What's This Great Reality Thing
(The Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which have no force of rule or law, call for AA members to remain anonymous at public levels. The Muser is not, and has never been, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, hence his willingness to discuss AA publicly.)
I was recently asked to define my idea of spirituality. After a moment of reflection, I answered that it has to do with truth. A spiritual quest is a quest for truth.
I've been walking on this planet for more than half a century. One of the great surprises of my life is that I would ever have come to a place where I felt I had something significant to say about spirituality. But my answer to the above question reflects upon my life. I see today that I have been on that quest for truth for a very long time—indeed for most of my life. I think I now see just a glimpse of truth, which paradoxically means that I know very little about it. Most of that glimpse of clarity has begun to happen for me during the last few years.
In 1997, and for some time before that, I was in the darkest place of my life. Probably only my genuine love and respect for a few remarkable people kept me from leaving that life. I know about suicide. I've seen the damage it can do to those left behind.
I had some tools to employ in my struggle, and I was using them. I was in the midst, not for the first time, of studying the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Twelve Steps, first published in that volume, and now used by countless millions of people worldwide to recover from alcoholism, and many other afflictions.
In the course of that work, I had a conversation with a man whose spirituality I greatly admire. He has more than three decades of recovery from alcoholism in AA. He told me that I was experiencing what has sometimes been called "The Long Dark Night of the Soul." He told me that my experience was not unusual, that he had gone through a similar period himself. Then he said something that surprised me, almost to the point of shock. He told me that a person doesn't even get to that long dark night unless he is spiritually fit.
I could readily accept my friend's first assertion. Dark night? Oh, yes. Long? It seemed interminable. Affliction of the soul? Yes, that, too. Another of my friends has called it, "wrestling with God." I sure felt like I was wrestling, and I was down two falls out of three.
But that second idea was absolutely foreign to me. No one had ever accused me of being spiritually fit. And I certainly didn't feel like I was. I was struggling anew with the ideas of God I was reading in Alcoholics Anonymous, usually referred to by AA members as The Big Book. And my struggle was as intense as if it were the first time I'd done it.
Some background is in order for those among my readers who aren't familiar with The Big Book. In 1934, a New York stockbroker by the name of Bill Wilson, a seemingly hopeless alcoholic on the path to insanity or death, became sober by using a set of spiritual ideas he obtained from a friend. Part of his method of staying sober involved trying to take these ideas to other alcoholics. In 1935, while in Akron Ohio on a business trip, he located a similarly hopeless drunk—a doctor named Bob Smith—and tried to teach him the ideas that had kept Bill sober. It worked. Dr. Bob, as he came to be called, had one more drinking bout, shortly after he met Bill, but then stayed sober until his death in 1950. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith are identified as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the first day of Dr. Bob's permanent sobriety, in 1935, is reckoned as the birth date of AA.
Bill stayed in Akron for months, and he and Dr. Bob began working with other drunks, and with their families. Anne Smith, Dr. Bob's wife, and some other non-alcoholics were intimately involved in that early work. Bill returned to New York, and resumed working there with alcoholics and their families. The recovery program began to spread, first to Cleveland, then to other cities.
By 1939, more than a hundred alcoholics had recovered, and the fellowship of these men and women set out to write a book, showing precisely how they had done it. The first part of the book was to be a detailed description of their practical program of action. Bill Wilson did almost all of the actual writing. Midway through the first chapters, he decided that a brief, step-by-step summary of the program would be useful. He began a list of its steps. When he finished, there were twelve. That was the first draft of The Twelve Steps.
So the Steps are a summary. The full set of instructions for the simple program they describe is found in the first seven chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous. The program of action speaks of and relies upon God, but it is definitely not a religious program. Bill Wilson had recoiled at the God idea when his friend Ebby first talked to him about recovery. Ebby told Bill to choose his own conception of God. That comment allowed Bill to accept the spiritual ideas that saved his life, and has allowed every adherent to The Twelve Steps since then to use a God of his or her own understanding.
The Twelve Steps suggest that we rely on God as we understood him. For my part, that phrase, as we understood him, has allowed me to have a spiritual life. When I first encountered The Twelve Steps, more than twenty-five years ago, I was an agnostic. I still am. But I have been experiencing spiritual awakening since I first began to use those steps in my life. It hasn't always been a smooth trip.
I was active in a church from the age of six, until I was sixteen. I even taught Sunday school. At about the age of fifteen, I became disturbed by some of the dogmatism of my religion, and curious about other beliefs. As I studied other religions and beliefs, I became more skeptical about them all. The Judeo-Christian Bible suggests that humans were created in the image of God, but it seemed to me that each religion or theological philosophy had in fact created God in the image of people. It seemed to me that all the religions were offering contrived answers to unanswerable questions. Finally, I encountered the writings of Thomas Huxley, who wrote of a philosophy he called agnosticism. Huxley didn't disbelieve in God. In fact, he seemed to have been a spiritual man. But he also seemed to believe that the truth about a God or Gods, and about many other things, was unknown and unknowable. He had provided a label for my way of thinking, and some intellectually powerful support for my nascent beliefs.
