Perhaps it’s time now to talk about the “higher power” or what folks in AA sometimes refer to as the “God stuff”. The AA literature still speaks in traditional terms, namely that a person must “come to believe” in a power “greater than themselves” and call on or pray to it for help. In the Western world this is sometimes, perhaps often, misinterpreted by some to require that, speaking in fundamentalist terms, an alcoholic must “get right with Jesus” or he or she will not be “saved”.
This latter interpretation is curiously at odds with official AA teaching, which goes out of its way to make clear that a “higher power” need not be God in any accepted sense (although of course it’s perfectly correct to have it that way) and need only be someone or something other than the sufferer, even the AA group itself or the group acting through a sponsor. Moreover interpreting the “higher power” exclusively in fundamentalist Christian terms has been known to frighten people away, to “turn them off” or perhaps give them a rationale to drop out and resume drinking again. “AA may be right for some people, but it’s just not right for me” they might say.
This is sad indeed. AA is for everyone, including Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus and even nonbelievers (for here and there one may find even an “agnostics” group). And, like the Christian fundamentalist AA fallacy, an occasional agnostics group may characterize itself as “atheist”, making fun of Christians, indeed all religions and arrogantly asserting that anyone who professes to be an agnostic is a coward since he has not made a sufficient commitment to “truth”, possibly for fear that he might be mistaken (as in the famous “Pascal’s Wager”).
Perhaps all of this merely indicates that, although AA is indeed for everyone, each person in AA may interpret its teachings in his or her own terms. There is nothing wrong with this, provided that one individual’s interpretation is not demanded of others.
A true “higher power” need have only one requirement: By its very nature it cannot be oneself. Indeed, it may not be, at least in some theological sense, “higher”. It can be the group itself if need be. And the “group” is not necessarily “higher” than any of its members. To put the matter another way, “You can’t do it alone”. You need help.
Even the latter interpretation may be misleading. Instead of “can’t” perhaps a better way of saying it is “You’d best not try doing it alone”. Some have succeeded in getting and remaining sober solely by their own efforts, or say they did. But a far larger body of AA experience accumulated over the years points to the immense difficulties, and risks, of such an approach.
For this at least is crystal clear. Alcoholism is one of the most dangerous and potentially fatal illness known to man. And, if left to run its course it is nearly always terminal. With some death may come rapidly. With others, as with me, the years of suffering may run on but the progress of the illness is equally relentless. In a way it is like that ancient torture device, the narrowing room, where, ever so gradually, the walls close in upon the increasingly isolated prisoner until finally he finds himself alone in a tiny room, desperately sick, clinging to a bottle which provides only temporary relief, an illusive remedy which no longer produces a “high” but attains only a transitory “normality”. Thus alcoholism has rightly been called “the lonely illness”.
In view of the risk, and the inevitable outcome, in view of the accumulated experience of thousands, it seems foolish to give up drinking or drugging solely through one’s own efforts. At times I have thought that it is as if a person were walking alone on the edge of a cliff, or cautiously navigating a narrow, mountainous spine which in England they refer to as an “edge”. A place where a single misstep will mean ruin and dash the traveler on the rocks below. Thus Shakespeare’s Hamlet cautioned by his friends,
“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some otherhorribleform,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.”
Hamlet, Act I, Sc. iv.
In conclusion, then, the better interpretation of the “higher power”, or, if you wish, the “God stuff”, may be merely this: “You’d best not try to do it alone”. Some, indeed many, have tried. Some may have succeeded or at least have said that they have. But, considering the enormous risks, and the successes of those who have sought help, it seems foolish to take a chance. Foolish and possibly irrational.
Although Alcoholics Anonymous has enormous strengths and advantages, both from the vast number and variety of available meetings on an international scale, as well as its long history, relative success record, and the collective experience of its members, there are other groups, also nonprofit, which are available. Among these are Rational Recovery, Smart Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Life Ring Secular Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Moderation Management. All of these support abstinence, except Moderation Management, which supports alcohol moderation or abstinence. All, except Rational Recovery, tend to have discussion meetings (with "cross-talk" as opposed to a series of speakers who don't reference each other). As to any suggestion that an alcoholic might eventually be able to drink in moderation, I personally remain skeptical, since that never worked in my case,and unfortunately it took many years for me to become convinced of this. Because of the risk and consequences of relapse any attempt at "moderation" has its obvious dangers. Perhaps further medical research (such as that which has resulted in various opioid-receptor antagonists, such as naltrexone) may make this more of a reality than merely a hope.