Some time last year I made the comment to Judy, my dear wife, that I don’t think I experience joy. She found this disturbing, and bought me The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It is by Douglas Abrams, and tells the story of the visit of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday. Meeting at the home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, they spent five days together talking about joy. I found the interaction of these two great spiritual leaders to be a special pleasure, and I believe I have learned some important lessons, as well as having been reminded of others. For one thing, I discovered that I had a limited understanding of joy. I had thought it was extreme happiness. I now understand happiness to be a mind experience based on how things are going in life. Joy is more of a heart /soul experience which comes from within, and does not depend upon external conditions. They identify eight pillars of joy, four of the mind and four of the heart. The four pillars of the mind are perspective, humor, humility, and acceptance. The four pillars of the heart are forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. One achieves a joyful life by cultivating these characteristics through experiencing life and through meditation. Experiencing life is necessary to joy because it is not possible to to forgive, to be grateful, to accept the past, to be humble without having experienced suffering. How can I have compassion for you unless I can relate to your suffering? How can I be grateful if I have not suffered injustice and deprivation?
According to these great men, certain important characteristics are part of human nature. These include an instinct for fairness (justice), a need to be part of a community, and an instinct to be compassionate. Though coming from different religious traditions, they found little to disagree about. What was clear was that they knew how to have fun, and they enjoyed teasing, laughing with and at themselves and each other. They were playful, hardly what I would have expected from men who had experienced the lives of struggle that had been their lot. I picked up on some powerful statements which provide guidance for what to seek in life. For example, there is no benefit to loving my neighbor as myself if I do not love myself. And from the Archbishop, “The path of joy (is) connection, and the path of sorrow (is) separation. When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.” He also said, “As we discover more joy we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.” And from the Dalai Lama: “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” He adds, “The only thing that will bring happiness is compassion and warmheartedness. This really brings inner strength and self-confidence, develops trust, and trust brings friendship. We are social animals, and cooperation is necessary for our survival, but cooperation is entirely based on trust.”
For many years, but especially for the past year or two I have spent much time contemplating spiritual matters. One of the words that I meditate on daily is compassion. Many times during the day I remind myself to be compassionate and kind. It was encouraging to read that compassion tops the list of human virtues to which to aspire. Compassion means to “suffer with.” Having compassion for others is a direct antidote to the constricting trap of self-absorption. As in the Cherokee saying, you can either feed the Good Wolf or the Bad Wolf. Clearly, the pursuit of joy will be successful through the pursuit of loving qualities, those of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. In this way we can develop the qualities of gratefulness, acceptance, and humility, and as I have begun to experience and finally recognize for myself, joy. May you all find your own joy on your journey through life.
A review of Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by Richard Rohr, Franciscan Media, 2011, 2021
Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the Roman Catholic church who has been gifted with deep spiritual awareness along with superb communication skills. Thus, he has been able to educate and inspire people for many years, people who were suffering and seeking to make sense of their lives. In 2011 he brought new insights into the problem of addictions with the publication of this marvelous book. It was updated and reissued in 2021. He draws on his life experience as a priest, educator, and counselor in this effort. He shares pearls of wisdom gleaned from the Bible as well as from some of my spiritual mentors including Meister Eckhart, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Thomas Merton.
Father Rohr understands addiction as excessive attachment to anything which feeds the ego (e.g. wealth, power, sex) or provides an escape from life (e.g. alcohol, food, gambling).Even religion can be an addiction. He rightly says that because of the denial involved in such a process the afflicted person, group, or society is unable to see the situation for what it has become. Such attachments squeeze the spiritual breath out of people, groups, and even whole societies. Father Rohr understands that many people are unable to find the spiritual answer to their addictions in the church—that the spiritual solution for such people is in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous or other Twelve Step fellowship. He says that the way out of the addictive dilemma must be a spiritual one, but seldom do persons with addictions find religion to be an effective starting point on their journey of healing. In this regard, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous provides the spiritual community and plan of action that meets this need. As Father Richard says, and as often been heard at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell, and spirituality is for those who have already been there.” He emphasizes the importance of ego reduction, of moving the center of awareness from the head to the heart where we are most likely to make a personal connection with a Higher Power, whether called God or not. He says that learning to pray is the work of moving the effort from the head to the heart where we can feel the spiritual energy rather than thinking about it. His book provides a valuable understanding of recovery as a spiritual pathway, guided by the Twelve Steps. My hope is that this book finds its way to the millions of people who are involved at any stage of recovery from addiction, or indeed any life circumstance which has brought on suffering.
