The Spirituality of Imperfection

By Roger C.

We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Bill W.

If you were a member of AA and woke up tomorrow morning inspired to write a book about the spirituality of AA and the 12 Steps you might want to call it The Spirituality of Imperfection.

But you would be too late. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham already wrote a book by that name in 1992.

And it’s a truly wonderful book.

Early on the dilemma faced by a human being is bluntly described:

…the haunting sense of incompleteness, of being unfinished, that comes from the reality of living on this earth as part and yet also not-part of it. For to be human is to be incomplete, yet yearn for completion; it is to be uncertain, yet long for certainty; to be imperfect, yet long for perfection; to be broken yet crave wholeness.

From my first memories, I felt broken. My solution was to self-medicate. I used alcohol and supplemented that with prescription drugs. I more or less thought it worked. I didn’t think that there were solutions other than anaesthesia.

I personally discovered, however, that alcoholism is a progressive disease. I crashed and burned; unless I stopped I would die. As non-functional as I was at that time, I knew I had to stop.

Enter AA.

Or to put it more accurately, that’s when I entered the rooms of AA. And there I found fellowship, a program of recovery and stories. More about the stories later…

The 12 Step program of recovery, when I thought about the steps and the program, meant one thing to me, and one thing only: I had to change. There was a remedy for my alcoholism and that was growth. My acceptance was all about acknowledging that and embracing the willingness to do the work. It’s like Bob Dylan put it, “he not busy being born is busy dying,” in his song, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).

I needed to be reborn as a sober individual and AA understood that.

So, you might ask, what does this have to do with The Spirituality of Imperfection?

A few things.

First, these are the kind of thoughts you are likely to have reading this book.

And second, anyone who has struggled with the fourth step understands that we don’t start out perfect. And The Spirituality of Imperfection tells us another thing that we ought to know, especially if we have read the Big Book: we won’t end up perfect. As Bill put it, we “claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” Kurtz and Ketcham describe this growth as a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage:

The pilgrimage image suggests that the goal of this particular journey known as life is not to prove that we are perfect but to find some happiness, some joyful peace of mind in the reality of our own imperfection.

The Spirituality of Imperfection is subtitled Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.

When I first started going to AA meetings – I remember so well crying outside of the first meeting I ever attended – I didn’t understand why so many meetings had guest speakers that told stories which “disclosed in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

The telling of these stories is at the core of the standard format of AA open meetings, of course.

And it’s the core of the AA “pilgrimage.” It’s the equivalent of a Google map from A (drunkenness) to B (a life of sobriety) by virtue of a small dose of honesty and an openness to change. As a result of these stories, the AA member is reminded again and again of the path, of the need to remap and reorient, and she or he is provided with examples of how others have managed to do exactly that.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first part, it looks at the spirituality of imperfection as it has manifested itself in the past. As the authors note:

A.A. taps into an ancient source of spiritual awareness, making available to modern men and women the long and rich tradition of the spirituality of imperfection.

In the second part, how this spirituality is manifested in AA is explored.

And finally, in the last section, key qualities of the spirituality of imperfection are explored. Some of these will not be unfamiliar to those who have spent time in the rooms of AA: gratitude, humility, tolerance and forgiveness.

As is often said, AA is a spiritual program, not a religious one. There are no dogmas or absolutes. In AA “there are no absolutes but one: ‘I am not absolute,’” the authors write, quoting Bill W.

Unlike religion, spirituality embraces the question and values the person who asks the question.

And the spirituality of imperfection is not about the destination; it is about the path, the direction.

I am reminded of a time I was talking to a Buddhist teacher and he said very enthusiastically, “Buddhism is only about pointing out the direction!” He waved and pointed, “There!” he said. “Downtown Toronto is that way!”

Of course he was pointing in the wrong direction.

The Spirituality of Imperfection is available online (Amazon, Chapters/Indigo…). I got my copy at the Toronto Sunday Morning Men’s meeting.

Keep coming back.

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