Ray A.'s Blog

January 11, 2017

Our thanks to the 546 people who participated in the Practice These Principles Book Giveaway, who added the book to their "To Read" list, and who started to follow us on Goodreads. Books were shipped to the winners January 10, 2017. Happy reading to all.
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Published on January 11, 2017 07:35 • 2 views

November 7, 2016

Kindness first comes up in the Big Book in its discussion of Step 3 and the problem of self-will. We read there that “Most people try to live by self-propulsion.” Each person is compared to “an actor who wants to run the whole show,” and “is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way,” convinced that, if they all did as he wished, the show would be great and everybody would be happy. “In trying to make these arrangements, our actor may be quite virtuous,” we’re told. “He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing.”

But is he really being virtuous? Does the fact that he acts kindly in a given instance make him a kind person? Not at all. Even the cruelest person can act kindly at times—especially if it serves his purpose. In acting kindly, our actor only appears to be virtuous. He’s motivated by a desire to have people follow his script and dance to his tune. In Aristotelian terms, he’s acting “according to virtue” rather than “out of virtue.” He’s acting “as if,” not in order to become “as is,” but in order to get people to do what he wants.

Not surprisingly, people see through his ploy. They resist him. The show doesn’t go very well. The harder he tries, the more he fails. He becomes “angry, indignant, and self-pitying,” which emotions confirm he was “acting” (in the fraudulent sense of the word) all along and not really being virtuous. It was all a façade. Hence the Big Book’s conclusion by way of a rhetorical question: “Is he really not a self-seeker even when trying to be kind?”

“Our actor is self-centered,” says the Big Book, and self-centeredness is antithetical to virtue. Indeed, all the virtues are geared to wean us away from self-centeredness, away from seeing everything primarily in terms of our own self-interest and, consequently, acting at the expense of everyone else.

Everybody thinks of kindness as a good quality. Yet, as a virtue, kindness is not easy to grasp. On the one hand, the term can be generalized to the point of making it nothing more than being “nice.” On the other hand, the term can be conflated with other virtues. The reason for this is that kindness doesn’t stand alone but works with a number of overlapping and related virtues.

Step 4 of the Big Book groups kindness with three of these virtues: tolerance, patience, and pity (compassion). Together, these four virtues are offered as an antidote to anger and resentment. As they become ingrained in our character, they enable us to see those who wrong us in radically different terms: as being spiritual ill. “Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, ‘This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done . . . We cannot be helpful to all people, but at least God will show us how to take a kindly and tolerant view of each and every one” (all italics ours).

Because they are what we might characterize as benevolent ways of looking at the sick and suffering, such virtues as tolerance, patience, kindness, and pity counter the perceptions shaped by anger and resentment, which are characterized by ill will.

Kindness is the least specific and broadest of the four virtues and can encompass aspects of patience, tolerance, and compassion, as well as of such virtues as gentleness, generosity, sympathy, understanding, considerateness, and courtesy.

As gentleness, for instance, kindness is a perception of vulnerability or need, and a consequent desire not only not to hurt, but to help, and to help specifically by the manner of one’s approach: mild, soft, tender. This is what makes kindness antithetical to anger. It also distinguishes kindness from patience and tolerance, which connote refraining from doing wrong more than actively working to do right. Kindness wants to help, to reassure and to comfort, and this makes it a virtue of the heart. In this kindness is like compassion, but its field of vision is wider than that of compassion, which is concerned more specifically with actual suffering rather than more broadly with need.

As a virtue, kindness is acquired through repeated practice over the course of our recovery. Thus kindness becomes the subject of Step 10 in the 12&12, where it is grouped together with three other virtues as laying out the path to good relations with all: “Courtesy, kindness, justice, and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody.” Similarly, Step 11 of the Big Book suggests that our practice of kindness be one of the issues we examine in our nightly review of our day: “Were we kind and loving toward all?” The same Step suggests that we start the new day by “asking each morning in meditation that our Creator show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness, and love.”

And Step 12 reminds us that “Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery. A kindly act once in a while isn't enough. You have to act the Good Samaritan every day, if need be.” To be kind is to be of service to those in need. And the need is to be found everywhere: in our homes, in our neighborhood, at work, at church, and in all our relationships and affairs. This makes the virtue of kindness central to working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose overarching purpose for our lives is summarized in two words: “love and service.”

Posted 11/02/16 in “Practice These” at http://PracticeThesePrinciplesTheBook... .
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Published on November 07, 2016 14:23 • 7 views • Tags: aa, kindness, principles, virtue

October 2, 2016

I was listening to a Big Book Study tape recently when an exchange between the speaker and a woman in the audience caught my attention. The woman explained that she and her ex-husband were both in the program but attended separate meetings. Unfortunately, what they said in those meetings was not staying in those meetings.

Breaking tradition, some people were going back and forth between meetings and divulging what the two of them had shared. The gossip had spread outside the rooms as well. They would tell the ex what she said and then tell her what he’d said in response. As a result, she had developed a resentment. She didn’t know how to handle the situation and asked for help.

Seizing on her admission that she had coped a resentment, the speaker suggested she might want to do a 10th Step inventory. She didn’t seem to have any problem with that. However, she still wanted to know what she should do. Should she stop going to those meetings and go to different ones? The speaker told her that if she took inventory she would find out the harm that she had caused and then she would have to make amends. “But I didn’t do anything wrong,” she replied. “Yes, you did,” he countered.

And that’s when things got complicated. The speaker argued that, by holding on to her anger and letting it turn into a resentment, she had done wrong. She was resentful against people for not acting the way she wanted them to act. She was playing God. She was “lying” to her friends by not telling them that they had hurt her and that she had a resentment against them. She had to admit her resentment to them and make amends for it.

Now, what are we to make of this? Was the woman right to say she hadn’t done anything wrong? Was the speaker right to say that she had and that she owed amends? Does having a resentment by and of itself call for making amends? Can one be wrong but not do wrong?

Listening to the tape, it’s not clear exactly what the woman meant when she said she hadn’t done anything wrong. But there are two possibilities. One is that she didn’t see anything wrong with her having gotten a resentment. If this is the case, she was mistaken. Under the circumstances she describes, he anger was natural and justified. Her resentment was not. It was an unhealthy emotion she indulged by holding on to her anger. The other possibility is that she meant she hadn’t hurt anyone. She hadn’t acted on her resentment and tried to retaliate. If this indeed the case, then she was right. She was wrong, but she didn’t do wrong.

Step 10 says that we “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Not seen in their proper context, the words “wrong” and “admitted” can appear ambiguous. Wrong about what? Admitted to whom? For the speaker in the above exchange, “wrong” seems to have meant a “shortcoming” or a defect, namely resentment. To him, this defect automatically translated into wrongdoing. The resentment was harmful not only to the subject or holder of the resentment, but to its objects. “Admitted” seems to have meant not only to herself, but to them. Hence the suggestion she had to make amends.

But such an understanding conflates wrong with wrongdoing, an emotional state or condition (resentment) with an action (hurting). It also fails to appreciate that “admitted” can refer to either or both, and that the admission can be to oneself, to God, to another human being, and/or to the person we have wronged, if indeed we have.

Obviously, Step 10 is a continuation of the work we have done in Steps 4 through 9. Having worked through those Steps the first time around “as we cleaned up the past,” we continue to repeat the process now with regards to our present lives as we continue to recover. The Big Book makes this amply clear. Its simple explanation leaves no room for ambiguity.

“Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear,” the book tells us (BB 84). We continue to take inventory of our defects of character (e.g., selfishness and dishonesty) and of emotion (e.g. resentment and fear), as we did in Step 4. “When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them.” That’s a continuation of what we did in Step 7, which presumes we become entirely ready to have him take them away, as we did in Step 6. “We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone.” That’s a continuation of Step 5, where we first admitted both our wrongs (defects) and wrongdoings (hurtful actions), and of Step 9, which presumes we become willing to make amends, as we did in Step 8.

Notice: “and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone” (my italics). We can be wrong without having wronged anyone. Having a resentment will generally cause us to harm others, but there’s no iron rule that says that will necessarily be the case. It is entirely possible that the aggrieved woman had a resentment against those who were gossiping about her and her ex but did not act on that resentment and “didn’t do anything wrong” in the sense that she did nothing to hurt them. In that case, she didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing to them and owed them no amends. To say that she was “lying” by not revealing her resentment to them is a stretch, to say the least.

