The “higher power” problem in A.A. is an intentional design flaw

One theme that invariably emerges when I regularly attend AA meetings — something that happens only when I get bored or lonely enough, which between mid-December and mid-January tends to be more often —  is people with at least a couple of years of sobriety describing themselves as doing generally well in life, maybe even better than they expected at the start of the boozeless journey, but unable to settle on a higher power and feeling like they’re failing as a result. All signs are there that quitting drinking and being active about sobriety have been a smashing success for them, but the nature of “the program” compels them to fret needlessly about this “missing” element.

Even to those unaware of the history of the Big Book’s authorship, it should be clear that the chapter to the agnostic is a bald-faced bait-and-switch. It doesn’t really offer a path to working the steps for the godless, but rather unpretentiously cajoles the nonbeliever in the direction of faith. This is because the chapter was only included because a prominent businessman who happened to also be a prominent atheist (rare in those days) insisted on it; the Big Book was essentially Bill W’s sole creation.

The A.A. mantra that a higher power can be “anything you want” was clearly not a part of the worldview of Bill W, himself a full-force Born Again Christian. This is even more evident in the steps themselves; the scheme depends not just on any old “HP,” but one that is capable of not only moral judgment but moral enslavement. The “program” through Bill W’s lens is at least as much about atonement to a critical deity and adherence to its unknowable whims as it is about living well. Any higher power that could function within this scheme would have to possess all of the essential characteristics of the Abrahamic rage-god, even if we’re allowed to nominally declare it something else.

Nothing Bill W wrote suggests he believed that anything other than a “burning bush” moment could produce a lasting spiritual transformation, even if he appears to offer latitude in this area. This is cynical in the extreme and sets people up to fail, because some people have “spiritual experiences” they see as tantamount to a cure, and the next thing you know, they’re living in a van down by the river subsisting on government cheese and MD 20/20 in its whole grotesque range of flavors.

Some people simply aren’t constructed to approach sobriety with the metaphysical demands Bill W’s “suggestions” make on would-be step-completers. In my case I simply gave up and realized that I had managed half-consciously to set up my life over a period of years in such a way that I would basically have a hard time sustaining a return to drinking for more than a couple of hours without someone knowing about it. That’s as close as I can get to the level of absolute accountability the steps seem to demand.

If you are among the people who has been actively or passively convinced you’re cheating somehow by not having a reliable concept of a higher power, maybe just giving up on that part and taking recourse in Tradition Three is sufficient. Also, where I attend meetings, most people are receptive to such viewpoints; when I lived in the Bible Belt, not so much, and you may not have ready access to meetings where you won’t be silently or openly accused of excessive freelancing.

1,000 days and a million heartfelt “recovery” banalities

Certain people (me, for example) believe that they are basically fuckups at least as often as not when it comes to anything that matters. Whether this is true only or mostly in the hapless, entropy-soaked silt comprising our own thinking apparatus is irrelevant so long as the belief is persistent and powerful. So at the moment, quite apart from those who are currently using substances to escape reality in a manner that could be termed pathological,” it’s not hard to find people who have already tried that route and are instead struggling mightily against the pain of not hurting themselves on purpose, because the means of warding off the significant discomfort that can accompany merely existing in modern society almost always incur a cost.

And that’s really what not submitting to an unwanted craving of any sort is all about: I will refuse to treat this awful rage and irrational madness I have this second by dumping alcohol into my head, because the long-term benefits of resisting outweigh the ultra-short-term “benefits,” and the longer-term costs of ephemeral reassurance from a toxic chemical clearly outweigh the benefits. Or more succinctly, “this too shall pass,” though I avoid invoking even the more innocuous of the Christianity-based slogans that basically define the colossal shityard of terrible ideas Bill Wilson and Bob Smith introduced in the late 1930s known as Alcoholics Anonymous.

