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.