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Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps the best known “secret” in the world. The organization is a private group of individuals whose sole motivation for gathering together is to maintain their own sobriety.
This is sobriety in the traditional sense, i.e. abstaining from alcohol. There are other groups whose purpose is to help drug addicts, overeaters, or shopaholics; but AA is the template for every other so-called “Twelve Step” program.
Many people are familiar with the idea of the steps as a means to overcome the challenges of various addictions, so it’s not necessary to go into the philosophy of that approach in this article. The purpose of this piece is to clear up the misunderstanding surrounding AA’s primary tenet: finding a “higher power.”
When people hear the term “higher power” they usually interpret that to mean God, in whatever form they are familiar with. In fact, in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “bible” of AA) the terms “higher power” and “God” are sometimes used interchangeably.
The reason for this is because the two men who wrote and edited the first 167 pages of the Big Book (the “operating text”, if you will, for the group) were Christians. Over time, however, the premise of AA has spread around the world and has been adapted to the needs of the local people who use it.
As a result, the idea of a “higher power” has morphed into something beyond the constraints of a Christian god—or any god, for that matter. And AA as a group is well aware of this.
The beauty of AA is its unique combination of rigidity and flexibility.
The Twelve Steps are rigid in their structure and their order. We complete Step 1 before moving on to the next step. We don’t bounce around at will and we don’t skip steps. The process is much more important than the end result.
Why? Because the process teaches us discipline, and discipline is what keeps us sober. We can get sober in the short term by going to meetings regularly and sharing our struggles with other alcoholics. But until we learn the discipline inherent in rigorous honesty and service to others, we’ll never get to enjoy the freedom and happiness of breaking our addiction to alcohol.
So, the rigidity is clear, but where’s the flexibility?
The flexibility of the program is in our individual definition of our “higher power.” For many members of AA, our higher power is someone or something we call “God”, whether God’s name is Buddha, Allah, Krishna, or Jehovah.
But here’s what’s critically important to understand: Your higher power doesn’t have to be God. In fact, it doesn’t have to have any religious connotations at all. We are not “doomed” to be drunks if we’re not religious people.
It is common for many people to declare that the meetings or the breakout tables at meetings are their higher power. We are desperate and lost when we first come into the program, and making other people accountable for our behavior at first is an easy step.
Eventually, we must become accountable for our own behavior and so we must decide on a higher power that suits us as individuals. People have named fir trees, Pomeranians, and even their cars as their higher power. Any object that lies outside of ourselves is suitable; the goal is to designate something we can turn to in our times of need for solace.
The duty of a higher power
In AA, a higher power’s “duty” is simply to provide a locus—a fixed point that will act as a stop-gap and give us a chance to reconsider the course of action we’re about to embark on before we plunge back into drinking behavior, i.e. before we “fall off the wagon”, so to speak.
Until we are able to stand on our own two feet, whatever we choose to be our higher power will represent the strength we believe we lack to control our addiction to alcohol. Whether you think alcoholism is an allergy, a chemical malfunction in the brain, or a moral failing, the fact is that alcoholics are addicts just like junkies, hoarders, or compulsive gamblers.
The behaviors that lead to addiction are still present even if we have abstained from drinking alcohol for many years. Every recovering addict knows that it only takes one slip-up to drag us back down that dark tunnel.
It’s this fear of relapse that leads some people to adopt the Big Book as a “bible” and to raise our higher power to “God” status. Fear is a much more effective tool in controlling behavior than is reward, and to many people nothing is more fearsome than the wrath of God.
This is why AA outsiders believe that the program is a “God thing” or a “religious cult.” The mistake is understandable, but unfortunate because it keeps so many addicts who could be helped by the Twelve Steps from even coming to a meeting.
Alcoholics Anonymous is not a cult. It is not a group of religious fanatics nor is it a bunch of self-deluded misfits and losers. AA is simply a very large organization governed loosely by a set of principles that have proven helpful in the battle against our common enemy.
All are welcome.