After somewhat in excess of fifty years, I am finally giving up the clinical practice of medicine. I closed my private practice in 2019, but have continued as the Medical Director of the Berman Center, an Intensive Out-Patient and Partial Hospitalization Program in Atlanta where we treat both addictive and mental health disorders. My last day at the Berman Center will be February 28, 2023. As I look back, I have immense gratitude for the opportunity to share in the struggles of what must be thousands of people, some of whom have told me that I made a difference in their lives. On February 24 I am receiving a Lifetime Service Award from the Caron Foundation in Atlanta. It seems to me that the two main and obviously related criteria for such an award are that one must work for a very long time, and not die before the Awards Breakfast. However, the concept of retirement does not apply, because I have a new career as an author. Although I did publish Autobiography of a Georgia Cat in 2004, I then gave up writing, finding that it took up too much of my time. My plan was to resume writing after retirement from clinical practice. Closing my office gave me the needed time to resume writing, this time not a novel but a non-fiction book in my field of addiction. I am pleased to announce that my book, The Twelve Step Pathway: A Heroic Journey of Recovery, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this fall. As time goes on I will post further information. The book is the first in-depth treatment of the convergence of the Twelve Steps with the Heroic Journey, and I hope it will find a receptive audience. As always, my goal in life has been to help others, and I believe many people will find this book a useful user’s manual to have in their recovery tool kit.
Heard at an A.A. meeting. “I was on the death train called alcoholism. I wanted to get off, but I didn’t know how.”
The Heroic Journey starts with the call to adventure. In every person’s life a great challenge will be encountered. The response to this challenge will determine the course of the Heroic Journey, and by extension, the course of an individual’s life. I like to use the Biblical story of Moses as an example. The story has mythic elements including the miraculous birth story in which he was saved from being killed as an infant by the action of his mother who put him in a basket and set the basket into the Nile. Subsequently he was rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter and was raised as a prince in the palace, a common site for a heroic story. After killing the Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave, he ran for his life and was living in the land of Midian where he became a shepherd and married the daughter of a priest. All this was preparation for the great adventure of his life. At the time of his call to adventure he was not looking to make a change in his life. Presumably, he was quite content with his life, with no greater problem than being away from his tribe. However, he had never been close with his tribe, having been raised from infancy in the Pharaoh’s palace.
So, one day while minding his own business, probably thinking about not very much, he was grazing his flock when he noticed something out-of-the-ordinary—a bush was on fire, and it was not being consumed by the fire. A bush on fire is not big deal it seems, but a burning bush that is not being consumed by the fire, that deserved a second look. I suspect I would have walked right past it. As he approached the bush a voice called out to him and presented him with his great challenge—go back to Egypt and demand that the Pharaoh release the Hebrew people from servitude and let them leave Egypt.
The second phase of the Heroic Journey is the refusal of the call, or, the wish to refuse. In the case of Moses, he tried to talk God out of it, but God had an answer to all of his excuses. And, God wouldn’t tell Moses His name which Moses requested so he could tell Pharaoh who sent him. Just tell him “I Am” sent you, or something close to that. And with not much more than that, plus a promise of help along the way, off went Moses to Egypt.
