A Higher Purpose


By Wayne M.

I am an alcoholic and have been sober for over nine years. I am also an agnostic/atheist who attends AA on a regular basis.

Many people have asked how I as an agnostic can stay sober in AA even though I reject one of the fundamental premises of AA, that being a required belief in God or a Higher Power.

To put it simply, my sobriety depends not upon a “Higher Power” but instead is based upon a “higher purpose.”

I will explain that in a moment but first let me tell you a little about myself.

My problem with alcohol was so bad that between 1992 and 2004 I was in four different rehabs in the Toronto region.

The first two rehabs were not AA-based and that was why I went to them. I had gone to a few AA meetings and was appalled at the not too subtle religious overtones at them. I could not buy the God thing, or a Higher Power as an alternative. Sorry folks, same thing.

After three months at Halton Recovery House (October 1997 to January 1998) I managed to stay sober for a year and a half. I  picked up a drink and the next thing I knew five years later I was in a psych ward. It was 2004 and I was jobless, homeless and friendless. Even my brother would not take a phone call from me.

It was there I decided that  I did not want to die a drunk.

I knew I needed treatment to get started – again – and I chose Renascent.

My sobriety date is Sept 30, 2004. In November I entered Renascent and completed treatment.

Now, my higher purpose.

In the last two rehabs I discovered that I was self-obsessed, with no concern for other people. As Bill Wilson said, “The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.” (Twelve and Twelve, p. 53) This is a brutal fact and  one that would have been fatal for me, unless I took action.

My higher purpose is about as simple as I can make it (which is no small feat for an alcoholic). It is simply to be there and to share the experience of being human with other people. Even if I can’t do anything to help, I need to be there if someone needs me. If I am using, I am not there for myself, let alone anyone else. This obviously requires I interact with others. I strongly believe that isolation in its many forms is one of the primary reasons we use and especially why we relapse.

I acknowledge that I am dependent on others for my sobriety. To do that on an ongoing basis, I must always endeavor to do the right thing.

AA was – and continues to be – my first line of defence against isolation. I know I can be honest and talk about real things in that environment. AA is not the only place where I can relate to others but it was a start. I also have people in my life outside of AA.

Now I am a part of, not apart from. So now that I am a part of the human race, how do I act and what do I do in this strange arena of the real world?

I believe we can’t think our way into good behavior but we can behave our way into good thinking. What is good behaviour? It is doing the next right thing regardless of what I may feel like or think. This can be where the second use I make of AA can come in. For me the Steps are sign posts and guides on how to behave as a normal human being. They also act like idiot lights on my dashboard of life. If in a certain situation one of those steps keeps popping into my head, I know I need to look at something I am doing. For example, if I  become resentful or angry I need to look at what my part is in this (Step 4) and if I am wrong I need to apologize and try to make it right (Step 10).

After being sober for more than a year, I started volunteering at Renascent.

As time went by and I always showed up and did well at what they gave me, they started offering me paid shifts. I was offered a full time job in 2007. It was to assess people that wanted to attend our treatment program. My job was to interview them and determine if they were a fit for us and, more importantly, if we were a fit for them.

To say I loved it would be the understatement of all time. For the first time in my life, I had a job that was not a job. It was what I did when I woke up. I could not wait to get there in the mornings.

You see, it was an ideal way for me to live my higher purpose. That way I could be a useful part of the human race.

Everything at my job was going more than well until 2010 when I checked myself into the hospital with crippling stomach pain. Operations (two within a week) found colon cancer which was removed.

No reprieve however. In February 2013, I was back in the hospital due to extreme hip pain. The diagnosis was lung cancer, which had spread to my pelvis area and taken away most of the bone structure on the left side of my hip. Hence the pain and for which there is no cure, only, hopefully, control. Renascent literally sent me home one day because they could not stand seeing the pain I was in trying to get around. I went home and again checked into St Mike’s Hospital. That was last February, a year ago. Since then, I have gone through radiation therapy and several rounds of chemo. I just started another one recently.

I have had thoughts and even discussions of going back to work. No one can know how much I miss it.

You see this work is all about my higher purpose.

I can remember the first time I mentioned this higher purpose when I spoke at a meeting. I was surprised at how many people came to me after wanting to know more. This is still my core belief. It has a lot to do with recognizing the existence of others, not just my own.

Way back in a psych ward in 2004 I decided I did not want to die a drunk.

And I won’t.

Because I have something new to me in recovery: a purpose.

Wayne died on Friday, March 21, 2014, twelve days after sharing this article on AA Agnostica. He kept his commitment: with nine years and five months (3,459 days) of continuous sobriety, he did not die a drunk.

He started drinking when he was 20 and quit at the age of 57. A brief video of Wayne was created in his last year: It’s Never Too Late.

35 Responses

  1. Helen says:

    I’ve been struggling for a long time with the Higher Power concept, trying to make it fit somehow with my world view.
    Even thinking about leaving AA in order to remove the problem, but I didn’t really want to do that, because there is so much about AA that I find very helpful.
    You have cleared up this problem for me in an instant Wayne, and for that, I am very, very grateful to you.

  2. larry k says:

    Wayne wrote a great piece here… then on Friday passed away, March 21. He was loved and admired… and was one of the kindest self-depricating grump-meisters I knew.