Notice too: Even if we have harmed no one, we still take personal inventory “when these crop up (my italics).” Why? Because even if they don’t hurt anyone else, defects always hurt us. And that hurt will eventually lead us to hurt somebody else. That is the case with resentment, which if left unresolved will eventually cause the anger to flare up again and cause us to hurt people, sometimes people who had nothing to do with the situation that originally aroused our anger.

If the woman was right and she did not hurt anyone and making amends was not the answer to her problem, then what was it? The 12&12 tells us: “In all these situations we need self-restraint, honest analysis of what is involved, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and an equal willingness to forgive when the fault is elsewhere” (p.91).

Apparently, the woman exercised self-restraint in not retaliating against those she resented. Still, an honest analysis of her situation would lead her to conclude that she was at fault for holding the resentment. The solution would then be clear. She needed to admit her resentment to herself, to God, and to another human being (perhaps her sponsor), and then she needed to let go of the resentment and forgive those who wronged her. If she found that she lacked the willingness to do so, then she would have to work Steps 6 and 7.

Whether she should drop the old meetings and start attending new ones would become clearer as she went through this process. Forgiving will help her to change. It will not necessarily change the situation or the other parties involved. She may forgive but decide not to expose herself to the same set of circumstances again. Free of resentment, however, she will be better placed to make a sober

For a long time I had a resentment against my father and my mother for having abandoned me when I was an infant. The resentment against my father grew when, having gone to live with him as a teenager, he locked me out of his house and left me homeless. Such resentment caused a lot of harm to myself and to many other people. Once I got sober, I let go of the resentment and made amends to those people. But I didn’t have to make amends to my parents. I never did anything wrong to them. I never hurt them. What I had to do was to forgive them. And I did.

Posted 08/30/16 in “Reflections” at http://PracticeThesePrinciplesTheBook... . where you will also find other posts no longer showing on this Goodreads blog.
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Published on October 02, 2016 13:26 • 6 views • Tags: amends, anger, inventory, resentment, steps-4-and-10

August 9, 2016

Willingness is one of the “essentials of recovery,” according to the Big Book. It is one of the “indispensable principles” of the 12-Step program, together with honesty and open-mindedness. The centrality of these three to our sobriety is aptly conveyed by the acronym we have coined out of them: HOW.

That honesty and open-mindedness should be given such prominence should not surprise us. After all, these are well recognized virtues. That is far from being the case with willingness. Indeed, by putting it on a par with those two other virtues, AA gives willingness a significance it lacks outside our program. It raises it to the status of a virtue in its own right, and a pivotal one at that.

Why is this? Why is willingness so crucial to recovery? The reason is simple. Willingness is the natural corrective to one of our worst character defects as alcoholics. This is our inveterate willfulness. Dictionaries describe a willful person as one who is obstinately bent on having his way, who is deliberate, headstrong, and persistent in a self-determined course of action. That accurately describes us. Willfulness is all about self-will, and so are we. Thus the Big Book’s description of the alcoholic as an extreme example of “self-will run riot.”

Willingness by contrast is a disposition away from self and toward others. It suggests an inclination to acquiesce, comply, or cooperate with the proposals or requirements of another. To be willing is to be ready to do something voluntarily, without being forced. Whereas willfulness is synonymous with contrariness, stubbornness, and intransigence, willingness suggests flexibility, agreeableness, and acceptance. To be willful is to resist, defy, and rebel; to be willing to yield, concede, and consent. Willingness is open to the good; willfulness is closed to it.

In AA, willingness is in the service of recovery. If we are not willing to concede that our way has not worked very well for us and that perhaps AA does have a better way, we don’t have the slightest chance of getting and staying sober. We will continue to do what we’ve been doing all along. The required willingness first comes when we hit bottom. “Then, and only then, do we become as open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be.”

Step 1 is where we make the initial adjustment from willfulness to willingness. The pain and the suffering we experience when everything falls apart has the effect of bending our will a little: “Each of us has had his own near-fatal encounter with the juggernaut of self-will, and has suffered enough under its weight to be willing to look for something better.” Ever so slightly, we begin to turn from self. Having been humbled, our ego deflated, we become receptive to the AA message. We become willing to listen, to learn, to ask for help, to accept direction. As our rebellion subsides, we become willing to admit what our pride would never let us acknowledge: that we are alcoholic and that our life has become unmanageable.

As this suggests, therefore, willingness is not a principle exclusive to Steps 6 and 8, as on first impression we might tend to believe. It is of the essence to Step 1 and just as indispensable to all the other Steps. Simply put, we won’t work any Step unless we are willing to. In this sense, willingness is a basic, foundational virtue. As with every other virtue, however, our goal is to grow in it. We do that as we work the Steps and in each one practice willingness in the way that is specific to that Step.

Willingness in Step 2 is an issue of faith at its most elementary level: are we “willing to believe.” For “We found that as soon as we were able to lay prejudice aside and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater that ourselves, we commenced to get results.” Here too, as in Step 1, the force of circumstance may facilitate the initial willingness, as the story of “Our Southern Friend” (Fitz M.) in “We Agnostics” relates.

Step 3 calls for a greater level of willingness, for it involves a greater level of faith. This is where we become willing to let go of the reins, to get off the driver’s seat and entrust our will and our lives to the care of God. “Practicing Step Three is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still closed and locked. All we need is a key, and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key, and it is called willingness. Once unlocked by willingness, the door opens almost of itself, and looking through it, we shall see a pathway beside which is an inscription. It reads: ‘This is the way to a faith that works.'”

The very same key opens the door to the practice of the remaining Steps, for they are all built on the foundations of the decision to surrender that we make in Step 3.

Thus the Big Book tells us that “Taking inventory in Step 4 requires “great willingness even to begin.” And yet, “Without a willing and persistent effort to do this, there can be little sobriety or contentment for us.” But “Once we have a complete willingness to take inventory and exert ourselves to do the job thoroughly, a wonderful light falls upon this foggy scene” and the pride and the fear that stood in our way begin to dissipate. Putting pen to paper “will be the first tangible evidence of our complete willingness to move forward.” With regards sex we read that “Whatever our ideal turns out to be, we must be willing to grow toward it.” Having completed our inventory, “We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight.” We “have listed the people we have hurt by our conduct, and are willing to straighten out the past if we can.”

Similarly, we are warned in Step 5 that we are not likely to stay sober unless we admit our defects to another human being, for “It seems plain that the grace of God will not enter to expel our destructive obsessions until we are willing to try this.” Experience shows that “Only be discussing ourselves, holding back nothing, only by being willing to take advice and accept direction could we set foot on the road to straight thinking, solid honesty, and genuine humility.“ It is clear that “Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical.”

As regards Step 6, the Big Book begins by noting that “We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable.” Nowhere is that more true than in this Step. For to be “entirely ready” is in effect to be completely and utterly willing to have God remove our defects of character. That is obviously a very high ideal. It is the highest we will find in any of the Steps, for as the 12&12 says, it suggests that “we ought to become entirely willing to aim toward perfection.” The ideal is prefigured in Step 3, the goal being to become the person God made us to be. “[A]ny person capable of enough willingness and honesty to try repeatedly Step Six on all his faults—without any reservations whatever—has indeed come a long way spiritually, and is therefore entitled to be called a man who is sincerely trying to grow in the image and likeness of his own Creator.” This is something that “we are supposed to be willing to work toward ourselves,” by working the Steps. Yet none of us is capable of such willingness, and thus the Big Book suggests that “If we still cling to something we will not let go, we ask God to help us be willing.”

How can we possibly aim that high? “How can we possibly summon the resolution and the willingness to get rid of such overwhelming compulsions and desires?” asks the 12&12. By combining willingness with humility. “[W]hen we have taken a square look at some of these defects, have discussed them with another, and have become willing to have them removed, our thinking about humility commences to have a wider meaning. Step 7 “is really saying to us that we ought now to be willing to try humility in seeking the removal of our other shortcomings just as we did when we admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, and came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Hence the humility that marks the 7th Step prayer: “I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad.” Why do we pray for the removal of our character defects? Because they stand in the way of our usefulness to God and our fellows. Hence there is no prideful, self-seeking perfectionism in the ideal underlining Steps 6 and 7. The goal is to do God’s “bidding.”