For the alcoholic, the call to adventure can come hundreds or thousands of times. Waking up with a terrible hangover, throwing up uncontrollably, waking up with a stranger not remembering how one got into that situation, getting a DUI, losing a job, family strife, liver disease, money troubles, the self-loathing that goes along with such uncontrolled and unacceptable behavior, all could be interpreted as a call to adventure. However, unlike Moses, the alcoholic is not paying much attention. Through endless rationalizations in a state of denial, the alcoholic fails to recognize that he or she has to make a radical life change. He sees the problems in his life as external to himself—someone else is to blame for whatever difficulties he suffers with. It is not that he is on a death train; it’s just that his train is traveling in hostile territory. All the rationalizations, blaming, and denial represent the second stage of the heroic journey—the refusal of the call—and this refusal also appears on the journey hundreds or thousands of times. For many the fog eventually begins to lift, and the alcoholic starts to see that he is “on the death train.” He or she may or may not know the name of the train, but they know they are in trouble. They have arrived at the point of the man at the A.A. meeting who said he knew he was on the death train, but didn’t know how to get off. In the parlance of A.A., they have taken the first step, admitting that they are powerless over alcohol and that their lives have become unmanageable. Now that the alcoholic is paying attention and admits to being in a bad way, he is ready for the gifts which make a successful adventure possible. In the myth of the Heroic Journey the hero is promised gifts by the Higher Power which the hero can use to successfully meet a challenge that on the face of it appears to be impossible—such as getting the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. Here we encounter the next stages of the A.A. Twelve Step program, steps two and three. Step Two is coming to believe that a Higher Power can release one from the death ride, so to speak, followed by Step Three, acceptance of the challenge and of the gifts of recovery—not ten plagues as in the story of Moses, but the steps, the meetings, the fellowship, and a sponsor.
It is of interest that the metaphor used by our friend at A.A. was that of a mad journey—being on a train that is rushing forward out of control. Such a person is prepared to end the destructive way of addiction and begin an adventurous journey of recovery. He is ready to be shown how to get off the destructive pathway and start the next phase of life. It should be understood that the death train ride is actually an aspect of the heroic journey. It is, in fact, the call to adventure—and the refusal likewise is an aspect of the journey. The refusal is like Moses telling God that he is happy in Midian and doesn’t want to go to Egypt. Whether or not it is “I Am” who is calling, or just who or what the Higher Power might be is to be understood eventually by the traveler.
Journeys are started at the beginning, not somewhere in the middle. Realizing this, one understands that every alcoholic is engaged in the Heroic Journey at every stage of the disease. Once ready, the alcoholic is led to A.A. where he or she is shown not only how to get off the death train, but how to stay off of it. And the recovery journey takes the traveler to amazing places, involving much more than he or she could have possibly imagined—with rewards way beyond what could have been hoped for. And like Moses, it presents additional challenges along the way which can only be managed through the help of the Higher Power, the same Higher Power who called the alcoholic to adventure in the first place.
I have just finished reading Fear No Evil by Natan Sharansky, and I am in awe of his courageous and heroic battle for survival against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, a battle which he won convincingly by never yielding in the struggle of wills. On the one hand, it is embarrassing that I have only just read this important book first published by in 1988, 2 years after his release from the Soviet prison where he had been held for 9 years as a political prisoner. But possibly the time is right for me to have read it, a time in which I have come to understand life as a heroic journey. Sharansky’s crime was requesting a visa to leave the Soviet Union and live in Israel. He was also outspoken in his criticism of government policies of repression of human rights. It was the era of the refuseniks, the Jews and others whose request to leave the Soviet Union was refused by the authorities. In the Soviet Union he was not allowed to practice his religion or to exercise many other freedoms, such as the right to speak his mind about the government policies. He had become very well-known as a dissident both within the Soviet Union and in the West, so his arrest attracted much attention. He spends a good deal of time in his narrative talking about the period of time leading up to his arrest. He talks about how the KGB constantly had a tail on him, and as time went on was more and more obvious about it, even to the extreme of him sharing a taxi cab with a KGB agent. While this is a funny story, there was nothing funny about the KGB. He goes into great detail about his first year in prison, during which he was interrogated almost daily by the KGB and other authorities attempting to get him to confess to crimes or give the names of his “collaborators.” They let him know early on that he would be charged with espionage, a crime punishable by death. He goes into the procedures he was subjected to which made a fair trial impossible, and all in accord with Soviet law.
