The Ultimate Philosophical Journey For a Person in the 21st Century: Alcoholics Anonymous

In a country that is devoted to the growth of technological advances and encourages its citizens to experience life and communicate primarily through the internet, text messages, and emails it is easy to forget how to live a life that is full of meaning. It is easy to forget what “meaning” it is that we even seek. Sometimes I wonder if my generation was ever even taught what “meaning” it is that we are supposedly, yet, desperately searching for. Before I hit the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober, I truly believed I was leading a fulfilling life, for I was dating, (kind of) going to school, and taking selfies daily, and attempted as best I could to live a life free from worry or true contemplation about the more serious conditions of my life (i.e. where it was going, what I wanted from it, and my over-all level of depleted happiness). I was under the (now, humorously) misguided impression that Alcoholics Anonymous was a program that simply helped you quit drinking and drugging, but to my surprise putting down the bottle was only the smallest step to a journey that requires you to change just one simple thing: your entire life. In this essay I will attempt to show the almost parallel journey to happiness, perfection of the soul, and a rare sort of earthly wholeness that is not only taken by some of the greatest philosophers ever to have graced this earth, but also by that of a sober alcoholic working the spiritual program of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as how each of the twelve steps (individually and as a whole) embody several theories from those aforementioned philosophers.

To understand the commonalities between Alcoholics Anonymous and all of philosophy’s quests for happiness, one must first fully understand that the disease of alcoholism is not simply that a person drinks too much alcohol; alcohol is but a symptom of an insidious sickness that infects every facet of a person’s psyche. For even if an alcoholic manages to stop drinking completely on their own accounts, they will quickly find that they are absolutely miserable and their lives are still filled with unmanageability. Why is this? The answer is simple, alcoholics suffer from delusions of inferiority and grandeur through means of judging themselves against others, lack any healthy coping mechanisms, create and carry around endless amounts of irrational resentments, and frankly the list of unmanageable alcoholic characteristics could go on endlessly. Alcoholics are BORN with these characteristics; they do not come simply from having drank too much. The drink was only used to ease the constant feeling of being uncomfortable. That being said, when the drink is taken away, the alcoholic is still left with all of the problems they originally had, only no conceivable way to effectively cope with them or make life better. The term we use in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous for such a person that doesn’t seek to improve these problems of the personality yet lives without the drink, is “dry drunk”, for the individual who lacks the insight and capability to seek happiness is far worse than the one who is actively drinking. That is why the first step, (We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable) is broken down into two parts. A: that we are powerless over a drink, and B: our lives are still unmanageable regardless of the absence of alcohol. Truly, the main focus of removing alcohol is simply so that we are clear minded enough to work tirelessly towards spiritual perfection and happiness. However, alcoholics aren’t the only people who choose to remove the drink from their lives to allow this journey to happiness take place, philosophers have as well. Friedrich Nietzsche understood completely the adverse effects of alcohol towards happiness, so he chose to abstain completely, as quoted in Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, “I cannot advise all more spiritual natures too seriously to abstain from alcohol absolutely. Water suffices.” (Botton, 2000) Nietzsche understood that alcohol is used to dull painful or uncomfortable things in life, and to live a life of true happiness one must also experience the pain; for drinking alcohol to drown your sorrows is to eliminate painful obstacles that will inevitably lead to happiness down the road. When the eleven simple steps following the removal of alcohol are taken with care and diligence, an alcoholic will experience a closeness to god, themselves, and all those in close proximity, which I would guess could almost never be reached otherwise. The sort of pure, unadulterated, happiness that is gained from this type of reflection and understanding of the self and surrounding world in today’s society can be brought from very few things, but the most poignant in my eyes being, Alcoholics Anonymous or living and studying philosophy.

