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The critical quality of a great turning point in your life is apt to be missed at the time and only recognized later. One Wednesday evening in October, 1941, there were some thirty men and women assembled in a small room in the East tower of the County Center Building in White Plains, New York. As I entered the room — it was my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous — I had no idea of the magnitude of the change I was exposing myself to.
It is true, I was looking for help and half expecting to find it here. But even so, I had no way of knowing or guessing that I was crossing a watershed, a great divide, on the other side of which my life would be utterly changed — altered in certain ways which I found agreeable and profitable, but transformed also in other ways which at first I could not have imagined and did not have the vision or the largeness of heart to desire.
At that first meeting I was both receptive and unreceptive. It is certainly possible to be both simultaneously, and most newcomers are both. I was receptive because I needed and wanted help. I was a bad drinker, just out of my second trip to the mental institution in 14 months, with the smell of metrazol [a chemical once used to induce convulsion in shock treatment] still fresh in my nose, and with the realization clear in my mind that compulsive alcoholic drinking was the cause of my troubles. I wanted to stop drinking, and I had been told that the people in this room knew how to do that. And as the meeting progressed, I found myself believing readily enough that indeed they did know how to do what I had repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed to do: say No to that first drink. So I listened to what they said and took it seriously.
I was unreceptive because certain of the things that were talked about seemed to me simply unreal. To my mind God was unreal, and therefore prayer and meditation were unreal. I didn’t argue about these things openly. I just ignored them and kept coming back to meetings, because I wanted the kind of help these people were able to give me.
There are two great, living realities in Alcoholics Anonymous: the Fellowship and the Program. Comparing these two is like comparing your right and left legs; both are necessary if you are to climb steadily and maintain your balance on the road to recovery.
It was the Fellowship that loomed largest for me at first, so large that I let the Program take a dangerously neglected second place. I liked the meetings from the start. I liked the people and the talking and the helping of others; from the earliest days, 12th Step work was big for me. And from this activity the strength and truth of the movement flowed into me. I got sober and stayed sober, and my life began to change in striking ways. My job began to go well. My home life greatly and beautifully improved. I began to experience joy in ordinary things which I had not known since childhood.
Meanwhile of course I heard of the Twelve Steps, and I gained some understanding of them. I practiced what seemed to apply to me and ignored the rest, and since my atheism remained unchanged, a large part of the Program was ignored. As a result, Alcoholics Anonymous for me meant a big dose of the Fellowship accompanied by a very limited practice of a truncated Program. For this imbalance I paid a high price.
After some months of sobriety I began to drink again, and in spite of strenuous work in the Fellowship — frequent attendance at meetings and a lot of activity in trying to help others — I was unable to regain my sobriety. Over a period of years the drinking continued, and although I believed in the Fellowship and worked hard in it all that time, it was ineffective for me. Ineffective at the level of maintaining sobriety. It was effective in giving me enough hope and enough sanity to keep trying, to keep coming to meetings, and to keep in touch with my AA friends.
And then one day I saw what my trouble was. Lying in a hospital bed in a drying-out place the week after Easter 1946, I saw something to which I had been blind before. I saw the importance of the Program. I saw that I had been trying to substitute the Fellowship for the Program, and that you simply can’t do that and get away with it. Again, it is like trying to substitute one of your legs for the other; you can’t walk that way.
This process of clear seeing went on for some days. I saw that the Program means exactly what it says, and that you can’t change it or twist it around to suit your prejudices or your old ideas and still have it work for you. It is what it is, and its power comes from that — from what it is. It is a God-given distillation of hard experience that cannot be changed because it is true as stated, and because the kind of changes that a fool like me wants to make in it falsify it. It works because it is true, and of course it doesn’t work when falsified.
For the first time in all my years in AA, I took the card in my hand and read the Twelve Steps carefully, slowly, trying to understand what they are saying. I began to do this every day. I also read the Big Book, studying it as what it is: a textbook on the application of the Steps.
This approach to the Program greatly intensified my first love, my love of the brethren — my joy in the Fellowship. Now the two legs worked together, and I walked at last in blessed sobriety, one day at a time, day after day after day, greatly thanking God.