Once convicted, he went into the Gulag, the terrifying and reprehensible prison system that swallowed up millions of citizens, breaking their health and spirits, and often costing them their lives. Since this was twenty years or so post-Stalin their methods were less barbaric. It was illegal to torture or murder prisoners as had been done in the past. This did not mean that prisoners were not beaten, nearly frozen, starved, or murdered, but the systematic brutality had been moderated. In fact, if a prisoner went on a hunger strike as Sharansky did many times, he was not allowed to starve to death. Instead, he was forcibly tube-fed, by rectum if necessary. He recounts his experiences in the Gulag, telling the reader about the conditions, the food, the punishment cells, the forbidden zone, the guards, the prison administrators, and the arbitrary denial of privileges. The system was designed to create maximum distrust among the prisoners of each other. What I found the most interesting aspect of the narrative was his talking about his fellow prisoners, and how each of them coped with prison conditions and supported each other so as to not lose their sanity.
Sharansky was a chess master, and as such had a mind that could analyze a situation, look ahead several moves, and develop a strategy leading to the least possible harm to himself and others. He waged his own courageous personal war with the KGB, refusing ever to have anything to do with them. He would not talk with the officials other than to demand his rights when they were denied, or in an attempt to manipulate his captors. A major issue was their denial of his right to correspond with his family, and to receive visits from them. His wife, Avital, had received a visa and emigrated to Israel about 6 months prior to his arrest, but his parents and brother remained in Russia. (Avital worked tirelessly for his release for the entire duration of his imprisonment.) Most of the hunger strikes he initiated were because of denial of these privileges, and many others were in support of fellow prisoners. It was important in the Gulag to not think about the future, because such speculation decreased the ability to cope with the present reality. For example, a prisoner would be sentenced to fifteen days in a punishment cell for something like trying to communicate with a prisoner in another cell. At the end of the term rather than be released a prisoner could be advised that another fifteen days had been added on for some fabricated reason. Had release from the punishment cell been counted on, this would result in demoralization. By staying in the present, and by refusing to cooperate, a prisoner could survive. Solidarity amongst the prisoners was profoundly important as well. Here is a quote where he explains this:
“This mystical feeling of the interconnection of human souls was forged in the prison-camp world when our zek’s (prisoners) solidarity was the one weapon we had to oppose the world of evil, and when the defeat of any of us had an immediate and painful effect on the others.” (p356)
Sharansky’s experiences taught him many things, but I was particularly interested in his idea of the attraction of souls to each other because it is in accord with my own thinking. He says that just as in Newtonian physics where physical objects exert a gravitational pull on each other, so it is that souls also exert attraction to each other, and thus influence each other. He adds that this soul-attraction and energy crosses expanses of time. Thus, while in prison he felt he energy of his own heroes—Galileo and Socrates, and even fictional heroes such as Don Quixote—energy that he could draw on. Interestingly, he says that we can also reciprocate, and send our energy back to these heroes, and to others.
