The Willow Tree Bark


By Frank M.

What follows are the reflections of an agnostic in LA on how the program of AA works. The reflections first address the orthodox theory of the program, which requires a belief in God, then suggests a willow tree bark understanding of the workings of the program, and concludes with a Stoic’s understanding of the essential and underlying principle in recovery from alcoholism: an acceptance of Life on Life’s Terms.

AA Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy, from Greek orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “belief”, related to dokein, “to think”), i.e., right thinking or belief.

Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.

Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serenity Prayer

AA has a traditional theory of how and why its program works. That theory, as espoused by its founders, is broadly that AA’s steps are a means to access and utilize a Power greater than human. This Power is reached through certain actions. It enables other actions. It benignly directs our actions in recovery and life, if we allow it to. And it heals us in proportion to our efforts.

That’s the theory. Our more religious members think of this Power as God. And honestly, I’m okay with that. I understand it as metaphor and myth, and I know it has the potential to drive transforming action in those who embrace it. The trouble comes when the fellowship elevates that theory to the level of AA orthodoxy.

That’s because orthodoxy by necessity narrows the channel of expression. And whenever and wherever this interferes with the transmission of spiritual principles, orthodoxy serves only to defeat its own purpose. Historically, some amount of codifying appears necessary to pass on any teaching. But the finger that points to the moon is not the moon. The words that describe what for lack of a better term we call “spiritual” principles are not those principles. They are symbols, no more.

So we recognize that what has been written in AA literature is a relic of sorts. Ink stained paper. But when we put the healing principles represented there into action today, they come alive. That is a kind of goodness that once lived in one person and is reborn in another. That is AA fulfilling its primary purpose.

And if AA today is indeed a living thing, and not just the bones of its founders, then AA itself, in the embodiment of its general fellowship, has to practice the same life virtues that we all do. And first among these is humility. We honor that virtue when we recognize that we still know but a little. Which, amazingly, includes this whole idea of just how and why the program works when it does.

I personally came to believe that the God as a supernatural Being theory of why AA worked was deficient. For one thing, the idea that the King of the Universe had finally, after eons of human misery, deigned to offer a conditional solution to the disease which He himself must have created–this was completely absurd.

On top of that, I’d given it a very fair shot. Several years of daily prayer, and using “God as I understood Him” to direct my actions in the final result didn’t work for me. The God idea neither informed nor inspired me personally. I could not obtain spiritual growth there, without which my recovery lost momentum and eventually toppled.

In time I found a way to realize the intention of the steps without anything that could fairly be called “God” in my life. And I got better. So if it wasn’t God working through the Steps (and for me, clearly it wasn’t), why were so many convinced that it was? And what was it really?

The Willow Tree Bark

Well consider the following analogy. Say you believe the God of Headaches lives in willow trees, and that you can access this god’s power by drinking a tea made from willow bark. It’s a theory. You drink the bark tea and your headache goes away. Every time. That’s proof of the theory, right?

Not exactly. We can laugh at such thinking because we understand that willow bark contains the chemical that in its refined form we call aspirin. But really, that kind of reasoning is equivalent to how the orthodox, supernatural view of the Steps and their efficacy is supported.

My own belief today, as you surely can guess, is that we’re not accessing a supernatural Being’s power by doing the Steps. There’s “aspirin” in there. That’s all.

What precisely is that metaphorical aspirin? For me it is the principles of honesty, humility, love, and service when put into action. And the willingness to place something true and steady, like the wisdom of the group, before and above my unguided thoughts and feelings of the moment. Simple. Comprehensible. Tangible. No magical Spirit in the tree, just good medicine.

Of course, this understanding of the Steps doesn’t always sit well with more conservative, more orthodox members of AA. And yet, there exists common ground between these seemingly incompatible views. The supernatural and the naturalistic. It’s an idea so ubiquitous in recovery that I had stopped seeing it for a time. Like a coin that’s been passed around long enough, the writing had worn off nearly completely. Few of us, I discovered, looked at it very closely anymore. That’s the problem with slogans.

 Life on Life’s Terms

There it was all along, in yet another well-worn slogan: Life on life’s terms. For that is the defining and common task that lies before each of us in recovery. Learning to live, as the Stoics would have put it, in accordance with nature. Regardless of what or who you believe might be nature’s author. The challenge is still the same, in any case.

But to meet this challenge, to actually achieve some compliance with life’s terms, you have to come to some understanding of what they are. No small task in itself. So what are these terms?

This is my own understanding, still evolving. As an alcoholic, life is not offering me the option to drink moderately. As a human, life will not grant me any reliable picture of the future, nor any permanence, nor any control over much but my own choices. I will learn only by testing my limits and my ideas, and some failure will be certain and at times painful.

I will not be able to change the things I’m having feelings about by manipulating my feelings. Not with chemicals, or sex, or any other form of evasion.

I will be separated from the things and people I love by distance and by death. And I will be forced to spend precious minutes in the company of fools, and one of them will at times be me.

But I will be able to appreciate, and even to create some beauty. I will be allowed to love, and to forgive. I will be awed by you and what you can show me that I couldn’t see through my own eyes. I will have my triumphs, and we will revel in them. I will have my losses and you will console me.

And I will laugh in appreciation of our stumbling humanity, our courage, our insane hope in the face of everything that’s stacked against us.

All in all, it’s a fair offer. And I sign that contract every day I embrace my sober life. Not on some terms of my own making, but in full and grateful compliance with the reality of this lovely and astonishing world.

4 Responses

  1. John M. says:

    To my ears, your piece is a veritable anthem to recovery. You sing it with such zest!

