Saturday, May 18, 2013

Step 4, for all sorts and conditions....

Since I have come to believe that what separates alcoholics and the rest of the human family are differences only in degree and not in kind, I think A.A.'s 12 Steps have something to offer everybody.   One of the reasons I think this is a good thing is that in my own experience, A.A. spirituality - in groups that have a high regard for, and whose members attempt to work through, the Steps, that is -  is actually better than much or most of what you find in the church.   Clearly, there's something in the Steps themselves at work here; at this point I'm trying to break this all down and understand it.   Because if it works in A.A.:  why shouldn't it work for the church, too?  They're both in the same business, after all.

I've been struck recently by the fact that A.A. tries, in the Steps, to address every sort and condition of person; it has to do this, because every alcoholic is in danger for his or her life.  So A.A. needed to be able to find a way to communicate with all the people it wanted to help.  And I'm realizing that it does this in a couple of ways.

First:  it concerns itself centrally with the basic human condition:  with human life as it's really lived on earth, through the lens of the human psyche and emotions.   A.A. speaks, and in a deep way, to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and experiences that are common to all human beings.  As an example, here is the opening section of Step 4 (PDF), "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" (my bolding):
Creation gave us instincts for a purpose. Without them we wouldn't be complete human beings. If men and women didn't exert themselves to be secure in their persons, made no effort to harvest food or construct shelter, there would be no survival. If they didn't reproduce, the earth wouldn't be populated. If there were no social instinct, if men cared nothing for the society of one another, there would be no society. So these desires--for the sex relation, for material and emotional security, and for companionship--are perfectly necessary and right, and surely God-given.

Yet these instincts, so necessary for our existence, often far exceed their proper functions. Powerfully, blindly, many times subtly, they drive us, dominate us, and insist upon ruling our lives. Our desires for sex, for material and emotional security, and for an important place in society often tyrannize us. When thus out of joint, man's natural desires cause him great trouble, practically all the trouble there is. No human being, however good, is exempt from these troubles. Nearly every serious emotional problem can be seen as a case of misdirected instinct. When that happens, our great natural assets, the instincts, have turned into physical and mental liabilities.

Step Four is our vigorous and painstaking effort to discover what these liabilities in each of us have been, and are. We want to find exactly how, when, and where our natural desires have warped us. We wish to look squarely at the unhappiness this has caused others and ourselves. By discovering what our emotional deformities are, we can move toward their correction. Without a willing and persistent effort to do this, there can be little sobriety or contentment for us. Without a searching and fearless moral inventory, most of us have found that the faith which really works in daily living is still out of reach.

Second, A.A. directly addresses particular personality traits and characteristics.  Most often, this information comes out of the empirical experience of the first A.A. members; the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was first published in 1952, 20 or so years after the founding of A.A. and the publication of the original tract/book Alcoholics Anonymous.  That means that a)  the founders had enough sobriety by that time to be able to think and write clearly (!), and b) there was a load of actual data that could be incorporated into Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Here's the next part of Step 4 (PDF); it demonstrates the second technique in action:
Alcoholics especially should be able to see that instinct run wild in themselves is the underlying cause of their destructive drinking. We have drunk to drown feelings of fear, frustration, and depression. We have drunk to escape the guilt of passions, and then have drunk again to make more passions possible. We have drunk for vain glory--that we might the more enjoy foolish dreams of pomp and power. This perverse soul-sickness is not pleasant to look upon. Instincts on rampage balk at investigation. The minute we make a serious attempt to probe them, we are liable to suffer severe reactions.

If temperamentally we are on the depressive side, we are apt to be swamped with guilt and self-loathing. We wallow in this messy bog, often getting a misshapen and painful pleasure out of it. As we morbidly pursue this melancholy activity, we may sink to such a point of despair that nothing but oblivion looks possible as a solution. Here, of course, we have lost all perspective, and therefore all genuine humility. For this is pride in reverse. This is not a moral inventory at all; it is the very process by which the depressive has so often been led to the bottle and extinction.

If, however, our natural disposition is inclined to self righteousness or grandiosity, our reaction will be just the opposite. We will be offended at A.A.'s suggested inventory. No doubt we shall point with pride to the good lives we thought we led before the bottle cut us down. We shall claim that our serious character defects, if we think we have any at all, have been caused chiefly by excessive drinking. This being so, we think it logically follows that sobriety-- first, last, and all the time--is the only thing we need to work for. We believe that our one-time good characters will be revived the moment we quit alcohol. If we were pretty nice people all along, except for our drinking, what need is there for a moral inventory now that we are sober?

We also clutch at another wonderful excuse for avoiding an inventory. Our present anxieties and troubles, we cry, are caused by the behavior of other people--people who really need a moral inventory. We firmly believe that if only they'd treat us better, we'd be all right. Therefore we think our indignation is justified and reasonable--that our resentments are the "right kind." We aren't the guilty ones. They are!

