We ought not to settle for tepid A.A., for half-measures in taking the Steps, or for too much of the stale and flat in our sober days. Not if we want to stay sober.
No, I think we have to keep looking for something better than dullness, better than average living, better than mediocre spirituality. In an article called “The Search for Ecstasy,” written for the A.A. Grapevine, philosopher Gerald Heard said, “It would seem that none of us is living in a sufficiently tonic way, so as to be able to meet the stresses to which we are now bound to be exposed, without breakdown. . . . Alcoholism (like all addictions) is not at base a search for utter sedation. It is a desire for that ecstasis, that ‘standing out’ from the landlocked lagoons of conformity, out onto the uncharted high seas where the only map is the star-set heavens.”
Breathes there anywhere a sober alcoholic for whom this passage is not deeply meaningful?
A few years ago, I sat in a New York bar talking to a newspaperman who had just lost another job for drinking. He was interested in my A.A. story But he was lit up like a Christmas tree, angry, and thoroughly uninterested in any gab about regenerating him—that day.
A thought came to me. I said, “You know, H ________ , I think one 7 7 of the great pleasures of way-out drinking is just that feeling of being miles apart from the boobs. You’re running on a different track. Different clock. Different music. Really existentialist kick. On the knife’s edge of pleasure-pain, progress-disaster.” And more stuff to that effect.
I saw that I had an attentive listener at last. H. said that that was it exactly. It was living way-out that appealed to him, disasters or no. Living like the boobs was a bore, a drag, an accursed impossibility.
I think now that this thoroughly unsuccessful Twelfth Step effort (I pray H. may be in A.A. somewhere by now) helped me. I’ve never since stopped being aware of the fact that as an alcoholic I had better not set my sights on being just like everybody else, just as ordinary, just as unleavened. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know anything about being ordinary—that is, nonalcoholic—so I ought not to set up some phony idea in my mind about normal living. No, let me stick with Mr. Heard’s approach for a while. His emphasis is the one for me.
If as an alcoholic I am to “stand out from the landlocked lagoons of conformity” and stay sober, how am I to do it? Join a revolutionary gang? Go hippie? Take up Yoga?
Ah, but I have an answer. Take the Twelve Steps. Dull? Have I tried it? I certainly didn’t attempt much beyond the first three Steps my first couple of years in A.A. My reaction to the last nine Steps was that they were put in to round out the picture; they were pious rather than practical. One hardly needed to go that far . . . and so on.
But I had, along the way, a bit of perverse luck. I got into some rather heavy weather: Job, health, family, everything seemed to go soberly haywire all at once. And I was moved (I see it now as a spiritual shove) to try the Fourth and Fifth Steps, inventory and confession. I didn’t do a good job. I wrote some of the inventory, but not all of it. I told some of the wrongs, the pressing ones—but not all. Nonetheless, I had an exciting year of spiritual progress out of it. I was in some important way changed.
There came a slowdown, as evidently there always must. I began to think Steps Six and Seven needed more work. Interesting. Difficult. Existentialist. Knife-edge of disaster-progress. Strange new awareness of God, of self.
I saw that there could be no “lagoons of conformity” for the man who will face his character, confess it, become willing to change it, and ask God to change it.
Dynamite! Dare I set it off? Can’t I just sort of let the whole thing go, and settle for modest, quiet, unexceptionable, not very spiritual, average living? After all, X can and Y can and Z can
Are they alcoholics? Well, no. And do I really know anything about their spiritual lives? Well, no
Back to me. I needed to be other. That’s why I drank. I still need to be other. Having tried the toxic way of drugs and excess, let me try the “tonic” (in Heard’s phrasing) way of the Steps, the way of health and joy. The Steps are the specific medicine for the thing that’s wrong (or right—it doesn’t matter) with me: alcoholism. They are the way to be other—and sane into the bargain.
I’ve come this far: I know now that what is involved in taking the A.A. program entire, as the early A.A.’s gave it to us, is not the prospect of turning into some sort of repulsive goody-goody. It’s the threat of being truly alive, aware, and even perhaps ecstatic. I’m coming to believe that if I do not accept all of what this program offers (demands?), but instead walk away from it as somehow more than I bargained for, I might get drunk.
In other words, if I do not take A.A.’s Twelve Steps seriously and in full, I cannot expect to be “on the program.”