perhaps not in yours, but at any rate in mine), I am a self-centered person, very egotistical, and quite unreasonable in my demands upon other people (either actually or in my thoughts about them). I became so self-centered that I withdrew myself into a small circle that got smaller and smaller until there was no one in it but myself. There was no real company there except my bottle. Next, I am “emotionally immature,” which I explain as being emotionally susceptible (far beyond the normal) to resentment, envy, fear, anxiety and grandiose day-dreaming. (Most alcoholics I know well are extremely affected by one or more or all five of these.) Then, I tried hard to be a perfectionist and failed, of course, to advance to anything even remotely perfect. Finally, I was running away from something – perhaps from the reality of my situation.
These (self-centeredness, emotional immaturity, striving for perfection and running away), I think, are the chief personality traits that play havoc with the alcoholic’s way of living. At least they seemed to do so with me. And they are difficult traits to get rid of. I haven’t got rid of mine yet, but I have improved. I have improved to the extent that I no longer have to take a drink or a pill to overcome them.
Do not ever let anybody tell you that the AA program is easy to make. It isn’t. That I am unmanageable and have personality weaknesses or shortcomings which can lead me to disaster was to me most unreasonable. It was very difficult for me to realize that the Twelve Steps, which looked so naïve at first, would succeed better than all my well-thought-out methods. That I was powerless over anything was a bitter pill to swallow. It was hard for me to keep “an open mind” or do my part to let others “live.” It took a “bottom” of considerable crisis to reduce me to personal helplessness so acute that I was ready for humility and surrender. And all of this was not attained by me by my simply walking into an AA meeting place.
The AA program and procedure has worked well for me and for a tremendous number of other people. Why does it work when other things fail? We don’t know. We really don’t know. We do have a lot of ideas. We know a great deal about drinking – its pleasure as well as its tragedies, its humorous side, the flimsy alibis, the hiding places, the degradation and helplessness of alcoholic’s victims. Nevertheless, we don’t really know precisely why AA works.
But we do know that we get a lot of help from continual association with our groups. We get a lot of help from the observations we can make there. We benefit from associating with excessive drinkers who stay sober, and this seems to have some sort of favorable psychological effect (so much so that one is tempted to speculate that sobriety among alcoholics is contagious). We benefit from association with excessive drinkers who do not stay sober, which seems to have favorable results too. We also sit around and take everybody else’s “inventory,” until the thought strikes us that we had better take our own. But above all we learn to eliminate alcoholism by doing certain things which strike at the deep-seated causes of the malady, rather than simply taking away or shutting off the whiskey. We learn to change our self-centeredness, to stop running away from things we don’t like, and to remove or at least adjust our emotional shortcomings.
We do these things by taking seriously and honestly our Twelve Steps, the nearest thing to a “cure” for alcoholism that anybody has yet discovered. We learn that these Steps (over a sufficient period of time) will change our attitudes, change our thinking, change our personalities (if that be possible), change the inner man or woman into something it had not been before, and change our pattern of living into one we had not enjoyed in the past. We learn to do these things not by just memorizing the Steps (though that is a good idea), but by attempting to live and act them each day of our lives. And eventually, often when we least expect it, we discover that as a result of all this we are happy and contented and full of thanksgiving – something I once knew (or thought I knew) I could never be, without drinking.
Members of AA groups are full of miraculous changes like that. I am one of those fortunate ones who has had it happen to me. There are hundreds of thousands of others in AA today.
J.P., Kent, Ohio
THE PROFESSOR AND THE PARADOX
Says he, We A.A.’s surrender to win; we give away to keep; we suffer to get well, and we die to live.
I am in the public information business. I use that phrase or designation because if I say I am a college professor everybody always has a tendency to run the other way. And when they learn that I am a specialist in English, they have looks of horror for fear they are going to slip up and say ain’t. I often wish I sold shoes or insurance or fixed automobiles or plumbed pipes. I would have more friends.
My story is not a great deal different from others – except in a few specific details. All the roads of alcoholism lead to the same place and condition. I suppose I have always been shy, sensitive, fearful, envious, and resentful, which in turn leads one to be arrogantly independent, a defiant personality. I believe I got a Ph.D. degree principally because I wanted to either outdoor defy everybody else. I have published a great deal of scholarly research – I think for the same reason. Such determination, such striving for perfection, is undoubtedly an admirable and practical quality to have, for a while; but when a person mixes such quality with alcohol, that quality can eventually cut him almost to pieces. At least it did so to me. I began drinking as a social drinker, in my early twenties. Drinking constituted no problem for me until well after I finished graduate school at the age of thirty. But as the tensions and anxieties of my life began to mount, and the setbacks from perfection began to increase, I finally slipped over the line between moderate drinking and alcoholism. No longer would I drink a few beers or a cocktail or two and let it go at that. No longer did I let months or even weeks go by without liquor. And when drinking, I entered what I now know was the dream world of alcoholic fantasy. Then for about five years of progressively worse alcoholic drinking, of filling my life and home with more and more wreckage, it looked as if I were going to ride this toboggan of destruction to the bitter end.
Maybe I didn’t get as bad as some of the others. I must confess that I never went to teach one of my classes drunk or drinking, but I’ve been awfully hungover. My pattern was to be drunk at night, boil myself out to creep to work in the morning, drunk the next night, boil myself out in the morning, drunk again the next night, boil myself out the next morning. I may not have drunk as much whiskey as some, but there isn’t anybody whose drunk any more Sal Hepatica than I have!
Now there are all kinds of drunks: melancholy drunks, weeping drunks, traveling drunks, slaphappy and stupid drunks, and a number of other varieties. I was a self-aggrandizing and occasionally violent drunk. You wouldn’t’’ think a little fellow like me could do much damage, but when I’m drunk I’m pure dynamite. I’m not going into any other details – the University can fire me yet!