At this stage of the inventory proceedings, our sponsors come to the rescue. They can do this, for they are the carriers of A.A.'s tested experience with Step Four. They comfort the melancholy one by first showing him that his case is not strange or different, that his character defects are probably not more numerous or worse than those of anyone else in A.A. This the sponsor promptly proves by talking freely and easily, and without exhibitionism, about his own defects, past and present. This calm, yet realistic, stocktaking is immensely reassuring. The sponsor probably points out that the newcomer has some assets which can be noted along with his liabilities. This tends to clear away morbidity and encourage balance. As soon as he begins to be more objective, the newcomer can fearlessly, rather than fearfully, look at his own defects.

The sponsors of those who feel they need no inventory are confronted with quite another problem. This is because people who are driven by pride of self unconsciously blind themselves to their liabilities. These newcomers scarcely need comforting. The problem is to help them discover a chink in the walls their ego has built, through which the light of reason can shine.

First off, they can be told that the majority of A.A. members have suffered severely from self-justification during their drinking days. For most of us, self-justification was the maker of excuses; excuses, of course, for drinking, and for all kinds of crazy and damaging conduct. We had made the invention of alibis a fine art. We had to drink because times were hard or times were good. We had to drink because at home we were smothered with love or got none at all. We had to drink because at work we were great successes or dismal failures. We had to drink because our nation had won a war or lost a peace. And so it went, ad infinitum.

We thought "conditions" drove us to drink, and when we tried to correct these conditions and found that we couldn't to our entire satisfaction, our drinking went out of hand and we became alcoholics. It never occurred to us that we needed to change ourselves to meet conditions, whatever they were.

Importantly, later in Step 4, it's noted that:
Of course the depressive and the power-driver are personality extremes, types with which A.A. and the whole world abound. Often these personalities are just as sharply defined as the examples given. But just as often some of us will fit more or less into both classifications. Human beings are never quite alike, so each of us, when making an inventory, will need to determine what his individual character defects are. Having found the shoes that fit, he ought to step into them and walk with new confidence that he is at last on the right track.  

I believe that the Episcopal Church has, during its struggle to leave behind antiquated notions about women, and to allow gay people a place in the faith, consciously or unconsciously stopped trying to speak to the whole world with an eye towards healing and redemption for all.  It was such a tough battle that people needed to rest for a time.  This makes perfect sense, actually; most of the religious world is still very anti-gay - and  we all do owe the "liberal mainlines" a debt of gratitude here.  In this light, it's completely unremarkable that politics, "mission," and "activism" have taken over - and the "art of living, as taught by Christ" left behind.

There are a couple of problems with that, though.  First of all:  it gives those who hold antiquated notions about women - and those who want to keep gay people out of the church - it gives their ideas a power they oughtn't have!   If you're not speaking to "redemption and healing" - well, those ideas are going to become hardened into political opinions (as they already have been).     Second, it leaves us in the same place, with politics as our primary operating principle, rather than the healthful love of God and neighbor.

It may be hard to re-learn the language of speaking to the whole world.   I can actually understand a reluctance to do this, after the ravages of the culture wars in TEC over the past couple of decades; I feel that reluctance, myself.  But it will be easier to do as time goes by, because the world is changing; as we all know by now, anti-gay attitudes, for instance, are far, far less prevalent among the young, at least in our corner of the world.   (I'm not sure about elsewhere, actually; that might be interesting to look at.)  "Antiquated notions about women" are, likewise, dropping away - although of course, prejudices of all kinds will always exist.  We are all prone to them.  The only way to deal with that, though - as far as I can see - is through healing and redemption, one person at a time.

The really wonderful thing, in fact, is that A.A. can speak to, and can work, for all the sorts and conditions described here - for the "power-driver" and the "depressive" alike.   You might not think the 4th Step would be a good idea for people "swamped with guilt and self-loathing"; you might think this is absolutely the wrong approach for such folks.  I thought that, at first.  We were both wrong about that, though!

The 4th Step is about getting an accurate look at ourselves.  It's about getting beyond the "misshapen and painful pleasure" of beating ourselves up - or our overt "self-righteousness and grandiosity" - and about taking our rightful place as "one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society."  And the way to do that is to cease fixating on ourselves - whether through "power-driving" or "depression," which are merely two sides of the same self-absorbed coin.  And the way to do that, it turns out, is to cease judging our neighbor in any way whatsoever, by looking instead at  our own faults and flaws (i.e., "working out our own salvation in fear and trembling")That way of life, ironically, helps us turn outwards, to God, where we can find healing - and then to our fellow human beings.

And since Christianity, of its very nature, attempts to speak to the whole world, it can do the same thing.  Let me again quote Sr. Heléna Marie, CHS, from her "What the Religious Life Is and Is Not" (again, my bolding):
It is not a place to hide from others nor from yourself. Whatever you have found difficult in others in the past, you will find difficult here. Every character flaw that drove you crazy in others before you entered will drive you crazy here, too, except that here you are living twenty-four hours a day with those who have them! Nor will you be able to hide from whatever in yourself you would rather not face. The formation process in community will naturally bring out those aspects of yourself which might prefer to remain hidden. Your shadow will become apparent to you (as it has probably always been apparent to others), and you will have to face it, accept it, and eventually own it as a creative part of yourself. As Brother Clark Berge, SSF, says: "The religious life is no way to hide from problems. If you try to hide, they will find you out."
Here's another way of putting that, BTW:
Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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