July 22, 2011
In my last column, I explored some misconceptions that I have seen causing friction in the fellowship, specifically between atheists and God-conscious members in 12 Step programs. Like any society, variations in our heart-felt beliefs can make a mosaic out of community life or it can cause tension; it’s all about love and tolerance.
Today, I reflect on the deep empathy Bill Wilson felt for those alcoholics who’s views differed from as to how the universe is unfolding. Bill learned a spiritual lesson from an Atheist doctor and he pondered how to, or how not to, talk AA with non-believers.
Back in 1961, while AA’s 300,000 sober members celebrated its 25th anniversary, their founder agonized over how AA could be a better program along with more welcoming to newcomers. Here is an excerpt from the April 1961 Grapevine article, written by Bill Wilson:
“Though three hundred thousand did recover in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. No doubt some were too sick to make even a start. Others couldn’t or wouldn’t admit their alcoholism. Still others couldn’t face up to their underlying personality defects. Numbers departed for still other reasons.
Yet we can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind and amount of sponsorship they so sorely needed. We didn’t communicate when we might have done so. So we AA’s failed them. Perhaps more often than we think, we still make no contact at depth with those suffering the dilemma of no faith.
Certainly none are more sensitive to spiritual cock-sureness, pride and aggression than they are. I’m sure this is something we too often forget. In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers. Of course this sort of thing isn’t confined to Twelfth Step work. It is very apt to leak out into our relationships with everybody. Even now, I catch myself chanting that same old barrier-building refrain, “Do as I do, believe as I do – or else!
Bill thought about the likelihood of proselytization of atheists or agnostics and he empathized with them. The tendency to go to far, isn’t reserved for those of faith in a deity. I do not believe in God and I have imposed my world view on others, too. Sometimes, as judge and jury, I decide in my mind that another member has gone beyond sharing their experience and they are (as I see it) telling someone “how it is,” and what someone else “needs to understand.”
I interject with, “If you found a God, or a leprechaun to pray to in the morning, I am glad it keeps you sober, but don’t be telling me or others what they have to believe to get or stay sober.” Why would I think two wrongs would make a right? “The only requirements for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” I add, showing my command of the obvious, “We don’t have to adopt anyone else’s believes or deny our own to belong in these rooms.”
I rationalized that I was coming to the defense of another member that was being bullied about what to believe and how. It may be true. But what came through in my interjection was not my expression of the right to an alternative view of how the universe works. What came across was a passive-aggressive slight towards the more traditional believer.
The narcissism of small differences, as Freud put it, is a most divisive trap. We as alcoholics have so much in common but that doesn’t make our experience universal. Do we celebrate the small difference or become threatened by them? Bill goes on, in the story referred to above, to tell how he was talking to a doctor who he suspected was an atheist. Bill wanted to convert him. Here’s how Bill tells the story:
This promptly triggered me, and I set out to convert him, then and there. Deadly serious, I actually bragged about my spectacular spiritual experience of the year before. The doctor mildly wondered if that experience might not be something other than I thought it was. This hit me hard, and I was downright rude. There had been no real provocation; the doctor was uniformly courteous, good humored and even respectful. Not a little wistfully, he said he often wished he had a firm faith, too. But plainly enough, I had convinced him of nothing.
A member in the rooms I frequent, tells me that when he is 100% sure about anything, he likes to ask himself, “What else could this mean?” That is a good lesson for me. I can be absolutely sure and dead-wrong at the same time. In fact, how sure I am of something is no indication of how likely I am to be correct.
Another thing I have heard, in an online meeting that humbles me, is, “personal belief, like recovery, is a continuum.” That’s so true. I don’t believe what I did a decade ago; a decade ago, I didn’t believe what I did when I first got here. I keep coming to see things differently. I need not get married to what I believe right now. I will likely abandon it or alter it in the future.
People who knew Bill say that he was the most inclusive person they knew. He listened to anyone who thought AA could be better or should change and he never defended AA against our critics. Harpers Magazine wrote the first unflattering column in 1963 called, “Alcoholics Anonymous: Cure or Cult.” Members were up in arms about how AA should retaliate. Bill thought the author made some good points and we should listen closely to our critics.
I have a lot to learn. If I want to stay constantly growing I need to embrace the wisdom and experience of even those I find disagreeable. If I listen only to people who sound just like me, 10 years from now I will be just like me. I want to be open to more.