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Addictions Anonymous, 15: Living With Higher Authorities

 article about 12 steps to recovery with god

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.

Step 2. Came to believe that The Program, as a power greater than ourselves, could help us toward normal living.

The term higher authority, in the original context, referred the God of whatever nature the individual chose to believe in. In the Universal Twelve Steps it refers both to the wisdom of the group and to civil authorities, not to some mystical deity. Over the years this step was a great trap to the busy mind of the addict because it was often used as an excuse for bitter and unproductive religious controversy. It's a difficult trap to work your way out of, and, while enmeshed in that false controversy, important parts of recovery are lost or delayed. As I interpret Step Two, the words greater power or higher power do not refer to anything more than earthly forces we can all see and experience in everyday life.

 article about 12 steps to recovery with god
There is absolutely nothing wrong with holding a deity up as a higher power if two considerations are respected. First, religions convictions should be kept private and not be inflicted on the group. Second, deistic thinking does not make earthly higher powers irrelevant. Many of these earthly higher powers are mentioned in this chapter. If a person's religious convictions make preaching and proselytizing to others mandatory, that person is unlikely to be a positive force within the self-help group. He or she should find a religious group with views more in line with their own.

The first Twelve Step groups accepted the inclusion of God into their program materials, but the idea has always been a source of conflict. Public displays of religious conviction slowly fell out of favor as the United States began to honor and respect its religious diversity. At the beginning of the last Century, every public ceremony was accompanied by prayer and frequent references to God. By mid Twentieth Century various minority religions were beginning to resent the idea that Christianity was usually the only religion referred to in such public events. However, public displays of Christianity were everywhere at different seasons of the year. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that organized prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. That ruling, of course, did not outlaw voluntary public displays of religious belief or traditions in private lives; it merely made any form of government or school sponsorship of religion illegal. Private schools were free to continue their religious teachings and people were still free to express religious beliefs in their public speech. No one has said that people should not be allowed to pray in pubic places like schools, civic meetings, or sports events. They just can't force organized prayer sessions on others. They must go off by themselves to do it.

As I write these words, the controversy over religion continues to rage in America as fundamentalists and evangelicals insist on forcing religious believes back into public events and even into our laws. None of this really concerns the recovering addict who must stay focused on abstinence and personal development in the here and now.

The Alcoholics Anonymous Steps written during the 1930s contain references to God, of course. If similar steps were written now, in the early Twenty-first Century, it is possible that all references to a divine or supernatural higher power might be eliminated, but the basic ideas, goals, and strategies would very likely remain as they have been since the founding of the Oxford Group in England many years ago. In developing Alcoholics Anonymous, William Wilson borrowed heavily from the concepts and practices of the Oxford Group which was a religious movement.

Many religious people still feel a need to display their beliefs at various public meetings, and tolerance asks you to respect those wishes while, at the same time, reserving for yourself the equal right to express your own ideas and, if necessary, to form your own secular self-help groups in which religion will not be a factor.

Courts in the United States have generally interpreted a single phrase in our Constitution to mean a complete separation of organized religion and government although, of course, that separation is never really complete. We still have In God We Trust on our coins, and our Congress begins every session with a prayer from its chaplain whose salary is paid by taxpayers. We all have the right, politicians included, to refer to our personal beliefs in our public statements, but not to force them on to others. Whether or not you choose to exercise this right, however, is a serious decision, and you must always weigh the impact of your words on others who may find them disturbing and use them to fuel pointless controversy. And we must also weigh the effects that public displays of religious practice might have on our own spiritual lives. Religion can be a very divisive and controversial issue.

In keeping with our tradition of free speech, we must be tolerant of publicly expressed religious views and judicious in exercising our own rights of expression. When such displays are simply irrelevant, they are best left out, in my opinion.

You may or may not have strong convictions on the role of religion in public life and, like it or not, Twelve Step groups are examples of public life although, of course, they are not supported by government. They are therefore absolutely free to include religious elements in their meetings. At the time of this writing, in addition to referring to God in the Steps of the program, these meetings end with the Serenity Prayer so that religion has become somewhat institutionalized in the meeting format. But, it doesn't have to be that way.

Whether or not prayers and references to God promote or discourage membership and attendance is a question for research. Most organizations seeking to expand membership generally avoid sensitive and controversial issues in order to focus on the immediate goals of the organization. If anonymous groups of recovering addicts move farther in that direction it may be because of a need to expand their universal appeal to other cultures and populations, not because they reject religion.