Ultimately, willingness is about doing God’s will rather than our own. In Step 8 that means that “We became willing to make amends” to all the people we had harmed, having made our list and become willing to forgive any harms they may have done to us. In Step 9 it means that we have “a complete willingness to make amends as fast and as far as may be possible, and that we are “willing to reveal the very worst” if necessary.” We continue this process in Step 10, where “An honest regret for harms done, a genuine gratitude for blessings received, and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we seek.” In Step 11 prayer and meditation become the primary tools through which we continue to grow in the willingness to know and to do God’s will for us. In Step 12 we become willing to carry the message of recovery to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

As a virtue, then, willingness involves a process of moving away from self-will toward God’s will for us. This process unfolds as we work the Steps and practice the principles they embody. That is why willingness is so central to the “how” of recovery. As we grow in this virtue we become increasingly willing participants in the process of “Attitude Adjustment” which a spiritual awakening makes possible in us.

Our ultimate goal, Bill W. writes, is “a full willingness, in all times and places, to find and to do the will of God.” He sees such willingness as the highest expression of humility, which is in turn “the foundation principle of each of A.A.’s Twelve Steps.”

Posted 07/31/16 in “Practice These” at http://PracticeThesePrinciplesTheBook... . For full post, including related quotes and other resources, please click on link, where you will also find other posts no longer showing on this Goodreads blog.
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Published on August 09, 2016 09:35 • 29 views • Tags: 12-step-principles, virtues, willingness

June 27, 2016

Before the advent of AA, what we now call alcoholics were just plain old drunks, bums, or, less disparagingly, inebriates. What we now call alcoholism was a bad habit or vice, namely, the vice of intemperance (hence the Temperance Movement). Seen philosophically and psychologically, it was the product of a weak will. Theologically it was the product of sin. Neither view did much for the alcoholic.

AA changed all of that. It popularized the terms "alcoholic" and "alcoholism" and gained widespread acceptance for the idea that alcoholism was a disease and the alcoholic a sick person. The idea that the alcoholic suffered from a disease helped AA to account for the involuntary nature of his problem: the alcoholic had lost control over his drinking. He was “powerless” over alcohol.

Its concept of a disease was unique. Reflecting the experience of AAs with medicine, psychology, and religion, it came to be understood as a “threefold” disease: physical, mental, and spiritual. Because experience seemed to show that the spiritual was the root of the disease, its treatment called for working a series of steps leading to a “spiritual awakening” which would free the alcoholic from the obsession to drink and enable him or her to grow and live on an entirely different basis.

As is well known, the 12-Step program that emerged from this has been very successful. It has helped millions of us alcoholics to stop drinking and rebuild our shattered lives. Adapted for use by other groups, the same Steps have helped millions of other people suffering from what later came to be called “addictions,” an umbrella term which now covers an increasingly wider spectrum of “disease.”

While the idea of addiction as disease caught on with the culture, the idea of a threefold disease never fared well outside of AA and the 12-Step recovery movement. Instead, the concept was deconstructed and reduced to the single fold of physiology. Addiction became a medical disease narrowly construed, i.e., construed “scientifically” as biologically determined. It came down to a matter of genes and brain chemistry. Moving to the other extreme, some "professionals" and other "experts" (in what by now had turned into a recovery industry) eventually started to challenge that view, arguing that addiction was not involuntary like a disease, but a voluntary choice. The alcoholic simply chose to drink.

As its subtitle suggests, Addiction and Virtue (A&V) is an attempt to go beyond these two now dominant and opposing views: the disease and the choice concepts of addiction. Addiction, contends the author, is neither a disease nor a choice. It is a habit. According to him, the category of habit (as found in Aristotle and Aquinas) offers an alternative to the disease and the choice models, both of which he claims are plagued with flaws and contradictions.

Dunnington convincingly argues that the disease concept understood in exclusively medical—in reductive and deterministic—terms is untenable. If addiction is only a medical disease, addicts should not be able to recover non-medically, that is, independently of medicine. But they do, by the millions. Hence the concept is patently false. We might also add what is a side but not an unimportant point, and this is the fact that few addicts recover solely through medical treatment. Most medically-based treatments work in tandem with one version or another of the 12-Step program or therapies inspired by it.

The fact that addicts can recover in a non-medical context is what led many in the “addiction studies” field to challenge the involuntary disease paradigm and argue that addiction is a matter of choice. On this view, what vitiates the addict’s will and makes him succumb to the object of addiction is not a disease but a character or moral weakness. But if the addict can simply will his own recovery if he so chooses, Dunnington points out, then he’s not an addict. The choice concept solves the addiction problem by denying the category of addiction. Drinking and drugging is just one more failure of will, no different from any other. Though couched in the contemporary language of choice, this view takes us back to the days before AA and erases whatever progress we have managed to make since.

As Dunnington sees it, the category of habit offers an alternative to the disease-choice dichotomy because of its ability to account for both the involuntary and the voluntary aspects of addiction. This is because, on the one hand, a habit is formed in the process of repeated voluntary action over time. On the other hand, once it is formed, the actions that follow from the habit are largely unconscious and involuntary. We just do, more or less automatically, what we have become used to doing. Thus habit facilitates action. In a moral context, the action can lead to the formation of a good habit (a virtue), or a bad one (a vice). For Dunnington “Addictions are like virtues and vices in this respect, [in that] virtues and vices are habits that empower persons to pursue consistently, successfully and with ease various kinds of goods . . . habits through the practice of which human beings aim at the good life, the life of happiness” (96). Vices differ from virtues in that the latter actually do lead to the good life while the former don’t.

In Dunnington's view, then, addiction is a bad habit or vice. But it isn’t the vice of intemperance, as was generally thought in the past. The alcoholic is not just pursuing the sensory pleasures associated with drinking. He or she is not pursuing a life of hedonism. Instead the alcoholic is pursuing certain moral goods, “like the ability to communicate, being at ease with oneself, being unafraid and being part of a community" (94). This echoes what we say in the rooms: drinking makes us feel like we belong; it makes us feel comfortable in our own skin; it makes us feel confident. For a while anyway, it makes us feel that we are OK and life is good.

But if addiction is not the vice of intemperance, then what kind of a vice is it? To answer this question Dunnington reaches beyond the philosophical notion of habit to the theological notion of sin. Addiction, he says, is not the same as sin, but it cannot be understood apart from sin. For, insists Dunnington, the good life that the addict seeks can only be found in a right relationship with God. Addiction is a misguided quest for that relationship, a form of counterfeit worship. It is the sin of idolatry.

Now, if Dunnington is right and addiction is a vice rooted in sin, if it is an expression of idol worship, wherein lies the solution? How does this understanding help the alcoholic to stop drinking or the drug addict to stop using? Dunnington doesn’t tell us. His is not a self-help book, he says. It is not meant to provide a list of steps or recovery principles. It is intended instead to help Christians “who rightly sense the spiritual significance of addiction . . . to articulate this significance in theologically substantive terms” (9).

And here we come up against an all-to-familiar problem. A&V is another book about addiction which is of no practical use to the addict. Dunnington is writing for a different audience, namely the church. “If addiction is false worship," Dunnington asks, "how should the church, which hopes to practice true worship of the true God, respond to addiction?” (169). Dunnington recognizes that such a question cannot be answered without taking into account the success of AA and the 12-Step movement. Indeed, throughout A&V he makes extensive use of the Big Book, the 12&12, and testimony from recovering addicts to support his own view of addiction. Hence one would expect him to find much of positive value in the 12-Step experience for the church to draw on.

That is unfortunately not the case. Though acknowledging the church’s abysmal failure to help addicts, Dunnington sees AA and the 12 Steps—despite their undeniable success—as presenting more risks than opportunities for the church. Regrettably, much of the analysis that results from this outlook reveals a lack of understanding of how AA works and how 12-Step programs in general do help the addict to recover.

This lack of understanding is in many ways baffling. Most baffling for a book that argues against the materialist, reductionist account of addiction as a purely physiological disease is its failure to even so much as mention AA’s alternative concept of alcoholism as a threefold disease. The book argues for a spiritual understanding of addiction and yet it ignores AA’s understanding that a spiritual malady is at the root of the physical and the mental illness in the alcoholic. It proposes a spiritual solution yet gives not the slightest consideration to AA’s solution of a spiritual awakening or experience. It advocates a distinctly Christian solution yet completely overlooks the distinctly Christian understandings underpinning the Big Book and the 12&12, including one of the most fundamental tenets of AA recovery: that "we are sober only by the grace of God" (12&12, 92). What, one may ask, is more distinctly Christian than the concept of grace?