He had a small book of Psalms in prison, although it was often taken away from him for months at a time. It must be from the 23rd Psalm where he found the title for his memoir. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
The heroic journeyer sometimes finds the return to his community challenging. While on the adventure he or she is beset with ever-present danger, suffering, and uncertainty. At the same time, the hero draws on the one thing that he or she seems to have some control over, that of the exercise of his or her own inner strength and power to make choices. It is a journey of survival and spiritual growth, but it does not necessarily prepare one well for the return to the mundane world of everyday existence. At the end of the memoir, Sharansky is only 2 years back to the real world, and he talks about how much more complex life is now. He is committed to a life of being useful, to giving his ordeal meaning, and this is the last stage of the heroic journey, that of returning to the kingdom with the treasure, the treasure of knowledge and wisdom that the kingdom needs to survive and hopefully, flourish. Indeed, he has been an important contributor to the State of Israel since his release. One amusing fact is that eleven years after his release from prison he returned to Russia as Israel’s Minister of Industry and Trade. Anyone familiar with the Middle East and Israeli politics knows how strife-ridden and complicated the issues and relationships are. As such, Sharansky has had his disagreements with many, but it can’t be denied that he has always done what he thought was right, and given his maximum effort. I applaud Sharansky, and thank him for the sacrifices he has made. Anyone who reads this book will be in awe of the depth and capacity of the human spirit on the heroic journey of life, and hopefully will be inspired and have the courage to be their own best person they can be.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of people who have in common the desire to stop drinking, or to stay stopped. As active alcoholics their stories often include episodes in which they behaved disgracefully, incurring substantial guilt, shame, and embarrassment along the way. At the same time, most alcoholics successfully maintained the delusion that they were fully in control of their lives, and not only that, but generally knew better than anyone else on most any subject. Underneath all this lay a deep-seated belief in their personal inadequacy along with a facade of coolness to keep their inadequacy hidden from the view of others. Thus the expression of being an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. It is a crazy and painful way to live.
Once in A.A. and sober, the alcoholic embarks on a journey of self-discovery and self-forgiveness such that he or she can arrive at a place of self-acceptance, usefulness, and wholeness. A perspective is gained on one’s past life in which the narrative changes from “The Great Tragedy of Mike G. (or whomever)” to what one had to go through in order to get to where one is now. One of the tools picked up on this journey is the gift of laughter, especially, the ability to laugh at oneself. People in the fellowship learn to not take themselves so seriously. An expression often heard at A.A. is “I’m just another bozo on the bus.” This is a statement of being not special, no more or less than anyone else. It is the opposite of where the alcoholic came from, the egomaniac with the inferiority complex.
I like the expression because it is both amusing and instructive. I have a special feeling for it because both Bozo the Clown and I are from Chicago. My family moved to the Chicago area in 1947, and to the city in 1951. Bozo the Clown was featured in a television show that first aired on WGN-TV in 1959. It was highly successful, and ran for over forty years. At one point there were numerous locally produced Bozo shows all over the country. The original Bozo was played by Bob Bell who held the role down for 25 years. The word bozo means a person who is foolish and incompetent. We tend to mock such people when we are not being nice, but it’s okay to make a little fun of ourselves. I think the “bus” reference also has significance, in two ways. First of all, it is a means of conveyance—it takes people from one place to another. Thus, it represents the fact that recovery, indeed life, is a journey. Moreover, a bus is a relatively humble means of transport. Generally speaking, people take the bus when they can’t afford anything better. It is the proper means of transport for a person whose overblown ego has been deflated. And secondly, the bus signifies that we are all taking this journey together. It is a much better way to live than trying to fight all the demons alone, angry and terrified. I learned to not take myself quite so seriously once I found myself amongst others who had acquired the gift of being able to laugh at themselves. And when I fall back into the trap of taking myself too seriously, I just imagine myself with a big red nose, goofy red hair, oversized clothes, and a grotesque smile—just a clown among clowns—and I can settle back down as a member of the human race—another Bozo on the bus.
(This is from the www.georgiacat.com/blog post of April 23, 2020. It is edited for the michaelcowlgordon.com blog)
Yesterday was the 52nd Anniversary of Earth Day, the inspired idea of the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a progressive liberal and ardent conservationist. He was born in 1916 and grew up Clear Lake, Wisconsin. How could anyone from a place called Clear Lake not be an environmentalist? He was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and served 2 terms as Governor of Wisconsin. He revived the Democratic Party there just at the time that Senator Joseph McCarthy was dragging the Republicans down with his anti-communist witch hunt. He initiated a strong environmental program in Wisconsin with a great deal of public support. Elected to the United States Senate, he carried the same energy and enthusiasm for the environment into his legislative efforts while meeting with a great deal of resistance from industry. So, he turned to the people and proposed April 22, 1970, as a day of protest about the state of the environment. The response of the public on that day was astonishing, and the political establishment was forced to take action. Congress went ahead with significant reforms in a series of environmental preservation laws including the Clean Water Act, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Clean Air Act. He did not limit his energy to saving the environment and was an early and vocal opponent of the Viet Nam War, as well as a supporter of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and of civil rights legislation. Gaylord Nelson was one of my heroes. Here is a statement of Nelson’s philosophy: “Environment is all of America and its problems. It is the rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.” In 1995 Senator Nelson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. No one has deserved it more. Gaylord Nelson died in 2005 at the age of 89.