If the Serenity Prayer, for example, is offensive for some members it is a simple matter for the individual to change the wording silently from God, grant me the serenity to May I find the serenity . . . It's the thought that counts, and Niebuhr's prayer'meditation, if you will'contains some of the most important values one can learn in life.

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Wherever or however we find serenity, it is essential for a good life. Acceptance of things unchangeable, personal courage and good judgment are vital parts of noble character. That said, these are no more than human skills that can be learned and practiced.

The second part of the famous prayer, seldom quoted, is a curious mix of religious and earthy philosophy:

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.


--Reinhold Niebuhr

So, we must focus on what is being asked for: courage, serenity, and wisdom. These are necessary goals regardless of who or what dispenses them, regardless of your personal belief system. They are things you can give yourself, not gifts you get from on high. Getting caught up in a theological debate will rob you of all of these goals as surely as a return to addiction. That is perhaps why the second part of the prayer is seldom voiced; it has excellent goals for this life, but trying to change the religious elements would do violence to Niebur's intentions.

Let's now look at the original version of the Alcoholics Anonymous Step Two: 'Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.' The founders of Gamblers Anonymous, the second oldest Twelve Step group, chose a normal way of thinking and living over the word sanity. Neither version, however, mentions God or any specific religious belief. Both versions, rightly or wrongly, assume the need to restore something that, by implication, has been lost, or perhaps was never had in the first place. There is the strong implication in both versions of a need for obedience to some force or power greater than the individual. It is in the rebellious reaction to obedience, not in an agnostic or atheistic rejection of God, where we find the trap set by Step Two.

Does the word obedience make you uncomfortable? You can fix that.

Obstinate rebellion is the major defect of character that lies at the heart of the pointless controversy over religion. If the tendency to rebel against all forms of control is not arrested, good recovery is probably impossible.

For most recovering addicts it is far easier to argue theology than to accept discipline and obedience into their lives. Here is the trap even if Step Two does not refer to a deity. Most people still assume incorrectly that higher power must always refer to some religious or divine higher power. This is harmful nonsense.

Much of the literature of Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous revolves around the acceptance of some form of divine, mystical or religious intervention. Convincing people of a need for God in their lives, however, is not really the business of any organization other than, perhaps, a church or temple. Convincing people to accept discipline, order and humility into their lives is very much the business of recovery, and of a psychologist like me.

Religion was never intended to be a cure for addiction anymore that Alcoholics Anonymous was intended to be a way of converting people to religion. It is not clear that religion and recovery are actually associated in any significant way. Many very religious people fail in their efforts to give up addictive behavior while many agnostics find good recovery. What is clear is that the introduction of religion into any non-religious activity often creates division and argument to the detriment of the goals of the organization. Patience and tolerance will go a long way not only in avoiding fruitless controversy but also in building a new way of thinking and living.

Let us, then, focus only the actual content of Step Two. The two parts of Step Two are the means of accomplishment and the goal to be achieved. The proposed mechanism for the transformation is a higher power or authority while the goal is a normal way of thinking and living.

The means

Rule #1: Not all higher powers are spiritual; many are found all around us.

If you apply enough heat to a kettle of water, the water will boil. If you seal the kettle it will eventually explode. All this has something to do with the laws of Thermodynamics so familiar to physicists and cooks alike. All of humankind's wonderful inventions'from the steam engine to modern medicine'have been based on the skillful use of natural law. Much human misery is also the result of the misuse of natural law; examples include pollution, war, slavery and, of course, addiction. We did not evolve from primordial molecules in spite of any natural law, but because of the unending and universal operation of natural law.

The laws of physics, chemistry and biology are beyond our modification, but we can discover what they are and we can use them to improve our lives. So it is, as well, with ordinary worldly law in a democratic society. If we know the law we can use it in our lives. If we hate and defy the law we have nowhere to go but jail.

The laws of nature and the laws of society are higher powers for all of us, like it or not, and there is nothing supernatural about them. Defiance is not a path to a normal way of thinking and living. Defiance is, in fact, just another temporary illusion.

Rule # 2: By definition, higher powers do not obey our wishes.

This, of course, should be obvious, but many people spend a lot of time demanding that their higher power come through with all kinds of favors ranging from a new car to relief of debt and an ideal lover. This is why it has been said that the most important part of prayer is listening for answers. If you listen instead of giving orders to your higher power'whatever it may be'it can never disappoint you or let you down. Higher powers do not exist to follow your orders, wishes and demands. Try not to dream one up one that does because that, of course, will be only a dream.

Rule #3: Never ask you higher power for anything.