A&V’s inability to seriously engage AA is evident from the start. One of the book’s main arguments against the disease concept is that it “obscures the extent to which persons may be expected to take responsibility for their addictions” (10). Yet no one takes more responsibility for her addiction than the person in a 12-Step program who assiduously works Steps 4 through 12. As another fellowship rightly notes “Amending our behavior and the way we treat ourselves and others is the whole purpose of working the steps. We’re no longer just “sorry”; we’re responsible.” (Footnote 1) Indeed, responsibility is enshrined in one of AA’s most important declarations: "I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible."

Saying that the disease concept obscures a person’s responsibility for his addiction is a little like saying that the concept of original sin or of salvation by grace obscures the sinner’s responsibility for his sin. The concept of disease, seen in spiritual terms as AA does, as fundamentally a “soul-sickness” (12&12, 49), is not at all incompatible with the concept of sin. Indeed, sin is often seen in orthodox Christian terms as being in the nature of an illness, a spiritual malady that exhibits physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, just as AA says of alcoholism.

Unable to appreciate the AA concept of a threefold disease, A&V is unable to grasp the AA concept of powerlessness. Thus we read that according to AA the “admission of powerlessness over alcohol is supposed to be the ‘first step’ toward regaining, in some sense, a power over alcohol.” By making this admission, “they [alcoholics] find access to a power sufficient to reinvigorate the once-impotent will” and make “the inroad to regaining power over the same behavior” (32).

Nowhere does the Big Book or the 12&12 claim that we regain power over alcohol in any sense whatsoever. Our admission of powerlessness is the start of a humble surrender of an illusory power over alcohol which, in the process of subsequent Steps, allows the grace of God to enter the alcoholic and remove the obsession to drink from us (12&12, 64). We are not given any power, strength, or control over it, nor is our will in any way "reinvigorated."

This conception of powerlessness is the basis of the AA claim that “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” a claim Dunnington downgrades to a “slogan.” Far from being a slogan, that statement is central to the AA understanding of what an alcoholic is. There are of course many understandings of what an alcoholic is, but in AA, an alcoholic is by definition a person who has no control over alcohol and therefore cannot drink normally or safely like other people. Once the disease progresses to the point where I become alcoholic, I do not stop being alcoholic, that is, I do not regain control. What that means in concrete and practical terms is simple: I cannot drink again, ever. If I do, I revert to drinking alcoholically; I will not be able to take it or leave it as other people do.

It is in this sense that AA refers to “alcoholism as “no mere habit,” a statement Dunnington also appears to misinterpret. For him the passage is trying to make a distinction between “’merely’ problem-drinkers and those who are ‘full-blooded’ alcoholics” (68). From this he draws the conclusion that the text is conflating a habit with just a mere disposition or tendency. But the passage is not talking about problem drinkers at all. It is talking about drinkers in the early stages of alcoholism and those in the later stages. By sharing their stories, these low-bottom “last-gaspers” could show the others that they had already lost control over alcohol, sparing them “the last ten or fifteen years of literal hell the rest of us had gone through” (12&12, 23). The “mere” refers to the fact that alcoholism is the kind of habit that, as it progresses, leads to physical, mental, and spiritual breakdown. The AA idea of a “progressive disease” encompasses the concept of habit, a concept addressed elsewhere in our two texts. But those of us who regularly see people die of alcoholism and drug addiction would definitely concur that addiction is “no mere habit” but “indeed the beginning of a fatal progression,” which is clearly the point the text is trying to drive home.

AA doesn’t deny that habit enters into alcoholism any more than it denies that sin enters into it. It just doesn’t reduce it to either. Its concept of a threefold disease allows for both. Dunnington doesn’t seem to recognize this. Thus he claims that “Most addicted persons learn from their recovery programs and from a flood of addiction recovery literature to be averse to the language of sin” (126). That's not exactly how we see it. We avoid the language of sin in the rooms because of the stigma associated with it. We learn to avoid it because of our personal experience with religion. The attitudes of condemnation and shame it tends to foster is one of the reasons why alcoholics didn’t feel welcome and couldn't find any help in the church. Though these attitudes have softened—thanks in large part to AA—they have not disappeared.

Our negative experience with religion is one of the reasons why the Big Book emphasizes that ours is a spiritual and not a religious program. The number of people making such a distinction has grown exponentially since the start of AA and the 12-Step movement, and not just among those in recovery. But for Dunnington, as for other religious people, those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are just uttering a “platitude”(171). Such a dismissive attitude hardly makes religion appealing.

Ironically, Dunnington’s own comments unwittingly give evidence of the distinction he denies. This is illustrated by the assertions he makes about what addicts in 12-Step programs “must” do. “First, the addicted person seeking recovery must acknowledge a power greater than himself on which he is dependent” (he cites Step 3 as evidence). And “Second, [he] must adopt as his most fundamental identity that of “alcoholic or addict.” Thus “every time that a person wishes to speak in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or some similar twelve-step recovery program, he or she must begin with the introduction, “I’m Joe, I’m an alcoholic,” or “I’m Sue, I’m an addict” (179-180, my emphasis in all three citations).

Of course, these “requirements,” as he calls them, are not requirements at all. “The only requirement for membership,” reads the AA Preamble, “is a desire to stop drinking.” The fact is that “must” is not the language of recovery. It is the language of religion with its commands, exhortations, and injunctions. We have a name for that. We call it “musty” language. Had AA tried to use it on alcoholics, it would have never gotten off the ground. Indeed that language, and the pressure and coercion that went with it, is one of the reasons why alcoholics split from the Oxford Group, which remained too much under the influence of religion even as it tried to distance itself from it. Following the split, AA consciously tried to fashion a different, less religious and more spiritual idiom, a "language of the heart," as we call it.

Step 3 doesn’t tell us what to do. If tells us what other alcoholics did that helped them stop drinking. The “decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” comes gradually as part of a process of spiritual awakening where we come to trust God and surrender entirely to him. It is not a decision that can be imposed. It comes after we admit our powerlessness over alcohol in Step 1 and come to believe that God can restore us to sanity in Step 2. That admission of powerlessness is what leads us to identify ourselves as alcoholics. It too is an act of surrender and humble acceptance of a condition from which only God can deliver us. As I identify myself as an alcoholic, I am also identifying myself with other alcoholics. My admission is not an obligation. It is a recognition of spiritual fellowship. Dunnington shows a similar religious and erroneous understanding of the Steps when he suggests that after Step 1, “the other eleven steps can be understood as exhortations" (165). No they can’t. They are accounts of spiritual experience that works, spiritual principles practiced by alcoholics to stay sober and grow in recovery.

AA’s reference to “God as we understood Him” in Steps 3 and 11 is criticized along the same lines. Anybody who knows the history of AA knows that this phrase was part of a necessary compromise between those who wanted to make AA an explicitly Christian program and those who wanted to rescind with religion altogether and make it a secular psychology program. Were it not for that compromise, there would have been no AA. Nevertheless, the insertion of that phrase in those two Steps in no way changes the understanding of God which is found throughout the Big Book and the 12&12, an understanding that we have already noted is anchored in the distinctly Christian concept of grace. Nor is it accurate to state, as Dunnington does, that “Reference to ‘God’ was permitted to remain, provided that it was always accompanied by the caveat, ‘as we understand him’” (128). God is mentioned without qualification in Steps 5 and 6 and some 289 times in the pages of our two primary texts.

These and other misunderstandings and mischaracterizations unfortunately detract from what is an otherwise carefully reasoned book. Dunnington’s is simply not a sympathetic view of AA. He gives it as little credit as he can. Hence his final take on the program. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the twelve-step movement has been successful largely because of the way in which its format and method demand transformative friendships” (184-185). Format and method: a curious conclusion for a book written from a philosophical and a theological standpoint. In any case, that—not anything of substance—is what the church should emulate.

The sponsor-sponsee relationship is given as a prime example of how format and method can be used by the church to foster friendship and attract addicts to it. The problem is that Dunnington conceives of such a relationship as an Aristotelian “master/apprentice” relationship (188). Thus he cites the 12&12 as purportedly calling newcomers to recovery “novices” and invents a “sponsor/novice” and a “master” and “apprentice” relationship (188) that not only does not exist in AA at all, but is contrary to its very spirit.

Dunnington’s take reflects the kind of leaders-and-the-led type of relationships that predominate in church. AA is a fellowship of equals, not a hierarchical organization. We have no experts or teachers, no students or disciples. Nor do we place ourselves “under the authority” of “elders” or in “relationships of accountability” (189). No matter how many years sober she may be or how much experience she has acquired, a sponsor is just one drink away from a drunk, just like a newcomer. She simply tries to pass on, humbly and gratefully, what has been so freely given to her.