There are surely at least 50 million American adults who at this moment are in the grip of a compulsive behavior that will eventually land them in jail, a medical institution, in rehab or something much like it, or on a slab, probably before the age of 50, if it hasn’t already. (One of the joys of blogging for a small audience is that I can make up numbers as long as I admit it, or blow up backing up things I happen to know are true. I spend a great deal of my day harvesting hyperlinks and putting them in Web documents, and this is obviously my time to kick back and discuss how much I enjoy life.) Continue reading “1,000 days and a million heartfelt “recovery” banalities”

The unlimited limits of an education

Two weeks ago, shortly before the Roy Moore-Doug Jones face-off in Alabama, an exterminator came to my home to humanely dispatch from the premises a mother raccoon, which had taken up residence somewhere between the second-floor ceiling and the roof in early December. As I returned from a run,  he and the homeowner were talking about the potential debacle of a Senate race that was underway, and the exterminator, who looked exactly like Bruce Campbell in his Evil Dead days only bigger, mentioned that he was married to someone who worked for the Denver Office of the District Attorney and had met Moore years ago, long before most people outside of Alabama and atheist blogs had heard of him. When this Denver lawyer, who was part of a group hosting Moore and others from Alabama at a conference, learned that Moore was not only a lawyer but a judge, she was apparently stunned, given his startling lack of knowledge of everything related to the law, or the bench, or reality.

Maybe it’s not a good idea to use Roy Moore as an example of anything other than a demented, theocratic shitbag. But he did at one time manage to get a law degree. That’s supposedly not the easiest thing in the world, even in the decerebrate South.

One of the fun paradoxes of getting a college education is discovering that it’s possible to earn a bachelor’s degree in a given scientific while remaining largely ignorant of that discipline, even if you receive high grades at a reputable school. Continue reading “The unlimited limits of an education”

Simplifying the DSM

Long ago, people believed mental illness was the result of demonic possession or other “supernatural” forces. Today, mental problems are typically described as resulting from imbalances in neurochemistry, even though there is no such thing as neurochemical balance.

I think it’s time to adopt a more progressive model, which includes exactly three psychiatric states (independent of drug use):
Continue reading “Simplifying the DSM”

Mental disarray and personal politics, part II

Building on an observation I made yesterday: When people who are clearly mentally unbalanced are at least coherent enough to form political opinions, in any contest they observe between a candidate who goes about things comparatively quietly and one whose chief strategy is inexhaustible high-volume raving about Stuff That Needs Fixing, they invariably go for the shrieking demagogue. Continue reading “Mental disarray and personal politics, part II”

Mental disarray and personal politics, part I

I continue to be intrigued by people who self-identify as conservative in spite of having been supported by some combination of the government and other people’s charity for literally their entire lives. I ponder the underlying psychology and then conclude there’s actually nothing unusual about this seeming contradiction: If you can’t or won’t make your own way in life to an even marginal extent, it eases your internal conflict to symbolically align yourself with those who can and do.

I’m trying to come up with the liberal answer to this kind of person. Maybe a closet racist or closeted gay person who wishes to shed such biases because it’s “right” and who therefore superficially adopts anti-bigotry political stances?

The paradox of human intelligence

You have to love it when someone burbles, “I’ve finally realized after all these years that I was doing X all wrong” immediately before making the very same bad life choice he or she just claimed to have put in the past. No, really, I do. The ability to simultaneously learn from a mistake and make that mistake repeatedly anyway is an exquisitely human thing. (I don’t like it when someone who happens to consider me a mortal adversary plays this game, but this is rare, even if it’s what inspired this post.)

In practical terms, wild animals with small brains alter their behavior in accordance with reward-punishment schemes much more readily than people do. If a lizard eats a plant that makes it sick, thanks to its limbic system and the intimate relationship between olfaction and memory, that lizard will never eat that type of plant again. A human, on the other hand, is inclined to engage its cerebrum, and concludes things like, “Well, maybe if I switch from vodka to beer, alcohol won’t be a problem” or “I’ll at least mix in some filtered cigarettes” or “As long as I limit myself to 10 tanning sessions a month, the gratuitous UVB rays really aren’t going to serve as a cancer risk.”

Ironically, we’re the only animals smart enough to be capable of completely pulling the wool over out own eyes. We readily conflate being aware of a problem to having solved it with no further effort.

Is this trait adaptive? It certainly helps reduce cognitive dissonance, which always  provides psychological relief, but in general — no. It allows people to repeatedly engage in behaviors that cause them pain, and the fact that it exists to a more obvious degree in mentally unstable but otherwise fairly intelligent or even very intelligent people seems to suggest that it’s not a good approach to the world.