His heroism was marked by his willingness to take risks for what he believed was right. He was a politician who believed that he served all the people, not just special interests. He talked about courage and sacrifice in the service of the people and the environment. Here is the core of his sense purpose in life:
“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”
He was less interested in recognition than in leaving the world a better place for his having lived here.
In 1990 he sent a letter to the Wilderness Society in Madison, Wisconsin on the occasion of an award ceremony that he could not attend.
“December 8, 1990.
I regret I am unable to be present for your Award Ceremony but nonetheless, I am honored to be one of the recipients of the Beyond War Award.
Earth Day achieved what I had hoped for and then some. The purpose of Earth Day was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently into the political arena. Having crisscrossed the nation speaking on environmental issues during the previous eight or nine years it was clear to me that the public was far ahead of the politicians and given an opportunity they would demonstrate their interest. It was a gamble, but it worked. It got the attention of the politicians. An estimated twenty million people participated in peaceful demonstrations all across the country. Ten thousand schools, two thousand colleges and one thousand communities were involved. It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion. For the first time people were given the opportunity to demonstrate their deep concern about what was happening in their own communities and across the nation – polluted air, rivers, lakes and oceans; health threatening hazardous wastes; urban blight; pesticide and herbicide poisoning of people, plants, birds and animals; the destruction of scenic beauty and wildlife habitats. All of this swirling around them and the politicians didn’t seem to know, understand or care. But the people cared, and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to join in a nationwide demonstration to send a big message to the politicians • a message to tell them to wake up and do something.”
A life lesson here is that no matter who you are and what obstacles you may face, don’t back down from doing what is right. By drawing on whatever inner resources you may be able to call on, and finding other resources around you, proceed in doing the next right thing without regard to whatever the outcome may be. The reward is in the actual doing what is right, but more often than not, the outcome will exceed what you hoped for. This I believe, and I also believe that if we all do our part we will create a cleaner and more beautiful, healthy world for ourselves and our succeeding generations.
The Twelve Steps provide a formula for the repair and transformation of one’s life. The pathway prescribed is not one that would be followed without adequate need for rescue from a desperate situation, whether it be alcoholism, drug addiction, other addiction, mental illness, or being an affected family member of one so afflicted. I recently read an analysis of the sequence of stages seen in recovery: pain and suffering leading to seeking God; finding God (or a Higher Power) leading to obedience; obedience leading to growth; growth leading to gratitude; gratitude leading to peace of mind; and all of these stages leading to living and sharing in sobriety. As I read this I felt a visceral sensation (really!) at the word “obedience.” I felt it in my gut, and my body momentarily tensed. Although I have been guided by the Twelve Step principles for a long time, this informs me that I still have some of my old characteristics.
I have never liked anyone telling me what to do (or not do). I didn’t like it from my mother (especially from my mother), teachers, coaches, or any source of authority. I raised this issue at a Twelve Step meeting recently, and found most of the attendees shared my aversion. We all have the sad personal histories of doing things our way, of not taking direction or advice at our own peril. We have in fact in one way or another risked our lives, and sometimes the lives of others in our stubborn insistence on being right…on doing things our way. I remember as a youngster bristling with anger if I was told I had to do this or I couldn’t do that. My coping skills were to be superficially compliant but looking for loopholes and being passive-aggressive or sneaky.