What the 12&12 is talking about when it uses the word “novice” (60) is doing Step 5 with another person, that is, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs not only to God and to ourselves, but “to another human being”—who need not be one’s sponsor. The danger of “[g]oing it alone in spiritual matters” (60) was another negative lesson learned from the more religious Oxford Group, some of whose members believed God gave them direct “guidance” and so they had no need to check with others what that guidance was. This of course led to all sorts of presumptuous attitudes and behaviors.

Dunnington’s conclusion that “recovery is primarily an exercise of friendship” does not reflect a “twelve-step insight” (187) as he believes. Recovery involves both a program and a fellowship. The program is found in the Big Book and the 12&12 and, together with the 12 Traditions, forms the basis of the fellowship. The fellowship is spiritual because it is based on a common spiritual problem—being alcoholic—and on a common solution—a spiritual awakening, which results from the practice of the Steps. Without the Steps and the Traditions as laid out in our two basic texts, meetings can and do drift into secular group therapy—or, as in the case of some church groups which try to copy the “format” and the “method” of AA, into religion.

One final question remains. What does any of this—alcoholism, addiction, recovery—have to do with virtue? According to Dunnington, in its approach to addiction “The church must be bold to implement relational structures that are explicitly designed for training in virtue” (189)—training in the Aristotelian sense already noted. There are many problems with this. We will mention two. One of them is that much of “the church” has no use whatsoever for the concept of virtue. (Footnote 2) The other is that Dunnington himself has but a limited use for it. For him, the only real virtues are those that are “infused” by the Holy Spirit. These require no effort on our part and reflect “the life of grace.” The other virtues are not really virtues at all but “glittering vices” as Augustine derisively called them. They require us to work for them and reflect “the life of sin.”

Thus grace and moral effort are set against each other. This runs directly counter to the AA understanding of recovery. It runs counter to the whole idea of working the Steps and practicing the principles of the program, principles which, though not always identified as such, include the virtues—whether “infused” or “acquired.” The concept of “a faith that works” (taken from the Book of James), that is, that combines grace and action, is central to the AA program of recovery. Hence the twin conclusion to the Promises of the Big Book, namely that a) “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves,” and that b) “They will always materialize if we work for them" (84). Paul gives voice to this dual process when he tells us to "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you his purpose to accomplish."

We practice the virtues found in the Big Book and the 12&12 (among which are the three theological and the four cardinal virtues along with such other virtues as acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, honesty, humility, kindness, patience, peace, perseverance, and tolerance) so that as we acquire them they can change us, so that as they turn into habits they become second nature to us and enable us to perform the actions characteristic of them consistently and with ease, whether under favorable or unfavorable circumstances. We know from on our two texts that we practice those virtues by the grace of God and in the service of God, not to “save” or build ourselves up. Practicing them is no sin. They are part of God’s will for us.

As our review suggests, much of A&V is based on a faulty understanding of AA and the 12-Steps. The book is nevertheless very much worth reading. Its flaws notwithstanding, it makes an important contribution to the understanding of addiction. This reviewer has read it three times and will continue to reflect on it. Its discussion of habit is instructive and of relevance to recovery. (Footnote 3) Unfortunately, Dunnington’s view of vice and virtue makes habituation applicable only to the process of addiction and not to the process of recovery. (Footnote 4) This is due mainly to certain theological commitments (God as he understands him) which effectively deny human agency and, as we have noted, pit grace against moral effort. This accounts for his almost total emphasis on the problem, another way in which his approach differs from that of AA, which focuses on the solution. After all, there is not much that can be said about the solution from a practical standpoint if God does it all and we do nothing but be passively infused.

This brings to mind the distinction C.S. Lewis made between looking “at” and looking “along.” (Footnote 5) In A&V, Dunnington seems to be looking “at” addiction from the outside, using the tools of his trade (philosophy and theology) to work out an “abstract and theoretical” (11) account of it. This is useful and necessary. But it is not the same as looking “along,” from the inside, as the addict experiences not only his addiction but his recovery. Of course such an internal, experiential look is not always possible to the specialist. But its value needs to be duly appreciated if one is to recognize the limitations of the specialist’s perspective and look at addiction as much as possible through the eyes of the addict and not exclusively through one’s own.

One is reminded also of a related insight of C.S. Lewis: “The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists—not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels on their spare time.” (Footnote 6) So with the application of Christian principles to recovery from alcoholism and other addictions. It can best come from Christians in recovery—not from church leaders and thinkers. This does not obviate the need to follow AA's example and welcome the contributions of religion, together with those of medicine, psychology, and other disciplines. For it is probably the case that we can best approximate reality and hence deal with it most effectively when we look at it from both perspectives: "at" as well as "along." In recovery, both perspectives are directed to the goal of right living. To which the words of the Big Book: “The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.” (83)


1. Narcotics Anonymous, Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts, p. 196
2. See "Practice What You Preach": A Review of Being Good: Christian Virtues for
Everyday Life
at http://practicetheseprinciplesthebook...
3. See "Practice & Habit" and "Of Mice and Men": A Review of The Power of Habit:
Why We Do What We do in Life
, at http://practicetheseprinciplesthebook...
4. For how the virtues relate to the 12 Steps and their role in recovery, see the book Practice These Principles, Chapter A. These Principles, and chapter B. In All Our Affairs: Emotional Sobriety. See also entries under The Virtues in "Practice These," at http://practicetheseprinciplesthebook...
5. The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C.S. Lewis, August 1 – August 5
6. Mere Christianity, Bk III, Ch. 3
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Published on June 27, 2016 16:08 • 22 views • Tags: aa, addiction, habit, virtue

May 7, 2016

Alcoholism is a disease of more. We simply never had enough of what we wanted. Not of booze and not of anything else. Excess was our defining characteristic. We couldn’t countenance any limits, boundaries, or restraints. If there was a line, we had to cross it. If there was a rule, we had to break it. “Self-will run riot,” says the Big Book; “instinct run wild” and “on rampage,” adds the 12&12. We were rebels by nature, courting disorder in much of what we did.

No wonder our lives became unmanageable. Driven to excess and disorder, we lost control over the bottle. We became powerless over alcohol. That made us even more powerless over ourselves. We “couldn’t control our emotional natures,” our wants and desires, our appetites and passions. Indeed, we often got high so we could heighten them more.

Once we stop drinking, our lives regain a semblance of normalcy. The natural restraints which the booze had loosened return to some working order. We gain relief from the worst of our excesses—the kind that would destroy our relationship with a loved one, for instance, or get us summarily fired from a job, or land us in the street, a hospital, or a prison.

But while the alcohol is out of our system, the ism isn’t. We are still selfish and self-centered to the core. That is the nature of the beast in us. Self-serving attitudes continue to dominate our lives, if now in ways that are less dramatic but for that very reason more difficult to detect.

Detecting excess and disorder in our drinking past is the job of Step 4. According to the 12&12, much of that Step is geared to finding out where our instincts, drives, and natural desires went out of control and came to “exceed their proper functions.” For it is when these get “out of joint” that they turn into “physical and mental liabilities,” causing “practically all the trouble there is.”

Detecting ongoing excess and disorder in recovery is the job of Step 10. The Big Book urges us to “continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear,” all symptoms of desires which often get out of whack in us. The 12&12 stresses the need to develop “self-restrain” and exercise “self-control” in all areas of our lives, a principle most of us will associate with the expression “restraint of pen and tongue.”

This is the principle traditionally known as temperance, and sometimes as moderation. Of course, what we need to temper or moderate is not exactly our pen or our tongue, but the passions and emotions which cause us to misuse them in “quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven argument,” as we read in Step 10.

Moderating such emotions, especially those which can be strongly felt physically, such as anger, fear, and grief, is one of the tasks of the virtue of temperance. So is moderating bodily cravings, urgings or appetites involving food, drink, and sex, its classical role in the virtues tradition. More broadly, temperance moderates our desires, longings, and passions for natural goods in general, such as those highlighted in the 12&12 quote below: emotional security, power, wealth, personal prestige, romance and family satisfactions.

All of these things are good, and all of them can be pursued well, reasonably, following “good orderly direction,” as we say in the rooms. When we do, we enjoy them and we flourish. They only become harmful when we want them too much, and we want them too much when they become too important to us, when we attach an inordinate value to them. When we do that, we become dependent on them. We don’t just want them, we demand them. We've got to have them to feel good and be happy. They drive us the way the bottle drove us when we drank. In the process we sacrifice things of greater value to our real happiness and wellbeing.