To begin the comparison of how AA’s program relates to philosophy, let’s examine the works of Socrates. Socrates was known for his infuriating use of irony and dialectic. I say infuriating because I have been on the opposite side of this means of communication, and it is not the least bit fun. Socrates spent most of his time talking to people and when he did he would ask endless questions that would make his counter interlocutor question their original stance, set of morals, and over all reasoning. Upon first hearing about this method, I was immediately immersed in the memories of just about every AA meeting I’ve ever been to. Everyone I have spoken to will ask me thought provoking questions that make me reevaluate my motivations and come to a conclusion that I never would have accepted or believed to be true unless I came to it on my own. At the beginning of every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the opening literature it is read that, “we do not teach, advise, cross-talk, or lecture…” because it is a well-known fact that no matter how many times someone tells us the right thing to do, we rarely will. And thank goodness for that; even if a person could save us from suffering, it would not help us in the long run, for the best lessons anyone of us on earth has learned, has come from mistakes made upon our own account, not from hearing what happened to someone else. I do not believe this reaction of indifference to advice is limited to the alcoholic, but our society as a whole, we are a people that often do not want to take the advice of anyone because we want to feel that our own ideas will lead to the best and most positive outcome independently. I think that when being told what to do, an alcoholic (or anyone) can’t help but recoil from advice as if from a hot flame. However, when being led gently to the correct answer through thoughtful questions the pill of reality is much easier to swallow.

What most intrigued me and really made the connections between Alcoholics Anonymous and philosophy clearer to me was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which coincides perfectly with the removal of alcohol and step one. A few weeks ago while chairing an AA meeting, I explained that my transition from active alcoholism to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous was startlingly similar to the escaped prisoner in the story and found that many of my friends in the fellowship felt the same way about it. For me, alcoholism was a prison, only I didn’t realize the key to release was in my hand the entire time. I saw life around me, but it was only life’s shadows that I was experiencing. I had no idea of a higher power, was oblivious to the fact that I was not in fact the center of the entire planetary system, and saw everything from a reactive rather than active view-point. As people spoke, I did not hear it in the form of echoes, but with an ulterior and plotting tone beneath everything said to me. When I was released from the dark and dreary cave that was alcohol and took a few steps into the light of truth and God, I felt immense amounts of pain as the prisoner from the Allegory had. Though my eyes were still intact, my mind was able to see a 360 degree view of my life, rather than the 90 degree angle I had previously lived with. I could feel pains that I never had before because there was no longer any vice to mask them. As I grew stronger with sobriety, I find that I make choices with much more clarity and soundness than I ever had while living in the cave. In the beginning, the pain that the sun brought felt like too much for a person to possibly bear, I wanted to run back to the cave where I lacked obstacles and could lounge in the world that I had known so well, but with the help of people in the rooms, I was given the pushes I needed to get up the grassy hill of Alcoholics Anonymous and forced myself to face that oh so bright light and was quickly able to adjust to this new and foreign life. In this light I was able to see myself, not as the miniscule shadows that had sat close to my feet at times or the ones that had been larger than life scaling the entire wall of the cave; but for who in truth I had been before, as I was then, and who I would later become. With this showering of light, or truth and goodness, there comes a price. The people who once were beloved to you, but still reside in the cave, can never accept this new reality, unless of course they choose to see the key that’s always been in their own hands and join you to bask in the sun. However, you cannot make someone find their key, so until then it is not safe to visit the old cave. The other prisoners will notice that you can no longer see in the dark, and therefore believe you to have been ruined, and ultimately, metaphorically, kill you. I am not alone in this journey out of the cave and into sobriety, over one hundred alcoholics shared their own escape from the pits as being the same, and I find it safe to say that this story rings true for almost every sober alcoholic out there. Though the entrance into the world of light and spirit from the depths of the cave should be celebrated and viewed as no less than miraculous, it does not mean that the soul is perfected. There is work, and more work to be done, because there is only, “progress, not perfection,” (Step Ten, 1952) in a program of recovery or more simply, in life.

Though step two is supremely essential to moving onward with the steps and can lead to success or failure within the program, I will pass over it for the sake of time and more pressing theories, and jump right into step three, handing our will and our lives over to the care of God. The Stoics had a superb way of viewing anger and how to best avoid such frivolous bothers. Their technique of practicing the trichotomy of control is parallel to the serenity prayer that is said at least once, sometimes twice, at every single Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Earth: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In the trichotomy of control, it is expressed that one should only focus on the things that one has complete control over (such as goals and values), to not concern oneself with anything that one has no control over (like other drivers on the road), and to give things that we have some control over concern with care. I think we live in a very frustrated society because most people have not yet grasped this concept. We can never control the actions of other people, nature, or biology, not matter how much we wish to. Though in AA we are taught to hand over what we cannot control to God, the Stoics just forgot about it completely, which in essence, is fundamentally the same idea. But just because we don’t have control over such things doesn’t mean that we must become hapless victims to them, it simply means that we do the best that we can to prepare ourselves for such events, and hope for the best.