At the same time, I believe wholeheartedly in the Twelve Steps as a pathway of recovery. Having been defeated by life and the consequences of living it my way (Step One), and coming to believe that the Twelve Steps could work for me as they had for countless others (Step Two), I was finally ready to surrender to being directed (Step Three). The Third Step calls for making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to a power greater than ourselves. It says I need to surrender my will to the God of my understanding. This sounds a lot like being obedient. My natural resistance to taking such a step had to do with not trusting that God would seriously consider me for who I was, and not take my needs and wants seriously. Such had been my experience, or at least my ego-driven perception of my experience, with others who had authority over me in the past. Still, Step Three seems to require obedience to God, to the turning of my will over and let myself be directed.
Doctor Bob Smith, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, boiled the program down to three steps: trust God, clean house, and help others. Based on this formula it is clear that a person needs to have faith that the Higher Power he surrenders to will indeed be fully committed to his or her best interests and welfare. I had great difficulty believing in this idea. I was too filled with ego, a sense of my own specialness, and it was hard to believe that God would take me seriously when no one else in my life ever had done so (or so it seemed to me). The idea of a God who was pervasive enough in the world to have the presence to attend to each individual is challenging to believe, or at least it was for me. It was also hard to shake the idea of an angry punishing God, and learn to think of God as tender and loving; but this has happened for me over time.
Now that I trust God you might think that I would have no difficulty with being obedient. After all, the program teaches me to seek God’s will and do it. My answer to this problem is to not call it obedience. The Twelfth Step suggests that I practice these principles in all my affairs. For me this means “do the next right thing.” If I conduct myself according to these principles, then I am doing God’s will to the best of my understanding and belief, and this is the right living that I want for myself. I just don’t call it obedience. Furthermore, I now believe that God does not want obedience from me. He wants me to do His will out of love and respect for Him.
A corollary to this issue with obedience is the problem of rules. I like to say there are no rules in A.A. This, of course, isn’t true. They are simply not called rules. There are numerous principles itemized in the Twelve Traditions that look a lot like rules (twelve, actually). There are other practices often implemented by individual groups for themselves, such as no cross-talk or advice-giving during the meeting. What actually makes the difference in Twelve Step groups is the lack of absolute human authority to enforce the “rules.” All conflicts are resolved by the group conscience itself. Tradition Two states “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants: they do not govern.” Amazingly, people in Twelve Step groups accept and live by the “rules” easily and willingly. This is most likely because there is no person or persons saying that they must do so. It works because of the lack of human authority. I don’t believe that all organizations, whether political, religious, social or otherwise could function successfully on such a basis, but it is one of the unique aspects of the Twelve Step fellowships that I think those not involved with Twelve Steps could learn from. Trust God, clean house, help others, do the next right thing, function as a group with God as the sole authority, and don’t call it obedience( or rules).