In the years prior to my personal long dark night of the soul, I had begun to drift toward an attachment to other people's ideas about God. I began to think again, as I had when quite young, that perhaps God was a kind of benevolent agent for my wants and needs. But I became angry and resentful when my prayers seemed to go unanswered. Ultimately, I rejected this somewhat concrete notion of God. It seemed other than spiritual, other than true.
As I began a new journey through The Twelve Steps, I struggled anew with The Big Book's discussion of God—even the "God as we understood him," that is the foundation of the book's spirituality. At times the book seemed to be asking me to turn again to that concrete notion of God. That I could not do. But I kept studying the book, and talking with others about it.
Along the way, I found three essential ideas in the book which let me find again the center of my own spirituality. The first of these ideas, I had been using all along, but it hadn't quite been enough. That idea is found in Appendix II of The Big Book, titled "Spiritual Experience:"
With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. (italics mine)
That "unsuspected inner resource" was the line that had first pointed my thinking to the idea of a God within.
The second inspirational idea is in Chapter 4, "We Agnostics." I had certainly read it before, but its importance hadn't struck me. The passage is:
We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.
These words were even more powerful for me than the "unsuspected inner resource" idea. The notion that Higher Power is a Great Reality, and that it is to be found deep within us fit well with certain ideas I'd discovered in Eastern philosophies. The word, "found" is critical. Higher Power doesn't have to reside within me—It might, or might not—but I must look within to find Higher Power. These early AA members seemed to have found that to be a nearly universal idea; they say, "it is only there that He may be found," and "It was so with us."
Still, I struggled. Bill Wilson's chapter to agnostics is disturbing to me. In places, his discussion of Higher Power is open and inclusive, but he seems not to have really understood what the word agnostic means. And he incessantly attaches the concept of a creator to his idea of God. Bill's Higher Power seems very close to the ideas I'd heard in church as a child—the ideas I had again and again found unworkable.
And then, I found my third inspiration. It is also in the fourth chapter, actually a few pages earlier than the "Great Reality" passage:
Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another's conception of God.
And finally, I got it. That means I don't even have to consider Bill Wilson's conception of God. Higher Power doesn't have to be a capital G God. It doesn't have to be the God of Bill Wilson's fathers. It doesn't have to be the magician-like cross between the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus that I'd rejected as a young man.
I was back to my spiritual roots. God gets to be what God wants to be. If He wants to be Jesus Christ, so it is. If She wants to be the Earth Mother, so it is. If Higher Power resides in you and in me—and if each of us resides just as surely within Higher Power, so it is. I may or may not be made in the image of Higher Power. But I don't have to—and I don't get to—create God to fit my feebly finite image of Him.
Then there is that word, "conception." Another of my spiritual friends points out a subtle difference between "conception," and "concept." While this distinction may not be entirely supportable lexicographically, my ear hears "conception" as a less rigid idea than "concept." "Conception" seems to involve more process, more development.
Whether or not my several dictionaries express that distinction, the idea is spiritually useful. While my core adherence to the agnostic philosophy is little changed over four decades, my conception of Higher Power has been revolutionized. The limited conception of Higher Power that I had in my teens could probably have been summed up as, "Well, maybe." I really was agnostic, in the truest sense, but the idea of no God at all was more believable to me than any concept of God I'd heard or read.
When I first studied the program of spiritual action I've been discussing, my conception of Higher Power was something like, "Well, I'll think about it again." Then, as I've described, I drifted into a reluctant semi-acceptance of a more rigid God-concept—closer to the Santa Claus/Easter Bunny God of my childhood. That idea preceded my long dark night.
Now, several years after my emergence from the darkness, and after the three discoveries I made in The Big Book, this new conception seems to be working wonderfully. I can use this Great Reality Idea. It is big enough, and open enough. It seems to admit the truth.
I do pray, using what seem to me to be the central spiritual ideas from the program of action those first AAs used. I ask Higher Power to direct my thinking, and to help me be useful. I use the Serenity Prayer:
God [Higher Power], grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
And I use prayers of gratitude, often when I become aware that my thinking seems to have been guided, without my awareness of it, or when I realize that I have been able to be useful, or when I see that I have been accepting, or even courageous.
I continue to study the simple, practical, spiritual program of action outlined in Alcoholics Anonymous. It speaks more truth to me than I ever heard in a church, or read in any religious work. I continue to follow The Twelve Steps that summarize that program. I have found few obstacles in working them as a non-alcoholic. They give me a spiritual center.
I don't believe I have any great spiritual answers or insights. I fully expect my spiritual ideas to evolve in the future, as they always have in the past. I believe I am a seeker of truth, whether in spiritual realms, or scientific, or political. I think that most people decide, at an early age, either to be learners, or not. It seems to me that a decision to learn is a spiritual decision. I think I decided very early to be a learner. It may have been my first decision. It has surely been my most enduring.
It's a search for The Great Reality.
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.