If you say you believe in some higher power, just shut up and do what it tells you to do. If it's a good higher power, you'll get what you need. If it's a bad higher power, like alcohol or drugs were, fire it.

Rule #4: Not all higher powers are nice.

Addiction is a nasty higher power for all recovering people, and it is very easy to switch between gambling, alcohol, drugs, work, or sex and love. Gambling operates largely on the natural, mathematical laws of chance, laws that, like all natural laws, never sleep, cannot be tricked and care nothing about anyone's personal needs. Gravity is a higher power that can kill and injure; on the other hand, of course, airplanes do not fly in spite of gravity but because we have learned to use it to our advantage. Without gravity, airplanes could not fly; there would be no atmosphere to fly in and no earth to come back to. So, selecting and using a higher power is not a matter of finding a nice personal servant to do your bidding and make you feel good. It is very much a matter of finding out what's out there and learning to use it through practice, knowledge, and skill. As a matter of fact, some very good higher powers may make you feel miserable until you begin to understand what they're telling you. Sometimes it takes hard practice to learn to use a good tool. And that's what higher powers really have to become: tools for better living and thinking.

Rule #5: You can and should have as many higher powers as you can discover.

By the way, if you have multiple higher powers, as most of us probably should, don't expect them to always be in agreement. It is up to you to consider and resolve such disputes, perhaps with the help and advice of a sponsor or therapist. It's like having two loving parents along with a wise uncle and a big brother; they may not always agree with each other, but each has something you can profit from.

Rule #6: If someone suggests a higher power that makes you furious it is probably one you should accept.

Ask most addicts what they think of the local deputy sheriff or the United States Congress. Most will scoff and reject the idea that such fallible and imperfect people could ever be accepted as higher authorities. But, of course, they are higher powers for all of us. The law is the law and we disobey it only at our own peril. Imperfect as they certainly are, members of Congress make the laws and prescribe the penalties for violating them. A lot of people are sitting in prisons and jails because they rejected law as a higher power. We are a society of laws; our laws are the glue that holds us together. In a democratic society, the majority is often the higher power we all have to obey. There is, we assume, more wisdom in a majority than in a dictator. There is perfection in neither, but the alternative to government is chaos.

Rule #7: There is no need for others to accept your personal version of a higher power in order to achieve their own recovery, nor you to accept theirs.

Fond as you may be of your personal higher power(s), do not shove them into the faces of your friends. Help them to discover their own obedience and learn to appreciate their discoveries.

Rule #8: It is important that you behave always in every situation AS IF there were a higher power even if you're not completely sure there is one.

If you discover a higher power and it does not change your way of thinking and living for the better, what have you got? 'Fake it until you make it,' could be good advice.

Rule #9: Religious higher powers are optional, earthly ones are not.

You are absolutely free to pick and choose between all of the religions of the world, or to be an agnostic or atheist. What you cannot do is opt out of death and taxes, as it were. Nor can you ignore nature's laws such as gravity, thermodynamics, aerodynamics and good cooking. There is often one best way to do anything, one best way to employ you higher powers in the search for serenity and the good life. Since you seldom ever know what that one best way is, you have to keep experimenting, trying things out and learning from the experiences of others.

A final note of the Step Two trap: Those who have the most trouble accepting and using higher powers are often those who once had evil, nasty, or weak authorities. Sometimes we call higher powers authority figures, and they come in all varieties. Throughout life we experience many authorities. Fathers, mothers, older siblings, teachers, religious leaders and team coaches are all authority figures who function as higher powers in certain areas of life. Sometimes we have good authority that shapes our lives in positive ways, sometimes we have bad authority, and these also shape our lives and our thinking. Long experience in the hands of a bad authority makes one very suspicious of all authority. That is understandable, but it is something to work on.

A certain young man, a problem gambler seeking help, reported that when he was very young his mother often drank too much, and when she did she started feeling lonely and sorry for herself. The father had abandoned the family. When a bit tipsy, the mother often invited her son into her bed and encouraged him to pleasure her sexually. The boy was confused and angered at finding himself in a situation he could neither control nor understand.

Since a mother is the main female authority figure in our early lives, a mother has great power to shape our attitudes and feelings about all women. The boy became a man who had deep, underlying distrust and disrespect for all women but, like the boy he had been, he was unable to give voice to his anger. While physically attracted to females, he harbored an unrecognized symbolic anger at them that lead him into abusive and sadistic sexual practices. He had great difficulty accepting the idea that women can, if given genuine love and respect, act as powerful civilizing forces in a man's life. He went through several marriages before he began to come to terms with his old, repressed anger at mother.