Temperance is an ordering virtue. As we write in PTP, It is the virtue that orders our desires and passions, restrains our instinctual drives, and moderates our enjoyment of pleasures so that we may avoid the excess that can distort them and turn them to ill. “For we can neither think nor act to good purpose until the habit of self-restraint has become automatic,” as the 12&12 reminds us.

Turning it into a habit so that it becomes automatic is what makes temperance a virtue. This is defining of the concept of virtue: a trait that is so rooted in our character that it has become second nature to us, enabling us to see, to feel, and to act in the ways typical of that trait habitually and automatically, almost effortlessly, and with pleasure.

That obviously requires a lot of practice over a long period of time: the kind of practice that enables a person to gain mastery over anything, whether using a tool, learning another language, or playing a sport or a musical instrument—except a lot more and a lot longer. That is why the virtue comes up in Step 10, where we continue to take personal inventory, a practice that goes on for the rest of our lives.

Becoming temperate involves a process which goes through four stages. Let us take sex (which Step 4 of the Big Book says is a God-given good), and its use in an extra-marital affair (which it suggests is selfish). At the first stage (intemperance, out of control) we see such an affair as a good thing, we desire it, and we act on it. At the second stage (incontinence, no control) we see the affair as bad, but we still desire it and we act on it. At the third stage (continence, self-control), we see the affair as bad, we still desire it, but we don’t act on it. At the fourth stage (temperance), we see the affair as bad, we don’t desire it, and thus we don’t have it.

As this illustration shows, self-control is a stage in the development of temperance (involving willpower). It is not the virtue itself. As we come to AA and go through a spiritual awakening, our outlook changes and we begin to develop a right concern for the good in many areas of our lives. We know what really matters. We just can’t live up to it consistently. We are not in stage one anymore, but neither do we go straight to stage four. Instead, we fluctuate between stages two and three, sometimes doing the wrong we desire to do and sometimes resisting the desire and not doing it. Or to put it positively, doing the right thing sometimes, and sometimes not.

As the illustration also shows, temperance is not only about moderation. It is not just about avoiding excess but about restoring order. The goal is not to have occasional as opposed to frequent affairs. The goal is not to have any because we deem it wrong and we no longer want it. The idea of temperance then is not that we feel like doing X but control ourselves and refrain from doing it. The idea is that we don’t feel like doing it, period. We no longer have the desire. It is gone, just like our desire to drink is gone. In the case of the defects which involve temperance (as with all other defects), this is the work of willingness and surrender in Steps 6 and 7.

As with sex, so with other areas of our lives where excess and disorder is a problem. For some of us it is food and drink—not just how much but what we eat and drink. For some of us it is work. We work ourselves to death chasing after emotional and financial security, approval, prestige, achievement, and self-fulfillment, meanwhile sacrificing our health and neglecting our family and other important areas of our lives, including our recovery.

As we have seen, then, the terms “self-control” and “moderation” do not accurately reflect the meaning of temperance as a virtue. At the same time, the latter term doesn’t resonate with the modern ear. If anything, it might have a negative association with the Temperance Movement and Prohibition, about which we read with reference to the Washingtonians (a predecessor of AA) in Tradition 10 in the 12&12. This probably accounts for AA avoiding the term.

In this connection we need to underscore the fact that the virtue, by whatever name we call it, is of absolutely no use in helping us to stop drinking. No virtue is. Ours is a threefold disease whose solution is a spiritual awakening. We can neither moderate nor control our drinking. That’s what makes us alcoholics as AA understands the term. What the virtue can do—what all the virtues can do—is to help us grow along spiritual lines so that we can stay stopped and make steady progress toward a full recovery and a meaningful sobriety.

We are sober by the grace of God and we grow by the grace of God as we practice the spiritual principles in the Steps—virtues and disciplines. Otherwise we remain dry drunks at best, still at the mercy of our instincts and drives, our impulses, compulsions, and obsessions. Temperance helps us to temper them. It integrates right outlook, right concern, and right desire into right action.

Posted 04/20/16 in “Practice These” at http://PracticeThesePrinciplesTheBook... . For full post, including related quotes and other resources, please click on link, where you will also find other posts no longer showing on this Goodreads blog.
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Published on May 07, 2016 13:50 • 38 views • Tags: 12-step-principles, moderation, self-control, temperance, virtue

April 18, 2016

I ran two marathons, one while I was still drinking, and another when I was sober. The first was a little like Harold Abraham’s race in “Chariots of Fire.” It was a way of proving myself. The second was not quite like Eric Liddell’s, but it wasn’t about me anymore. I no longer had to proof I wasn’t a bum, as another character would say in another movie. Held near my 11th anniversary, the race was now a way to celebrate a gift.

By the time of my 22nd anniversary, running had taken its toll on my knees and I had to call it quits. I switched to biking. It wasn’t the same, but it was the next best thing. The challenge was diminished further by the fact that, for a very long time, I had to ride my bicycle on a very flat course in a very flat state. Still, I was grateful. In the retirement community where I lived then, being able to ride a bike was no small feat.

Three years ago I moved to my present home in a mountainous area of another state. My 29th anniversary found me biking up some pretty steep hills. One of these hills was particularly daunting. This is because the road leading up to it was very straight, presenting me with a long and unobstructed view of the steady ascent and the sudden, sharp upturn at the end.

Looking ahead from about 100 yards away, I would start to get uneasy. Psyching myself up, I would start to pedal faster. The last 50 feet or so I would get anxious and pedal really fast. As I struggled to reach the top, I was totally out of breath and completely exhausted. It was like that every time I went up that hill. Each time I wondered whether I would make it.

It wasn’t until the next year that I realized what was happening. I was scaring myself. By focusing so intently on the steepness of the hill, I was anticipating failure. It was like running up Heartbreak Hill in the marathon. The more I looked at the hill, the bigger it seemed. The more I feared I couldn’t do it, the harder it became to do it. My attempt to compensate by pedaling faster made it even worse. It would just make breathing harder, wear me out, and make me even more anxious, reducing further my chances of success.

Once I saw the problem, the solution was obvious. I had to stop focusing on the hill. Rather than looking hundreds of feet in front of me, I would focus my attention on the next ten feet or so. There was no question I could make it that far. All I had to do was relax, pedal steadily, and breathe easily. One stretch of ten feet didn’t look any harder than the next. Before I knew it, I had reached the top, with not a trace of anxiety or fatigue.

My strategy here was to apply one of our AA slogans to my particular situation. That slogan of course is “one day at a time,” translated into one step and, in this case, one pedal at a time. The main principle in the slogan is simplicity. The idea is to enable ourselves to achieve a long-term goal or complete a difficult task by simplifying it and breaking it into smaller and more manageable parts.

The reason it works has to do with the nature of emotions. My problem was not the hill but my perception of the hill. By focusing on the steepness of the climb, I was sharpening my perception of the difficulty I faced, making failure look more likely and thus triggering my anxiety. By averting my eyes from the hill, I was diverting my attention from the difficulty, thereby reducing it.

Though this involved external and sensory perception, I found that it worked for internal, non-sensory perception as well. When I diverted my internal attention from the climb and thought about something else, I would become less aware of how hard it was and, before I realized it, I had made it over the top.

I don’t normally start riding my bike till sometime in April, the month of my anniversary. With the weather warmer than usual this year (and the Magnolia buds beginning to burst), I went out on my first ride last week. I headed for my local Heartbreak Hill, the high point (literally and figuratively), of my regular run. Almost 6 months had elapsed since my last run. I was out of shape. Still, I had no doubt I would make it, one pedal at a time. The program works, even in the pedestrian parts of life.

“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot. I saw it that way too—when I drank. It was Shelley upside down: If spring comes, can winter be that far behind? There was the promise of a new life outside, and so much death inside. I see it differently now. April is a month of thanksgiving. It’s when I was given a new life. And so, though I can no longer run, I can ride. When the time comes to celebrate my 32nd anniversary, I will get up on my bike and head for the hill.

