Will and Recovery: Is English adequate to translate the language of the heart?

Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. ~Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964)

(Print, read or distribute with PDF version) If will has no place in sobriety, what is meant by "willingness?"

This word is the first of three indispensable attributes (willingness, honesty and open-minded). While I would have loved at one time to be able to learn to drink in moderation (and I can't), I can channel moderation in my recovery. I must use my will according to Nehru. Self-will-run-riot is a type of blind insanity but determination is not. I don't blame AA literature or culture for inconsistencies; the English language is desperately lacking. There are things we know in life but can't express.

Ernie Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham's new book Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling tells of a Taoist notion, "Those who know don't say and those who say, don't know." We all know what a rose smells like, right? Try describing it. There are things we know well but can't articulate. This is how language goes. You and I may have the same experience of yellow but language is inadequate for you and I to describe our experience to determine if both of us are seeing the exact same thing when we are looking at the color yellow. Staying with the Taoist theme, yin is spontaneity, but in the extreme, chaotic and nihilistic. Yang is order, but in its extreme, rigid and Fascist.

Chaos and order are not opposites. They are relative to each other and dependent on each other in a balanced person as in a balanced universe. I call my will that balanced place whereby I am not letting myself get too chaotic or too rigid. It is not God’s will and it is not self-will-run-riot. Appendix II of Alcoholics Anonymous describes higher power in a way I can live with. "With few exceptions, our members have found that they had tapped an unsuspected inner resource that they currently identify as a power greater than ourselves."

As we know, the Big Book goes on to say, "Our more religious members call it God-consciousness." So, for those of us who are not in the "more religious members" category, there is no need to use the God language or even appease the masses with rhetoric like, “God as I understand Him means Group Of Drunks (or Good Orderly Direction).” I would never come up with these terms on my own. It’s only when I compare myself to the overwhelming majority of God-fearing or God loving (whatever they want to call themselves) members in Twelve Step recovery, am I inclined to relate my belief in their language. It would sound like nonsense in any context outside of a Twelve Step conversation. Sure, I can talk that way if I want to, but I don't want to be a people pleaser so I do not.

After all, GOD is also an acronym for Gaggle Of Drones – lol

Individualism and unity have that same interdependent relationship as yin and yang or order and chaos. What would be the value of a unified fellowship of drones, babbling a mindless cliché of uniformed gibberish? We need strong individuals to have a useful, meaningful unified whole. These individuals, for the whole to unified, have to be open-minded, honest and willing to get along. That isn’t all of us going along with exactly the same narrative to get along. Au contraire; it is embracing our differences, Vive la différence! That goes for all of us—atheists, agnostics, theists.

None of us have a lock on permanent recovery. None of us have an easier go of getting sober or a leg up on the other as far as finding a life of meaning in sobriety. While we need not obey anyone else’s belief system nor deny our own, what is there to learn from each other?

In a Ted talk, John Bellamy[i] makes the point that while yin is the white swirl and yang the black, each has the seed of its interdependent twin. Using the new-age spirituality of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has dark side of the force potential, while his father, Darth Vader has the potential for good. This is a variation on the Jesus on one shoulder, Lucifer on the other myth.

This relativity is lost in the debate between a naturalist vs. super-naturalist worldview that only has room for one ultimate truth. Only ultimate purgatory—not truth—awaits a life lived in suspended animation holding out for this ultimate question of the universe to be resolved. That binary thinking doesn’t have to be our way.

Pluralism is how Twelve Step life was designed. We were invited to broaden our knowledge and open our hearts. Atheists are no threat to AA’s God-conscious members. AA’s antiquated literature is no threat to an atheist’s sovereignty. If you can’t find a secular narrative from the “as it was written” Big Book, should we blame the book?

Those of us in the middle of the yin/yang merry-go-round of worldviews are never put off balance by the opposing views of others. It is only those of us at the extreme that feel antagonistic, victimized or feel the need to petition the fellowship for urgent change.