  2. Don S. says:

    Thanks, Frank. Beautiful as always.

    The founders sent a mixed message about the role of God in recovery. Bill had a white light experience that helped him sprint through his first six months of sobriety, but when he found himself tempted in Akron, he didn’t turn to God. He got on the phone, met Dr Bob and founded AA.

    In the big book, he said that intensive work with other alcoholics works when other activities fail. If working with others works, those other activities are not the aspirin in AA. They are optional accretions.
    Some put their aspirin in a plain bottle. Others put it in a fancy gold treasure chest. To a nonbeliever, God looks like the ultimate, grandiose adornment. We don’t need cosmic imprimatur for our sobriety. We are not beyond human aid. We are sober and thankful. That’s enough for us.

    Of course religious people will think God is working through AA. They think God is working through everything. Consider prayer. If we make prayer a habit, then it will correlate with absolutely everything in our lives, including the good stuff. To a believer, they will see that when they started praying, things got better.

    They’re not running a controlled experiment. It would be problematic to do it, but to show that the program in the big book is effective, we would have to have several control groups. One group would work the big book suggestions without going to meetings. One would go to meetings without the steps. Another would do both. Another would do nothing, etc.

    But Bill also told us not to do such experiments. Resign from the debating societies. It works, it really does! But he isn’t specifying what ‘it’ is. Most people don’t care. But if we want to be free of supernaturalism, the wasted time and social conditioning that prayer can be, and help nonbelievers and nonreligious people get sober, then we have to care.

    We need to offer the most universal formulation of recovery that we can. The big book, with its overt religiosity, is not as inclusive as it could be.

    It is a matter of plain fact that many AAs stay sober just fine without gods. Thus, the big book claims more than it can justify. It is not even the full, honest sharing of the first 100. Atheist member Jim Burwell helped by getting ‘as we understood him’ included, but the book still says that we need God, our loving all-powerful creator, to stay sober. This needlessly limits recovery, and slights Jim B’s experience. And if we need God to recover, it seems God favors white, American men who sobered up after 1939.

    We shouldn’t let the big book define AA. This is a huge hurdle because most people equate AA with the big book, but that is a mistake. Even the big book does not do that.

    1. “Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery.”
    2. “Science may one day do this…” If science finds a cure for alcholism, then it isn’t a spiritual malady. We only say something is ‘spiritual’ before we understand it scientifically.
    3. “We know only a little.”
    4. “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse no one who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity.”

    This leaves the door open to non-big book ways to recover, but the ‘traditionalists’ close it. They are more comfortable with a fixed set of instructions, and we largely let them limit AA this way.

    AA is not the big book. ‘Traditional AA’ is actually this: it is two or more alcoholic gathered for the purposes of staying sober. We might call this view ‘Primitivist AA’, or ‘Originalist’. But the big book is most definitely not the sum total of AA.

    Why would we want to limit AA to a particular WAY of staying sober? Imagine telling someone they are not in the inner circle of ex-drunks because they are sober, but didn’t achieve it the AA Way. For any of us lucky drunks to stratify our fellows based on the WAY they recover is laughable.

    It’s time for a Reformation in AA, where we challenge the authority of the big book and seek sobriety directly, without its limiting mediation.

    After reading this, some will still say, “Ok, sure there are other ways to recover, but is that AA?” YES. That’s the point. Anyone who recovers from cancer has recovered, no matter how they do it. Likewise, we want anyone who wants to stay sober, in any way at all, among us to share their experience. We are stronger and smarter together. It is at odds with AA’s primary purpose to favor one method of recovery over others.

  3. Gabriel S. says:

    Very nice.

    On the similarity between AA and Stoicism, here is a note on Seneca and Bill W on anger-management. The connections with honesty, humility, love, and service are pretty clear.

    Seneca and Bill W on anger:


    And what is more unworthy of the wise man than that his passion should depend upon the wickedness of others? [I]f it is the part of a wise man to be angry at sin, the greater this is the more angry will he be, and he will be angry often; it follows that the wise man will not only become angry, but will be prone to anger. But if we believe that neither great anger nor frequent anger has a place in the mind of a wise man, is there any reason why we should not free him from this passion altogether?

    Bill W:

    The world and its people dominated us … the wrongdoing of others, fancied or real had power to actually kill …. if we are to live we have to be free of anger.


    What is more gentle than he while he is in a right state of mind? But what is more cruel than anger? What is more loving to others than man? What more hostile than anger? Man is born for mutual help; anger for mutual destruction. The one desires union, the other disunion; the one to help, the other to harm; one would succour even strangers, the other attack its best beloved; the one is ready even to expend himself for the good of others, the other to plunge into peril only if it can drag others along. Who, therefore, has less knowledge of the ways of Nature than the man who would ascribe to her best and most finished work this cruel and deadly vice? Anger, as I have said, is bent on punishment, and that such a desire should find a harbour in man’s most peaceful breast accords least of all with his nature. For human life is founded on kindness and concord, and is bound into an alliance for common help, not by terror, but by mutual love.

    Bill W:

    Courtesy, kindness, justice and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody.

  4. Ronald B. says:

    I appreciate your thoughts and efforts to put such unto paper. I feel like a newbie in this field of agnosticism. I think I was always an agnostic but never gave it much serious thought. I have been in AA for a long time and just went along for the ride. I really feel like new growth is possible through our Beyond Belief group starting up in Thunder Bay.

    I am in need of more research inside and outside of myself. Life on life’s terms is a definition of humility itself.

    Lots of peace within that statement. Thanks again.

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