A young girl, the oldest of seven children whose mother died early, was promoted by the distracted father to be the female head of the household. She was much too young to take on the responsibility of being a mother to her younger siblings, but she took the assignment seriously and did her best. The father was constantly critical of her cooking, her childcare practices and her interest in getting an education for herself. She finally ran away from home but was really running away from a very bad authority figure since she loved her siblings and really did enjoy helping with them. It was her father who asked the impossible and gave back so little in terms of love. She never overcame the guilt she felt at abandoning her brothers and sisters, and she never was really able to accept other, more positive authority figures unless it was someone who needed her help. She ended up being very independent and yet entered the nursing profession since she could not shake off her assigned role as helper to the weak. People in need of help were a higher power for her, but that had not been her conscious choice. In Gamblers Anonymous this lady began to think of her higher power as having a female identity, one that replaced the loving, protective mother she never had. This higher power helped the woman to back away from her endless helper role, become more objective and accept help for herself.

One young boy finally shoved a loaded shotgun into the neck of his drunken father who, as the boy's only male authority figure, had beaten, starved and belittled his son. Instead of killing the old man, the boy ran away with only a shoebox containing a few dollars, some stockings and a toothbrush. As he grew up he was fiercely independent and in constant conflict with authority, first in an orphanage and later with police authorities. He fought with his superiors in the Army and with every boss he ever had. The very words higher power gave him flashbacks to all the powerful and evil male authorities he had ever experienced. It took a long, long time for him to begin to discover a few loving and helpful authorities.

Once again, there are always reasons why some people have trouble with certain steps in the program. All we can do is be patient and help them work out the demons in their heads as best we can. Some, striving to keep life simple, will choose a home group as a higher power, do what they suggest and just follow the program. Finding a higher power may be just that simple.

The goal

The goal presented by Step Two is a normal way of thinking and living. Sadly, mental health professionals over the years have been far more preoccupied with the abnormal than with the normal. We simply have never really defined normal, and we have few good psychological tests with which to measure it. Dictionaries, in defining normal, use words like:

Conforming to a standard, or to a standard type;

Regular, predictable, usual, natural or average;

Average in intelligence, wealth, emotional adjustment, etc.;

Something of average density or composition;

Free from any infection, physical abnormality or mental aberration.

Again, that old rebellious spirit rejects the very thought of being just normal and demands that you excel, win, beat the odds, remain unique, etc. But, it's not so easy being normal. Go back to the list above and image how difficult it is to be steady, natural and predictable. It's not easy, sometimes, getting the bills paid, but it's very important to normal people that certain things happen on a regular basis. Changing diapers, washing the car yourself, caring for and being there for a family, doing a job like it or not'these are the normal acts of daily living.

'But, I'd be bored to death being normal!' says ego. Sorry, Pal, few people die of boredom while thousands die every year trying to be unique, special and different from the crowd.

'But, being normal would be no fun!' It's not always fun, but it can be deeply satisfying. Try it; you might like it.

'But, I'd miss the old high!' Correct. Normal people don't get high, but overall their levels of happiness are higher than the average of the peaks and valleys of addictive mood swings. In being normal, you have nowhere to go but up.

Certainly, normal does not mean that a person is problem free, or that you are never tempted, never have cravings, never make mistakes and are completely free of worry. Normal is the ability to meet these problems with some serenity and with confidence that you can deal with them. Normal knows when to ask for help and when you should go it alone.

Normalcy Rule #1: If you've never been normal you'll never be special since normal is the launching pad for greatness.

Normalcy Rule #2: Normal requires discipline, and without self-discipline you are at best an eccentric neurotic, an oddity and generally a pest.

There may be other good rules for normal living, but you should probably discover them yourself. Nevertheless, I will discuss the meaning of normal later in great detail.

There are many paths or higher powers that can lead you to normal thinking and living, but there is only one goal. This does simplify things a good deal. If you constantly quarrel about the path it may well be that you do not want the goal of normal thinking and living.

Here are some discussion and writing questions that may help in developing a Second Step attitude:

- If you have accepted a certain higher power and yet your life does not change, what should you do?

- The goals of the Oxford Group that preceded Alcoholics Anonymous and influenced its philosophy so heavily included compassion, service, humility, honesty and simplicity of living. Is that normal? Is that what you want?

- A very religious friend tells you, "There is only one God and He alone must serve as your Higher Power." You may believe that yourself. Discuss and explain your thinking on the issue.

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