The Third Step of the Twelve Steps in the AA program reads: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” For many newcomers, as well as some old-timers, this step is challenging. For one thing, people don’t read it carefully, and so don’t notice that the action in the step is making a decision. Many work strenuously at the turning over idea of the step with little success until it is pointed out by their sponsor that all that is required is the making of a decision. Seemingly, it is God who does the heavy lifting. A bigger problem for others is the idea of letting go of control. Alcoholics are survivors (until, of course, they are not). The first rule of survival is don’t trust anyone. Keep your plans, your location, your opinions to yourself. A related rule is to not trust anyone. In the Third Step the alcoholic is asked to trust a God that he cannot see to take charge of his/her welfare. If the alcoholic is to do this, the risk is run that he or she will not get what they want, or will be asked to do what he or she does not want to do. And although this step has been preceded by the Second Step in which the alcoholic professes a belief that God can restore him or her to sanity, many if not most people have little idea of just who or what God is. To such persons the AA group suggests a non-theological G.O.D. concept such as a Group Of Drunks or Good Orderly Direction. The underlying challenge to the alcoholic is a lack of trust. The alcoholic has learned that people are not to be trusted based on personal experience, and may also have learned to not trust God based on their view of the deplorable state of the world, negative personal experience with religion, or other seemingly sensible reasons. On page 59 of the Big Book, the text of the AA program, it says “Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.” This sounds like the total surrender of a person who realizes there is no other choice. The author then moves directly into the listing of the 12 suggested Steps, the third of which, once again reads: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
A friend was in his second year of recovery when he went to an AA meeting in a new location. He was a stranger at the meeting where the topic was the Third Step. During the discussion our friend spoke up and shared his thoughts on the step. After the meeting, an older gentleman walked up to him, gestured toward him with his index finger, and said, “The step says, to the care of God as we understood Him.” And he walked off before our friend could reply. Driving home, our friend admitted to himself that he had never noticed what the step actually said, and asked himself why the author had inserted the phrase “to the care of” instead of just saying, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood Him.” He concluded that, by implication, God would take care of the will and the life of the alcoholic if the alcoholic placed himself or herself in God’s hands. And indeed, the author has just said a few sentences earlier that the alcoholics who have succeeded with their program have “stood at the turning point,” and “asked His protection and care with complete abandon.”
I don’t know may people who have come to AA for the purpose of improving their relationship with God. They come because they either want to learn to control their drinking or to quit altogether. Remarkably, although this goal (quitting altogether) is achieved by those who work the program, an even greater benefit of recovery for most is the establishment of a meaningful relationship with a Higher Power. And, it is discovered, that this Higher Power has an investment in the welfare of the alcoholic, a “personal” interest in having a relationship with that person, and does care for the individual in all aspects of life.
Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died a martyr in Auschwitz in 1941. Born in Poland in 1894, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary at age 10, and entered the religious life at age 16. He was ordained a priest in the Franciscan order, and was active in organizing and publishing. He was especially devoted to the Virgin Mary whom he saw as a spiritual conduit to God. He hid 2,000 people, mostly Jews, from the Nazis, and for this crime was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where he was enslaved as a laborer. While there he ministered to the spiritual needs of Catholic prisoners and celebrated mass using stale crusts of bread. At one point he was beaten nearly to death by a brutal guard who had taken an especial dislike to the priest. After a successful escape by a few prisoners, the camp commander ordered 10 prisoners to be chosen at random to be placed in an underground bunker and starved to death. One of the 10, Franciszek Gajowniczek, a sergeant in the Polish army, cried out in desperation that he was a married man with children. Father Kolbe volunteered to take his place, a request which was approved by the commander. After 15 days during which he led the dying men in prayer, Father Kolbe was still alive, and he was given a lethal injection and cremated. The entire incident was widely known throughout the camp and served as inspiration to the other prisoners.
In 1955 Father Kolbe was designated a “servant of God,” the first official step towards sainthood. (Moses, Joshua, Paul, and James are all referred to as servants of God in the Bible.) In 1969 he was beatified as Confessor of the Faith, and he was canonized as a saint in 1982. His martyrdom was considered to be that of Christian charity rather than of persecution for his faith. Franciszek Gajowniczek miraculously survived his imprisonment, and was able to attend both the beatification and the canonization ceremonies in Rome. St. Maximilian Kolbe is designated as the patron saint of drug addicts, prisoners, political prisoners, journalists, media communications, and families. Pope John Paul II designated him the Patron Saint of our Difficult Century. His feast day is August 14, the day of his death.
His life illustrates some important aspects of the Heroic Journey. First, he was called upon to do the seemingly impossible, to survive and to serve man and God under dreadful circumstances of war, persecution, imprisonment, and slave labor. That he was able to successfully carry out his journey was made possible by his faith, and the strength he drew from it. When presented with an opportunity to save the life of a fellow prisoner, a husband and father, he acted immediately, knowing that death was certain. And, as in all heroic tales in which the hero is killed, he rose from the dead through certified miracles, and by serving as a lasting inspiration to others of how courageous it is possible to be. His story is that of humanity at its finest.