Today, I thought I’d write about the spiritual writings of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. That I feel the need to preface my piece by stating that Bill Wilson was a flawed human being, says more about our society than it does about Mr. Wilson. All human beings are flawed, unable to live up to standards set by themselves or others. But it seems that since the advent of the internet, character assassination has become a favorite pastime of bloggers, commenters, and those who project their guilt and failings onto others. I am a big proponent of truth when it comes to telling the whole story about a given situation or person. At the same time, I have always been more focused on the big picture, recognizing how easy it is to examine another’s skeleton filled closet rather than our own. Some parts of the AA book reflect the sexist views of most of America in the beginning of the 20th century, other parts seem hopelessly outdated. But Bill Wilson altered the lives of millions of people and shifted the paradigm for addiction. The ripple effect of his life and work continues to this day, giving light to the ones he described as “children of the dark.”
Dying of alcoholism at Townes Hospital in New York, Bill Wilson had a profound spiritual experience. His wife was being advised by doctors that she would have to put him in an institution, and Wilson himself seemed to have little hope of anything changing. But before he admitted to the hospital, a friend and fellow alcoholic had presented Bill with the idea of coming up with a Higher Power that made sense to him, was personal to him. These words penetrated his alcohol saturated brain and gave him a glimmer of hope that he might reach out for some force that could help him not pick up a drink. In a moment of utter despair, he cried out for help, experienced the divine, and never had a drink again. This led to him meeting the co-founder of AA, Dr. Bob. Together, along with one hundred others, they began to construct the movement that would become Alcoholics Anonymous, leading to the publication of the book which contained the Twelve Steps, the foundation of the society and a spiritual path used by countless other suffering human beings.
Bill Wilson understood alcoholics and the personalities of those who struggle with addiction. Throughout his writings, Wilson addresses the controlling, fearful natures of these individuals, as well as their need to become grounded in something that would help calm their overactive nervous systems the way that alcohol and drugs did. Wilson also knew that those prone to addiction do not like to feel that they are having something shoved down their throat, especially religion. He devotes an entire chapter to helping ease the fears of those seeking recovery, avoiding dogmatism and fanaticism so that all who seek help could find it.
“Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.”
While such a proclamation wouldn’t be uncommon in the times we live in, this statement made in the late 1930’s was a radical approach to spirituality, only a few years removed from the Scopes Trial and The Butler Act. Wilson knew that if he clouded the AA program in too much religiosity it would limit the number of people who would seek help for their addiction, thus leaving the sufferer to battle their demons alone.
What may be the most impactful and lasting aspects of Bill Wilson’s writings is his insistence that true spirituality must be focused on that of the individuals internal life, not the external circumstances that substance abusers believe cause them to use. Here is a quote from the AA 12×12, written when Bill Wilson was many years sober. “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.” The insistence that the person in recovery sticks to his or her own personal experience is something you can hear at any AA or NA meeting. Those with long-term sobriety know that the purpose of the beginning steps are to bring peace and understanding to oneself, while the latter steps are designed to enable the recovering person to bring compassion and service to the external world.
My favorite piece of Bill Wilson’s writing, written with the help of early AA members, is when he explains the attitudes and actions that should be taken when approaching the Third Step (Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.) Wilson understands that the problem with most people is not their belief or lack thereof, the problem is their behavior. He compares alcoholics to actors in a play who want to be the director. Never satisfied with the script they are given, these alcoholics try to arrange the play to suit themselves. When people fail to follow their directions, they become angry, resentful, and afraid. These negative emotions lead to the desire to alter their chemistry with drugs or alcohol, which in turn lead to more negative emotions, thus the cycle of addiction continues.
The wisdom of the Twelve Steps and the writings of Bill Wilson is that they have remained relevant after nearly eighty years, continuing to help some people find recovery from a “hopeless state of mind and body.” Bill Wilson ends his study of the Twelve Steps by defining what he thinks constitutes spiritually awakened people. Once again, he focuses on behaviors instead of beliefs:
“He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable. What he has received is a free gift, and yet usually, at least in some small part, he has made himself ready to receive it.”
My wish and prayer for the day is that all those suffering in addiction may become ready to receive the gift of recovery.
And as always, if you feel the need to leave negative or snarky comments, please refrain. I will only delete them and feel sorry for you.