I don’t know just when my intellectual pretensions and prejudices against the Deity began to melt. Even when you are failing in the Fellowship, it does you good. I heard a lot of people — many of them very intelligent people — say that God had helped them. And after a while — I don’t quite know how — I got down off my high horse. And this was the secret. This was what opened my mind and my heart to the power of the Program.
And now, many sober years later, one day at a time my valuation of the Program has increased beyond measure, along with my ever-deepening love of the Fellowship.
The Program is no accident and no mere incident in the growth of a society. It is a landmark in one of the great dispensations of grace of this age. Without the Program the Fellowship would never have got started, and without the Program the Fellowship surely could not have survived. The Program is the treasure in the field.
This singular compendium of spiritual principles — this lean, compact, rigorously stripped-down epitome of the knowledge it takes for an addict to recover — this beautifully disciplined, radically simple, yet fully satisfactory and adequate statement of what an alcoholic must do in order to regain his sanity — did not appear, and could not have appeared, in the ordinary course of human events. It can only be understood in terms of inspiration, the infusion of wisdom from a higher level, the gift to men of paranormal, supernatural know-how and power in response to a desperate spiritual need.
The simplicity of the Twelve Steps is deceptive to the uninitiated. It both conceals and reveals an extraordinary road-map of the way to God — and thus to sanity, responsibility and the meaning of human life. There are greater maps than the Twelve Steps. The Bible, for example, is immeasurably greater. But there are none so reduced to essentials — so devoid of controversial or confusing elements — and so well within the understanding and practical grasp of weak men, sick men, bad men, insane men.
The Twelve Steps are a life jacket for men drowning in the sea of addiction. And this jacket will also float other kinds of flounderers in the sea of modern imbecility and corruption — the drug addicts, the food addicts, the sex addicts, the anxious, the depressed.
Simple as it is, the AA Program presents real difficulties of access, and these cannot be safely ignored. Any bright 12-year-old child can understand what the Program is saying. But many a bright fully mature man and woman has failed to comprehend its message.
Chief among the obstacles to a practical understanding of the Twelve Steps seems to be an attitude of intellectual arrogance and superiority. The Steps do not speak to the man who knows it all already. They leave such a person stewing in his own pride and contempt. The commandment found in the New Testament to become as a little child applies critically here. And no amount of exteriorly imposed humiliation by itself will bring your head low enough to go through this gate. Along with whatever aid environmental disaster may be to you — and of course it may be great — you still must humble yourself under the mighty hand of God in order to see the greatness and to receive the great power of the principles embodied in this brief statement of the beginning of the road to freedom.
Second only to arrogance — and maybe not even second but rather the ground of arrogance — is infantile personal self-will as a barrier to an effective relationship with the Program. Many adults and nearly all addicts carry the infant’s totally self-centered demands over and incorporate them basically into the adult life-style. If you must have your own way in everything, why then the Program remains beyond your comprehension and beyond your reach, because it is precisely the giving up of your own personal self-will to the care of the Higher Power and to the requirements of the truth that the Program prescribes.
A real regenerative Program, one that is capable of producing fundamental and decisive life-change, is always the result of inspiration, coupled with the type of human genius which is able to receive, elaborate, and communicate inspiration.
Perhaps you think that any reasonably intelligent man or woman, with some spiritual training and understanding to help him, could sit down and work out a program that would be somewhere near as effective as the Twelve Steps. Believe me, it is not so. I have seen the attempt made, and I have seen it fail, many times.
One last word: You may have the very great privilege of coming into contact with a true regenerative Program — and still find yourself unable to profit from it, unable to connect with it, unable to work effectively in it. That, as you have seen, was my own situation for many years.
There is a way to break this kind of deadlock, an again it involves humbling yourself. A life jacket is no good to you unless you put it on. And to put on the Program means to obey it. That is the one-word key to the whole problem. The Program is not there to be argued about or fought over or picked apart or objected to, and certainly not to be modified or changed. It is there to be obeyed. Obedience to the Program must come first before any and all other considerations in life, no matter how dear or how demanding. Then and only then — does the saving power come to you.
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