The fourth step is paramount to all else, it is the step that is certainly the most painful, and the most widely avoided. Nietzsche probably would have loved it. For an alcoholic to achieve serenity, and overcome the hurdle of pain and resentment, one must complete a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves that requires examining all hurts and angers towards other people, in what way it has or had affected our lives, and are told to find our part in the matter: the way that we were selfish, dishonest, self-centered, or inconsiderate, and the exact nature of our wrongs. This is an emotionally taxing process, which forces one to realize that they are not perfect; that they played a role in many of the situations that we had previously believed to be innocent victims in. Then, to take things even farther, there as a sex inventory, “We reviewed our own conduct over the years past. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate? Whom had we hurt? Did we unjustifiably arouse jealousy, suspicion, or bitterness? Where were we at fault, what should we have done instead? We got this all down on paper and looked at it.” (How it Works, 1939) As grueling as this process may seem to be, it is the key to relief and the means of becoming the person we have always wished to be. But the founders of AA were not the first to conquer this endeavor, Friedrich Nietzsche clearly stated, “It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.” (Nietzsche) Nietzsche understood that anything worth having would take immense amounts of hard work and pain, and the founders of AA knew no different. They realized that without accepting the darkest parts of ourselves, we could never really love the bright parts without the sense of guilt. It is also in this step that we transition from Reactive beings to Active ones instead. Reactive behavior is characterized by internalizing the world around us and processing it as anger and resentment towards said world, but once thrust into Active, we are able to use the outer world as means of learning, and also how to take pain and use it as a stepping stone to our happiness and fulfillment.

In and after the process of step four (surveying oneself for great strengths and great weaknesses) and sharing with another human being the exact nature of all our wrongs, one is able to see that their personal defects are glaring. But with that new insight, the person working the steps will find that they have been transcended out of the bad-faith (as Sartre would call it) that they had previously been living in and into a balance of being-in-itself and for-itself. Both ontological structures within us become beautifully intertwined: we can see the past and present with clarity without dwelling and use the pain from it to catapult us into a brighter future, we do not see only one or few of the roles that we play, but we can admire how all of those parts play into a glorious whole that is the orchestra of our lives, we can see things through the lenses of our own experiences AND from an unbiased standpoint.

Back to the Stoics ideas, through steps six and seven we must also actively practice step three, which is to turn over what we cannot control, our defects, to God, and hope that this power greater than ourselves will move these defects and place them far from our grasp. Knowing that by working our program we can control how close to god we are, but it is ultimately up to that higher power on whether they wish to remove what is there.

And finally: steps ten, eleven, and twelve… To practice what we have learned on a daily basis and share it with those in need or still learning. But the journey is still far from over once we have completed step twelve, at this point we must start again at the beginning of step one. This may seem futile, seeing as one may think that the job is done, but with spiritual cleaning and progress, it requires work for the rest of life. For our soul is like our home, we don’t only clean it once and then we are done. As my sponsor has shared with me, we clean every day practicing the principles and working the steps, and every year we do a big spring cleaning (the fourth step) to get all the junk out of the basement and closets. Yesterdays dusting will not keep my spiritual house clean and orderly, and yesterdays shower will not keep me clean, so it would be foolish to believe that yesterdays program of recovery will keep me sober and spiritually fit today.

Sometimes I wonder where else it is possible to find such wholeness in one’s self? Where else are we put to the test to become the best person within our power? Where can we learn to live a life of meaning that is filled with reflection, transcendence, and happiness? I don’t believe that the society we live in today cultivates these desires within our youth (or adults for that matter). Personally, I think it has been lost within the hustle and bustle of capitalism and commercialism. But thankfully, there are in fact places where you can be brought back to the center. In my eyes there are two wonderfully viable routes to take, and they are nearly identical; only one has its steps written in its most simple form so that anyone that is willing can master it and the other requires a lengthy college education. Philosophy’s journey toward happiness and the Alcoholics Anonymous program of recovery hold countless amounts of similarities in theories. AA takes one on a journey that may seem scrupulous and unnecessary to the average Joe, but with my being personally immersed in this wonderful program, I can see clearly that the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were artfully crafted so that it is nearly impossible to fail, so long as one is honest, open-minded, and willing. With those three basic requirements and the abstinence from alcohol, the sober alcoholic is upon the philosophical journey of a lifetime.