Posted 03/31/16 in "Reflections" at http://practicetheseprinciplesthebook....
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Published on April 18, 2016 09:07 • 10 views • Tags: aa, anxiety, emotions, gratitude, slogans

March 5, 2016

I first went to church when I was a teenager. I went because I was desperate and needed help. I was homeless, deeply depressed, and scared. A kindly priest took me under his wing and, inspired by his example, I went off to college to study for the priesthood. Unfortunately, I had a different experience there. I rebelled, turned to atheism, and became an alcoholic. For the next 23 years I would have nothing to do with God and religion. When I finally hit bottom and came to AA, I ran into the deity in the most unlikely of places: a room full of drunks. AA made God accessible and appealing, while the experience of recovery made him meaningful. Like most of us, I gradually came to believe.

The story of losing God in the church and finding him again in the rooms is common at our meetings, especially when we discuss Steps 2 and 3, as we recently did in my home group. Some people identify themselves as “recovering Catholics,” and we identify with that. Even when our experience was with a different tradition, in the end it was still largely negative. Worse, it had the same effect—it drove us away from God.

Many of us are still recovering from that experience. Some of us wouldn’t darken the threshold of a church. Others visit on occasion. Still others who attend regularly struggle. Were it not for the tools we’ve learned in AA, we probably wouldn’t stay.

Talking about these things the last time around reminded me of the “spiritual but not religious” distinction we make in AA, a distinction which grew out of our early experience and which is now part of the cultural mainstream. Some religious people dismiss that distinction, dismissing those who make it. They use such terms of opprobrium as “platitude” and “cliché.” But dismissing people doesn’t help the religious cause. It may even be perceived as being, well, unspiritual. Nor does it help to dismiss facts. We call that denial. And the fact is that increasing numbers of people are opting for “spiritual” over “religious.” We don’t identify ourselves as religious because we don’t identify with the religious. They speaks at us, not to us. We need help, spiritual help (for psychology has failed us) but religion doesn't seem to offer any.

Alcoholics find that help in AA, and countless others in various 12-Step groups. Spirituality of course means different things to different people. This is the case even within the rooms. Yet when we say that AA is a spiritual but not a religious program we are not making some vague or spurious claim. AA spirituality grows out of concrete principles and practices which in significant ways set it apart from religion.

One of these is the principle of “attraction rather than promotion.” We generally associate this principle with Tradition 11. But it is also a key underlying principle of Step 12. In both, it governs the way we carry the message: in the sphere of public relations in the one case, and in the sphere of personal relations in the other, starting with the rooms and fellow alcoholics but extending by implication to all of our fellows and to all of our affairs. The principle was arrived at as the result of much painful experience. Most AAs were by temperament “irrepressible promoters.” Many were in fact salesmen, and they naturally came to see “carrying the message” as a sales job. They wanted to sell recovery, and in the process also sell themselves.

Indeed, the principle is one of the distinctive marks of AA spirituality and is closely linked to anonymity and the idea of “principles before personalities.” When we say that it sets it apart from religion, we mean religion not as expounded by the theologian, but as perceived and experienced by the average person through the medium of organized religion, or religion as an institution. The italics are necessary because, as we explain in PTP, religion emerges out of the spiritual and encompasses the spiritual. We are innately spiritual beings and are naturally attracted to the spiritual, to that which, in the most minimalist of terms, transcends our merely material existence. But we are also innately defective beings, and in our organized pursuit of the spiritual we end up making it not so attractive. Spiritual need gives way to the needs of the institution, of which the first is its own advancement. That imperative feeds the promotional urge.

Hence AA’s avoidance of all institutional hierarchies, regulations, and trappings. A program that is spiritual but not religious seeks to build a spiritual fellowship rather than a religious organization. Such a fellowship seeks to nurture our natural attraction to the spiritual while protecting it from the promoter instinct present in all of us. It confirms us in our intuition that there is a Power greater than ourselves, and it creates an environment where we can connect with that Power. Rather than promote that Power, it attracts us to it by letting us alcoholics show each other how it is working in our lives, how it is relieving us of our disease and bringing about a truly miraculous transformation in us. The attraction is to a faith that works, to a distinctively practical spirituality that bears fruit and has concrete results.

Because it is by nature proselytizing, religion in its organized form tends toward promotion. Using AA terminology we may say that its “primary purpose” is to win adherents to its institutional creed. Its primary message is that if you believe X, Y, and Z, you will have a “spiritual awakening” (find salvation, enlightenment, Nirvana). Its primary means of carrying this message is to preach, a mode of address which is generally characterized by proclamation, injunction, and exhortation and which seeks to convince and convert.

By contrast, AA’s primary purpose is to maintain a condition (sobriety) we have already attained and to help others do the same. Its primary message is that we had a spiritual awakening (and became sober) as the result of having done certain things. Its primary means of carrying that message is to tell our story of what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now, a mode of address which is characterized by the sharing of our experience, strength, and hope and which seeks mutual recognition and identification.

The accent in religion is on belief; the accent in spirituality on action. One stresses ideas and tries to advance those ideas; the other stresses experience and tries to share that experience. One presents arguments; the other tells a story. One seeks agreement; the other seeks empathy. One draws differences; the other finds commonality. One speaks of “you;” the other speaks of “we.” One says “this is what you must do;” the other says “this is what we did.”

One promotes through words, the other attracts through deeds. Not that religion is not interested in attraction, but that its main thrust is toward promotion. That this is the case, and that the thrust ought to be in the opposite direction, is apparently what lies behind a saying attributed to a man who was as spiritual as he was religious. “Preach all the time,” St. Francis is reported to have told his fellow monks, “when necessary, use words.” Some dispute the attribution to Francis, finding that it diminishes the value of preaching. But of course what Francis was saying was to put first things first, a key spiritual principle of his faith and one which not incidentally AA shares with him. Show, he was saying, show through what you do and how you live, and then tell. What diminishes the value of words is to tell and not show. It’s what turns religion into a primarily promotional enterprise.

Of course preaching is sometimes accompanied by exhortations to apply the lessons being taught, and chapter and verse are cited to this effect. And that’s very good. But to cite and exhort still is not to show. It is still promotion, not attraction. It pushes; it doesn’t pull.

Because it must proselytize, religion must promote. That is its job. It must tell us who and what: who God is as it understands God, and what we must do in light of that understanding. But if it is to attract, it must also show us how, and it must do so not only by precept, but by example: personal example, the immediate and living example of the preacher (by which we mean anybody trying to carry the religious message) and not only that of the historical and distant religious exemplar. And that, in the view of many who consider ourselves spiritual but not religious, is where religion falls short.

In the worst of cases, this disconnect between word and deed results in hypocrisy, the bane of religion and certainly one of its most aversive features. Less obviously but equally fatally, this disconnect produces a sense of irrelevancy in some of us. What goes on in church just doesn’t seem to connect very much with what’s going on in our lives out in the real world. This is in sharp contrast with what goes on at meetings, where we can speak from the heart and share our struggles honestly, openly, and safely with each other; where we can help each other understand and practice the spiritual principles than can help us with those struggles; where we can bear witness to the transformative power of God’s grace in our lives, concretely, on the basis of our daily experience.

The spiritual life is not a theory, we say in the rooms, we have to live it. We go to those rooms to learn how to do that. That practical, real-life spirituality is what attracts us to AA. It’s one of the reasons why some of us identify ourselves as spiritual but not religious.

Some of us go back to church because we need more spiritual help and we hope to find it there. We often don’t and we become disillusioned. Yet we are called to practice the spiritual principles of the program in all our affairs, and that includes church. For me that means first of all surrender and acceptance: the church is what the church is and I’m not going to change it. It means practicing the principle of attraction rather than promotion: sharing rather than preaching, showing how I’m living out my faith rather than telling others how to live theirs. It means trying to help rather than trying to convert. It means connecting with other AAs in church and being supportive of them. It means bringing theory and theology down to earth and making it practical. It means above all practicing the principles of love and service in Step 12 and seeing the church experience as an opportunity to give more than to receive.

AA spirituality doesn’t conflict with religion. Instead, it can help us return to the origins of religion in the spiritual and restore the spirituality which much of our religion has lost and which sometimes may seem so lacking in church. Seeing church through the principles of the program can help us to make spiritual sense of it. It can help us to make it relevant to our life. That in turn can help us to practice those principles better.

Posted 01/28/16 in “Reflections” at http://practicetheseprinciplesthebook..., where you can also find related post "Religion and Spirituality: The Matter of Obedience." For more on spirituality and religion, see "Religion, Spirituality, and Faith," in Practice These Principles, pp. 125 - 132.
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Published on March 05, 2016 10:57 • 24 views • Tags: a-a, alcoholics-anonymous, religion, spirituality

December 20, 2015

Simplicity is the operating principle of the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without it neither would work. Hence Dr. Bob’s last words to Bill.

