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The Promises of Alcoholics Anonymous

One morning I went to a place beyond dawn. A source of sweetness that flows and is never less. I have been shown a beauty that would confuse both worlds, but I won’t cause that uproar. – ‘Rumi

No matter how we grow up -wealthy or poor, well loved or forsaken – we form a view of life. Everything we do subsequently is based on the belief that our view of life is how things truly are. Most of us have had the experience of being before a judge and, after having heard only two or three minutes of the case (say it’s a slip and fall case), sensing that the judge has a preconceived notion that he knows what the case is really about (e.g., the customer was negligent in some way). We know intuitively as lawyers that we have our work cut out for us, and that the rest of the trial is going to be about trying to convince the judge that this case is different from what he or she believes about slip and fall cases generally.

Many of us have experienced having a judge do to us what we do to ourselves over and over again. We unconsciously sort our experiences into pre-existing categories based upon how we think the world is. What happens then when we run into events that call into question our view of life? For example, say you grew up in an environment in which you easily learned to trust that others would not hurt you. Later you encounter a situation in which someone is intent on doing you harm. You may react foolishly because this situation doesn’t square with your beliefs about how people are. Most of the time when we run into a situation that calls into question our view of life, we react by either ignoring or closing down, or by trying to manipulate or control the situation to avoid bringing our view of life into question.

For those of us with addictive disease, addictive personalities, or high control needs, the tendency to avoid something that runs counter to our belief system is very high indeed. While this might not be a huge problem if one has a fairly wide-ranging belief system, one of the things alcoholism, other addictive diseases, and depression do is constrain and compress one’s world view. Alcoholism and other addictive diseases are diseases of isolation and, with the avoidance of close personal relations, come a narrowing of how one sees the world’the world and other people become less trustworthy, more suspect.

All of this explains why you may be, as yet, unable to comprehend the promises of Alcoholics Anonymous. Particularly if you have a substance abuse problem, the promises of Alcoholics Anonymous may be outside of your current belief system. Belief systems are based largely on the learning that occurs as a result of experience. One of the things that alcoholism brings with it is an experience of guilt, remorse, and shame. The cumulative effect of continually experiencing guilt, remorse, and shame is the loss of hope’hope that anything will ever be different. One is not able to comprehend the radical promises of Alcoholics Anonymous without hope. People who participate in AA experience hope through attending AA meetings long before AA’s promises become apart of their belief systems.

The poet Rumi was not willing to write about the promises in “both worlds” from the perspective of either experiential understanding or cognitive meaning. But I, perhaps foolishly, offer the promises of AA here for two reasons. First, something so powerful that it has literally saved the lives of millions of people needs to be shared, even though those who most need these promises will reject them out of hand.  Second, I recently read a book by Roger Walsh entitled Essential Spirituality. Walsh looks at the seven great world religions’Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and discerns that, while their belief systems are divergent, all seven religions have certain practices in common. I was struck by the similarity between the benefits of these practices and the promises that several hopeless alcoholics made after distilling and implementing in their lives the AA steps. They found, as Walsh has found, that if certain steps are followed, certain gifts result. Walsh describes the benefits of these common spiritual practices as follows:

  •  reduced anxiety, guilt, and fear
  •  less cause for worry, defensiveness, and denial
  •  fewer bouts of self-doubt, depression, and despair
  •  growing confidence, courage, and strength
  •  deepening relaxation, calm, and peace
  •  greater capacity for openness, honesty, and intimacy
  •  a sense of integrity, trust, and wholeness
  •  relationships of closeness, consideration, and care
  •  emotions of happiness, joy, and delight
  •  a heart that is more open, kind, and loving, and
  •  a mind that is more open, sensitive, and awake.

The promises of Alcoholics Anonymous offer similar benefits:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations, which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? I think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

For those who live with or love a substance-impaired person, there is also hope in the promises of Al-Anon:

If we willingly surrender ourselves to the spiritual discipline of the Twelve Steps, our lives will be transformed. We will become mature, responsible individuals with a great capacity for joy, fulfillment, and wonder. Though we may never be perfect, continued spiritual progress will reveal to us our enormous potential. We will discover that we are both worthy of love and loving. We will love others without losing ourselves, and will learn to accept love in return. Our sight, once clouded and confused, will clear and we will be able to perceive reality and recognize truth. Courage and fellowship will replace fear. We will be able to risk failure to develop new, hidden talents. Our lives, no matter how battered and degraded, will yield hope to share with others. We will begin to feel and come to know the vastness of our emotions, but we will not be slaves to them. Our secrets will no longer bind us in shame. As we gain the ability to forgive ourselves, our families, and the work, our choices will expand. With dignity we will stand for ourselves, but not against our fellows. Serenity and peace will have meaning for us as we allow our lives and the lives of those we love to flow day by day with God’s ease, balance, and grace. No longer terrified, we will discover we are free to delight in life’s paradox, mystery, and awe. We will laugh more. Fear will be replaced by faith, and gratitude will come naturally as we realize that our Higher Power is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

The wonderful benefits of a 12-step recovery program are available to those who want them. Often recovering people speak of having a moment of clarity, when for a moment their old belief system did not hold them back and they realized that it was possible for them to want these gifts in their lives.

– by Don Carroll

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