AA Hopelessness…a startling contradiction?
Flip through the first few chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and you’ll notice some contradictory material.
On one page is the repeated refrain of alcoholic “hopelessness” and on the other the bold declaration that an alcoholic can be totally “recovered “
You read that right, not perpetually in recovery, nor recovering, but fully recovered.
It’s odd that this is rarely mentioned in AA circles.
Hopelessness by definition means beyond recovery.
Yet, here the authors present themselves as recovered.
Recovered from what? Apparently, a condition that is conditionally hopeless.
Strictly speaking, they assert that some type of spiritual renewal can restore the individual to a recovered mindset.
They quote Dr. Percy Polick to augment their argument,
“What you say about the general hopelessness of the average alcoholic’s plight is, in my opinion, correct. As to two of you men, whose stories I have heard, there is no doubt in my mind that you were 100% hopeless, apart from Divine help.”
This is a reoccurrence, Alcoholic Anonymous repeatedly cites physicians to strengthen the position.
For instance, they devote an entire chapter to one medical practitioner, Dr. William D Silkworth, titled “The Doctor’s Opinion,” in an attempt to drive home to the alcoholic reader that if (conditional statement) they suffer from alcoholism of this hopeless variety, then they need some form of spiritual quickening or total perceptual shift to recover (the only conclusion).
“Unless this person (the hopeless-type alcoholic) can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery...
On the other hand-and strange as this may seem to those who do not understand-once a psychic change has occurred, the very same person who seemed doomed, who had so many problems he despaired of ever solving them, suddenly finds himself easily able to control his desire for alcohol, the only effort necessary being that required to follow a few simple rules.
Faced with this problem, if a doctor is honest with himself, he must sometimes feel his own inadequacy. Although he gives all that is in him, it often is not enough. One feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the essential psychic change.”
In the Big Book, the psyche change is referred to over and over as a spiritual awakening and, as Silkworth remarked, its main mechanism is the change in unconscious desire.
The dilemma is that you cannot force a change in desire.
For example, you can force your kid to do homework but you can force them to desire to do it.
This is the biggest barrier in treating alcoholism – how do you transform the unconscious contents of desire?
Well, according to Silkworth, all that is required is the adherence to a few simple rules, which presumably is a reference to the 12 steps.
The authors of the Big Book even retell a story of one of their members, Roland Hazard, who was under the care of celebrated psychoanalyst, Carl Jung.
On page 26, Dr. Jung tells this seemingly hopeless alcoholic that the medical field has had no success with alcoholics of his variety.
Then, in what they describe as a maneuver of professional humility, he rather bluntly declared a spiritual experience as the only remedy.
They cite Jung saying,
“Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”
Moreover, he doesn’t suggest that religion is the antidote, as was the initial interpretation of Roland, but something else.
He seems to tacitly and vaguely remark that there is another way, but rather than elucidate what it is he only states that it’s radically opposed to Roland’s current way.
It’s almost elementary.
It’s something so far removed, that the only manner in which to describe it is “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements.”
The old way, says Jung, is “completely set aside” for something “completely new.”
This shift in consciousness is in essence the spiritual experience – a transformation in the contents of unconscious desire.
Somewhat reminiscent of Saint Paul’s words in the epistle to the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.”
Surrender Creates Insight
How do we cast aside these ideas, emotions, and attitudes that drive us for an entirely new set of ideas, emotions, and attitudes?
Well, for starters, I find the sequence to be insightful.
The shift begins with new ideas.
Then, the new ideas once applied create new emotions and attitudes.
The initial struggle you’ll encounter is identifying the new ideas. Why? Because you’ve yet to surrender the old ideas!
To drive this point home, consider the famous illusion of the father and the son.
Whatever image you see first, be it the young or older man, is equivalent to the old idea.
In order to see the other image, you need to completely surrender the one you currently observe.
You cannot see both simultaneously.
You can try but it will just be a contorted mess. The brain generalizes in such a manner that it creates very specific schemas or gestalts.
You can only process one at a time.
Now, armed with this insight, you can begin to surrender the old idea to adequately grasp the new.
This shift in perspective alone is a momentous displacement and rearrangement.
My First Glimpse At This Insight In Action
I recall my first significant insight like it was yesterday.
Let’s travel back in time to 2011…
She was adamant in her adoration of me, but the girl I was dating at the time was quick to put me down.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Usually I would be defensive or combative which of course would only make the conflict persist.
This one day specifically, I’ll never forget. We were getting ready to attend some inane social function. I was dressed to the nines, even looking back now I still consider it one of my finest exhibitions of fashion. Admittedly, this isn’t saying much.
Nonetheless, after steadily admiring my beauty in the mirror for five minutes tops, we got in the car and were en route to the event.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she remarks “Tim, I feel like your whole get up looks ugly.”
I was flabbergasted. What motive could she have for verbally pushing me so low?
Well, I first noticed that she didn’t actually communicate a feeling.
Just because you put “feel” in front of something does not mean it’s communicating a feeling.
Rather, she merely communicated her opinion.
Moreover, what need was being vocalized?
A social need: She was nervous my attire would result in her being socially shunned. Probably not a stretch, I never cared much for conforming to social fashion trends. Yet, neither did she, so it’s unlikely.
A sexual need: She was nervous she wasn’t good enough for me and from a place of insecurity attempted to make me feel like I couldn’t possibly do any better than her.
In reality, it was a mixture of both. She needed companionship to fulfill her social identity and she needed me to fulfill her companionship.
The major issue was that rather than operate from a place of understanding and vulnerability and simply state how she really felt, something like, “Tim, I feel uncomfortable and constantly anticipate loneliness,” which is actually stating a feeling!
She instead sought to forgo vulnerability and decided to make me feel uncomfortable and anticipate loneliness.
This, however, made me not want to be around her and brought her prophecy that I wouldn’t desire a relationship with with her to fruition.
It was a bizarre insight to realize that her telling me I’m ugly was actually camouflaging what she really wanted to tell me: “please don’t leave me.”
She would make remarks such as “I feel like you’re always thinking about other girls.”
Again, not a feeling but claiming to be able to read my mind.
And, “I feel like you’re going to leave me.”
Once more not a feeling but an inference.
She eventually admitted all of this without me evening bringing it to her attention, but she persisted to cling tightly to her old approach and subsequently drove me away.
Had she surrendered her old way and submitted to a new way, the relationship probably could have elevated.
Nonetheless, my level of understanding elevated, which is recovery at its most fundamental level.
More importantly it helped me understand that insight – a broadening of understanding – is the key to growth in recovery.
Had she taken action based on her newer understanding rather than her fears, things would have unfolded differently.
This is what Alcoholics Anonymous is designed to do.
Our level of understanding when approaching step one is beyond recovery. Yet, our understanding upon departing step two is recovery and beyond!
The way my previous girlfriend was approaching our relationship was hopeless in the sense that it would never produce a fruitful relationship.
However, all she needed was a slight shift in perspective, an insight, a paradigm shift if you will, and our relationship could have thrived.
Taking action based on fear is being mentally trapped in a survive setting. Recovery is about transitioning to the thrive setting.
The Big Book is clear is what it calls the “three pertinent ideas,”
- That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives (our current level of understanding is beyond recovery).
- That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism (that God can enable higher levels of understanding).
- That God could and would if He were sought (all you need is the willingness to be open to this new idea and your level of understanding will inevitably increase)
You’ll never be the same again. The drink will no longer do for you what it previously did. Once you move from survive mode to thrive mode it’s impossible to turn back.
You can’t enjoy a belly full of booze with a head full of AA! Why? Because now you understand – you know better. There is no turning back.