The need for simplicity arises from the fact that what we are dealing with is not simple. Life is not simple. People and relationships are not simple. God is not simple. So when we say that AA is a simple program, we need to be clear on what we are saying.

AA is a simple program in that it gives us a set of simple tools to deal with what are in fact complicated matters. We use them to work our way through the real complexities of life and in the process simplify it and come out on the other side.

The program’s simplicity is written into the very concept of steps. The 12 Steps represent a gradual process of growth one step and one principle at a time. From a simple admission of powerlessness we move to a minimal belief in a Higher Power to a plain willingness to let that Power help us.

Simplicity extends to the rest of the Steps. Step 4 may look very complicated, for we are taking inventory of our entire lives. But we do it one emotion, one defect, one relationship, one situation at a time. Prayer may seem to present all kinds of difficulties, but we can start by simply asking for help in the morning and giving thanks at night. Meditation may sound even harder, but we can begin by reflecting on a simple daily reading, or even just a phrase from that reading.

Always aiming for the greatest simplicity possible, we come up with all kinds of maxims and slogans which make the abstract concrete and the conceptual practical. The first three Steps are distilled into three succinct sentences: “I can’t. He can. I’ll let Him.” The “how” of the program is explained with a handy acronym which spells out the bottom-line, essential, indispensable principles: honesty, open-mindedness, willingness (HOW). Indeed, the whole program is summed up in a straightforward formula: “Don’t drink. Clean house. Help another alcoholic.”

“First things first,” “Live and let live,” “Easy does it,” “One day at a Time,” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “Do what’s in front of you,” “Put one foot in front of another,” and “Utilize, don’t analyze” are among the other sayings which seek to simplify the process of recovery.

Simplicity is also written into the very concept of traditions, which are handed down to us for the very simple reason that they work. As with the Steps, the simplicity of the Traditions also was achieved by working our way through a lot of complications, in this case the task of trying to get a bunch of self-seeking and generally disorderly drunks to work together for the common good. Out of that experience came such policies as sticking to one primary purpose, having but one membership requirement, acknowledging one sole Authority, and other policies which sought to avoid all the complexities intrinsic to organizations and keep the alcoholic ego at bay.

As we can gather from these few examples, simplicity seeks to dispense with the extraneous and the superfluous, the unnecessary and the unessential. It favors the plain, the minimal, the ordinary, the unassuming, that which is down-to-earth. It is the opposite of duplicity, complexity, and multiplicity. It works together with such virtues as humility and modesty, and stands against such defects as pride. Pride or ego is among the biggest obstacle to simplicity, for it conflates it with simple-mindedness and sees complexity as a sign of superiority.

Yet keeping it simple does not mean being simplistic or simple-minded, shallow or superficial. It does not mean we avoid exploring, inquiring, and digging deeper into things. Simplicity is not opposed to thinking. It is opposed to “stinking” thinking. Our ability to think is a gift from God and a grateful response implies treasuring that gift and using it to serve and to honor him.

When we say that AA is a simple program, we sometimes add “for complicated people.” Of course, we drunks are no more complicated than anybody else. But when we drank, we had a definite tendency to complicate our lives. That’s why they became unmanageable. Drinking exacerbated our defects and thus compounded our difficulties. We were naturally predisposed to excess, and excess creates chaos and disorder.

As we grow in recovery, it becomes increasingly evident to us that the good life is the simple life. We work toward it by working on the defects of character and emotion which complicate it. Where before we wanted more, we are now content with less. We appreciate the little things. We make fewer demands of people. We don’t seek the limelight. We avoid excess. We keep it simple.

Posted 12/16/15 in “Practice These” at http://PracticeThesePrinciplesTheBook... . For full post, including quotes and other resources, please click on link, where you will also find other posts no longer showing on this Goodreads blog.
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Published on December 20, 2015 14:43 • 23 views • Tags: simplicity

October 31, 2015

The word compassion doesn’t appear anywhere in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. Nor will we find it in the 12&12. It’s not even listed in the index to As Bill Sees It. Yet the concept is at the very heart of the program and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

To see this we may start by recalling the literal meaning of the term. This is “to suffer with” (Latin com, with, + passio, suffer). The term references a character trait or virtue, and also an emotion. As an emotion, to feel compassion is to suffer with those who suffer. Its three distinguishing marks are to see the suffering of another, to share in that suffering, and to wish to relieve it. As a virtue, compassion is a natural disposition to do these things—and thus to feel the emotion—whenever and wherever suffering is present.

Compassion is central to our program of recovery because that program is based on a view of the alcoholic as someone who is in fact suffering: suffering from a disease, and from the consequences of that disease. We are afflicted with a physical, mental, and spiritual illness. Moreover, a defining characteristic of that illness is that it causes us to act in compulsively self-destructive ways which inevitably bring about further anguish and pain. When alcoholism is thus seen as an illness (rather than, say, a sin or moral weakness), the alcoholic becomes a natural object of compassion (instead of, say, condemnation or punishment).

Compassion is central to our fellowship because that fellowship is based on the view that we suffer from a common malady. We share the same sickness and the same suffering. We are fellow sufferers, and we come together for the purpose of helping each other to relieve that suffering. We do that when others share at a meeting and we identify with them. We see their pain as our own because it is our own. We too have experienced it, for we too are alcoholic. That moves us to voice our identification, admit the same illness, and share the same pain. And when we do that in the context of the program’s spiritual solution, when to experience we add the strength and the hope that comes with our spiritual awakening, we begin to relieve that pain. We begin to carry the message of recovery to the suffering alcoholic.

Hence, though the term is never used in our basic texts, compassion is nevertheless an animating principle of program and fellowship—indeed, an essential principle, for no recovery is possible without it. The AA meeting is compassion’s training ground; sharing and identifying its distinctive practice.

The long-term goal of that practice is to grow in compassion and become compassionate people. That’s the task of character building which starts with Step 4 and by which, through repeated practice, compassion becomes a habit, i.e., a virtue. We become sensitive to all suffering; we readily see its presence, identify with it, and experience a desire to alleviate it.

AA can help us to grow in compassion because its view of the sick and suffering alcoholic transcends alcoholism and the meeting room. When we identify ourselves as and with alcoholics, we are identifying with a condition that is not limited to physical suffering. We are identifying with an illness that spreads to the whole person and manifests itself in a diseased character and diseased emotions.

We suffer from “irritability, anxiety, remorse and depression” (Big Book). We suffer from “pride, greed, anger, lust, gluttony, envy, and sloth” (12&12). We suffer from selfishness and self-centeredness, from self-justification and dishonesty, from jealousy, impatience, intolerance, and a whole slew of other handicaps.

These afflictions are all parts of the disease, and we identify with those who suffer from them as well. In the process we can grow and extend our identification beyond our fellow alcoholic to our fellow human being. For what AA is suggesting is that those afflictions are part of the same spiritual disease that affects all of humanity, that suffering thus broadly conceived is characteristic of the human condition.

AA sets no limit on the suffering that qualifies for compassion because there is no such limit. As a virtue, compassion is not conditional. AA membership includes “all who suffer.” So does the circle of compassion. It includes those we don’t like, those who belong to groups we don’t favor, and those with whom we may disagree on issues of vital importance to us. It includes even those who have caused us to suffer.

Using “pity” to express what today we would be more likely to call compassion, the Big Book tells us that compassion can help us to let go of our anger and resentment toward those who have wronged us. This is because through compassion we can see those wrongs as the product of an illness from which we also suffer, and as mirrors of the wrongs we too have done. Compassion helps us to see that we need to forgive because we too need forgiveness; that we need to be patient and tolerant because we need others to be patient and tolerant with us.

That is why compassion emerges as a goal in Step 4. We need to know the exact nature of the illness we are suffering from if we are to recognize it in others, identify with them, and wish to relieve it. And we can only do that if we examine all of its symptoms—the full scope of the defects of character and emotion which that illness generates.

That will gradually humble us, widen our vision, and enlarge our heart. As it does, it will help us to practice the virtue intentionally and consistently, making it increasingly natural for us to experience the emotion and to respond compassionately to the sufferer, whoever that sufferer may be.

Posted 10/23/15 in “Practice These” at http://PracticeThesePrinciplesTheBook... . For full post, including quotes and other resources, please click on link, where you will also find other posts no longer showing on this Goodreads blog.
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Published on October 31, 2015 12:06 • 9 views • Tags: compassion