Those of us with a rigid, literalist interpretation of our Twelve Step program want atheist to hit the bricks and stop the “destruction of AA from the inside.” They see in the nonbeliever, the threat of nihilism. What they call, “watered down AA” is, at the heart of it, the threat of liberalism that will secularize all of AA, undoing their imaginary legacy of a constant, uniformed message and interpretation. Fascism can’t stand individualism. It scapegoats minorities as evil or dangerous and rallies to take away standing for all nonconformists.

According to the Taoist philosophy the seed of the rigid literalist’s intolerance is their own fear born of their own doubt. Yes, it is the doubt that lingers in the believer the spurs them on to evict the atheist. Believers don’t have proof of a prayer answering god—only faith. And what do we say is the opposite of faith? Fear. While that faith is encouraged by likeminded adherents, it is threatened by those who may mock devotion as a child-like belief.

The extreme nonbeliever also rallies for change. We cry about persecution and justice and we say, as Jim Burwell told his fellows in the day, “AA would be better without all this God bunk.” Moderates don’t mind being in the presence of prayer. Extremists are insulted by it. What is it that seeds the nonbelievers demands for a new, more secular Big Book? If this is born of intolerance then, might it also be caused from the same fear that is only the natural doubt that comes from an equally un-winnable argument about a universe of chaos?

AA is changing because, as with all things, change is inevitable. Should it change according to the back-to-basics fundamentalists agenda? Should AA be re-written without the theistic assumptions of mid-20th century middle-class America? I don’t know that best practices are to be found in either of these extreme positions. Would AA be better if one extreme won out and demanded compliance from the rest of us? I don’t think so.

What keeps the Twelve Step rooms vibrant and viable is that there continues to be room for everyone. The ranters rant their liberal and conservative rants. The moderates mind their own business, curious and not threatened by each other. There has never been a better time to be in Twelve Step recovery. No matter what you believe someone is releasing a book that will reinforce your believe. Someone else is putting out a book that will challenge your beliefs. Fining an online room of your peeps has never been easier. Surround yourself with likeminded individuals, if that’s what you need. Reach out in every direction and leave no stone unturned, if you are a seeker. Challenge those who disagree with you, if you must. I need to remember that alternate worldviews in a pluralist society are relative to me—not opposed to me.

In my experience, I can always find a fight if I am in a fighting mood. I can always find the hand extended, If I (not they) am open-minded, honest and willing. Life is like a mirror. What happens to the image in the mirror when I frown? It frowns back. And when I smile?

The more insecure I feel, the more I need to persuade or evangelize my As Joe Sees It brand of life worth living. Why should it matter that even one person agreed with me if I am secure with my path that I have chosen for myself? If I have found what is true for me, agreement or disagreement should just be par for the course.

AA will unveil a new pamphlet about the variety of spiritual paths in AA, from atheism to the range of Abrahamic monotheistic beliefs, to Eastern and aboriginal philosophy and rituals. It’s called a spirituality pamphlet. If you don’t like the term spiritual experience, just call it experience or change the word—the word won’t mind.
I will close with this: Early in Ketcham and Kurtz’s Experiencing Spirituality has this to say about experience:
There are two terms that, while the processes surely are included in experience, are anything but substitutes for it: “feel” and “think.” The main problem with these terms is that each seems to exclude the other, or at least to downplay it. The special benefit of the word experience is that it includes all the senses and faculties mentioned above and more. [ii]
Thinking can be called Yang, while feeling could be Yin. There should be no master and no slave; balance is the key. Try reasoning someone out of a position they have come to through emotion; forget about it. Let’s follow Kurtz and Ketcham’s cue and stick to sharing our experience and not try to control how the message is received by others.
[ii] Kurz, Ernest & Ketcham, Katherine, Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling, p. 30

1 comment

  • Pete Freeman
    Pete Freeman Austin, TX
    Good thoughts.

    Good thoughts.

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