I came to believe actually that life was not worth living unless I could drink. I was utterly miserable and sometimes desperate, living always with a feeling of impending calamity (I knew something was bound to “break loose”). And to do away with such a fear, I would try a little more drinking, with the inevitable result – for by this time one drink would set up in me that irresistible urge to take another and another until I was down or hungover and in trouble. In the hungover stage I would vow never to touch another drop, and then be drunk the next night.
I knew at least that there had to be some changes made. I tried to change the time and place and amount of my drinking. I tried to change my environment, my place of living – like most of us who at one time or another think that our trouble is geography rather than whiskey. I even entertained the idea of changing wives. I tried to change everything and everybody, except myself—the only thing I could change.
I did not know that it was physically impossible for me to drink moderately. I did not know that my body’s drinking machinery had worn out, and that the parts could not be replaced. I did not know that just one drink made it impossible for me to control my behavior and conduct and my future drinking. I did not know, in short, that I was powerless over alcohol. My family and my friends sensed or knew these things about me long before I did.
Finally, as with most of us in A.A., the crisis came. I realized I had a drinking problem which had to be solved. My wife and a close friend tried to persuade me to contact the only member of Alcoholics Anonymous we knew of in town. This I refused to do. But I agreed that I would stop drinking altogether, maintaining stoutly and sincerely that I could and would solve this problem “on my own.” I would feel much better doing it that way, I insisted. I stayed sober for two entire weeks! Then I pitched a lulu of a terrible drunken affair in which I became violently insane. I also landed in the City Jail.
I don’t know exactly what happened on this bender, but here are some things that did happen which I was told about subsequently. First, the officers who had come out to my house did not want to take me in – but I insisted! Also, I insisted that they wait in the living room while I went back to the bedroom and changed into my best and newest suit (with socks and tie to match), so that I would look nice in jail! I don’t remember the ride downtown, but when I came to the jail corridor, I didn’t like the looks of the little cage they were shoving me into, so I took issue about that with three officers and indulged in some fisticuffs with all three of them at once–each one of them twice my size and armed with a gun and a blackjack. Now what kind of thinking and acting is that? If that isn’t insanity, or absurd grandiosity, or some sort of mental illness, what is it? Because I yelled so loud and made so much noise, I ended up downstairs under the concrete in a place they call solitary. (That’s a fine place now isn’t it? for a college professor to spend the night!)
Two days later I was willing to try A.A., which I had only vaguely heard of a few months before. I called at the home of the man who started the A.A. group in my town, and I went humbly with him to an A.A. meeting the following night.
As I look back, something must have happened to me during those two days. Some forces must have been at work which I do not understand. But on those two days – between jail and A.A. – something happen to me that had never happened before. I repeat, I don’t know what it was. Maybe I had made a “decision” – just a part of Step Three (I had made lots of promises but never a decision) – though it seems to me that I was at the time too confused and fogged up to make much of one. Maybe it was the guiding hand of God, or (as we Baptists say) the Holy Spirit. I like to think that it was just that, followed by my own attempt to take the Twelve Steps to recovery. Whatever it was, I have been in A.A. and I have been dry ever since. That was more than six years ago.
A.A. does not function in a way which people normally expect it to. For example, instead of using our “will power,” as everyone outside A.A. seems to think we do, we give up our wills to a Higher Power, place our lives in hands – invisible hands – stronger than ours. Another example: If twenty or thirty of us real drunks get away from home and meet in a clubroom downtown on Saturday night, the normal expectation is that all thirty of us will surely get roaring drunk, but it doesn’t work out that way, does it? Or talking about whiskey and old drinking days (one would normally think) is sure to raise a thirst, but it doesn’t work that way either, does it? Our program and procedures seem to be in many ways contrary to normal opinion.
And so, in connection with this idea, let me pass on what I consider the four paradoxes of how A.A. works. (A paradox, you probably already know, is a statement which is seemingly self-contradictory; a statement which appears to be false, but which, upon careful examination, in certain instances proves to be true.)
1.We SURRENDER TO WIN. On the face of it, surrendering certainly does not seem like winning. But it is in A.A. Only after we have come to the end of our rope, hit a stone wall in some aspect of our lives beyond which we can go no further; only when we hit “bottom” in despair and surrender, can we accomplish sobriety which
we could never accomplish before. We must, and we do, surrender in order to win.
2.We GIVE AWAY TO KEEP. That seems absurd and untrue. How can you keep anything if you give it away? But in order to keep whatever it is we get in A.A., we must go about giving it away to others, for no fees or rewards of any kind. When we cannot afford to give away what we have received so freely in A.A., we had
better get ready for our next “drunk.” It will happen every time. We’ve got to continue to give it away in order to keep it.
3.We SUFFER TO GET WELL. There is no way to escape the terrible suffering of remorse and regret and shame and embarrassment which starts us on the road to getting well from our affliction. There is no new way to shake out a hangover. It’s painful. And for us, necessarily so. I told this to a friend of mine as he sat weaving to and fro on the side of the bed, in terrible shape, about to die for some paraldehyde. I said, “Lost John” – that’s his nickname – “Lost John, you know you’re going to have to do a certain amount of shaking sooner or later.” “Well,” he said, “for God’s sake let’s make it later!” We suffer to get well.
4.We DIE TO LIVE. That is a beautiful paradox straight out of the Biblical idea of being “born again” or “losing one’s life to find it”. When we work at our Twelve Steps, the old life of guzzling and fuzzy thinking, and all that goes with it, gradually dies, and we acquire a different and a better way of life. As our shortcomings are removed, one life of us dies, and another life of us lives. We in A.A. die to live.
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., July 1967
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