  3. Tony L. says:

    Thanks for sharing Wayne. Higher purpose makes a lot of sense to me.
    I’ve never thought or heard of it in so many words.
    I heard a guy at a meeting last night say how until he got a motorbike he’d never really had a purpose in life or reason to live which also coincides with his longest period of sobriety 3 1/2 years. A purpose can be altruistic or a hobby. I’ve tried a few of both variety in sobriety and have become aware how important to my recovery it is. You’re more than a good example Wayne – you’re an inspiration.
    Best wishes Wayne odaat.

  4. Gil T. says:

    A = without. Theism = belief in God. Not opposed to, simply without.

    This is difficult to present in a meeting without sounding argumentative or superior. After all, the implication is that those I am sharing with believe in a myth, at best, or a superstitious lie, at worst.

    No one, especially no alcoholic, appreciates such criticism.

    Even a gentle question like the one I asked recently in a meeting where the topic was “god winks” or coincidences, “Why can’t random just be random and how would that diminish an event’s influence on our growth and awareness?” may be received as some sort of derogation of the beliefs of the others in the meeting.

    Fortunately, I’ve been around a while and the fellowship seems to accept that that is just my position, and they love me mo less – they are just sad that I’m going to hell. I love them, too, and appreciate their concern. For they have found a belief that works for them and simply want to share their joy. And, when a newcomer shows up who is struggling mightily with the “god thing” they often send him (or her) to me, at least to get through the first three steps.

    1) I’m f–ked, and I know I cannot get un-f–ked on my own.

    2) There is help.

    3) I’ll take it.

    At some later point we may get into a discussion of theology or philosophy or physics. Right now it is about not continuing down the path to despair and death. Because, step one is a death sentence without step two and change cannot begin without step three.

    Most of the AA communities I’ve visited, here in the mid west, in the deep south and the mid Atlantic, have been accepting of my understanding, even in their disagreement.

    Meetings are about how to live sober and serene, not theological debates.

    I like what I find here and I think I’ll put out some feelers to see if there might be support for a secular approach meeting or two in central Illinois.

    • Duncan says:

      Hi Jil T., Like yourself I found myself in my early days being surrounded by believers, or at least most of them said they were. Yes they were very helpful too and did not push their beliefs on me. However there were other meetings, I later found out, where the theme was different, the Bible Thumping meetings. What would have happened had I gone to one of those meetings? I can tell you that it would never have been through AA that I got sober. I also believe that the same thing would have been true of other atheists.

      I have then got to ask myself was it the Programme of AA or just other alcoholics that helped me to get sober? I know my answer. It was just other alcoholics who had done one thing I could not do. That was to leave drink alone and knowing that I could not drink successfully.

  5. Duncan says:

    Great share Wayne and the only thing I object to is how you worded your 2nd paragraph. I quote you:

    Many people have asked how I as an agnostic can stay sober in AA even though I reject one of the fundamental premises of AA, that being a required belief in God or a Higher Power.

    Sure that probably was an original intention but that changed and AA became available for all. I believe that is the purpose of AA Agnostica. Let them have their HP’s etc. as that is their way and I have no objection to that but others have different ways and these must be reflected within AA.

    Even the Catholic Church has made changes since 1935. I think you can now eat meat on a Friday and the Mass is no longer said in Latin. I dare say there will be other changes since 1935. Why should AA be so different?

    I have been sober since 1978 and have had no belief in a HP. Yes of course I have tried to believe but frankly it has not happened. I have kept an open mind. However I just ask the believers if they also keep an open mind. It works both ways. That is why I ask that the words God and HP should be removed so that all can achieve sobriety through AA.

    • Roger says:

      Hi Duncan: About the Catholic mass no longer being said in Latin. That changed in 1965 with Vatican II, when the Church adopted this Declaration of Religious Freedom:

      All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others.

      Perhaps AA needs something like this, because in spite of your comment that AA is “available for all,” there are still regressive Intergroups banning agnostic groups.

      • Duncan says:

        Hi Roger, It’s a good idea to have some sort of declaration as the Catholics had. However I am unsure if it would do any good. Yes of course AA is for everyone but you would never think so. It is not only about regressive intergroups, but members too.

        I have seen many alcoholics who do believe that they are miracles and that their God /HP intervened in their life and made them sober. I don’t think I can alter that and nor would I want to. They believe that they are right and their story must be told exactly as they think it was.

        However ours must be told too.and by this site and at meetings we can tell our stories and softly softy we will catch the monkey.


    • Wayne M. says:

      Thank you for your comments. I do not know where you live or attend meetings but here in Toronto I have been made to feel unwelcome, unwanted and “less than” at more than one meeting. Why would I go somewhere that makes me feel the same things that made me drink in the first place????? I have to go with Roger on this one.
      I do appreciate your optimism though.

      • Manfred says:

        Being an agnostic and having manifested this at my more or less “religious” meetings, I have never felt excluded. Maybe that has to do with the great deal of tolerance that Maritimers, where I live show to everyone.

        The goal is to get sober, something I am having a difficult time with at the moment.

        That is all. Nothing more.


  6. Denis K says:

    Thank you Wayne for sharing your very powerful message.
    Very early in my sobriety my sponsor told me I could stay sober under any and all conditions regardless of finances, health, family acceptance, employment, material wealth or any other situation; to be succesful with sobriety, conditions had no place in the equation.
    Over the years people such as yourself have demonstrated “any and all conditions sobriety” with quiet dignity and higher purpose that has touched me with gratitude and pride that I am part of our fellowship.
    Best wishes to you Wayne.

  7. Marian S. says:

    Real, raw and rigorously honest.

    Thank you, Wayne.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Wonderful story, Wayne, and I salute you for your intention despite the pain and difficulty of dealing with your cancer, of staying sober, while practicing your “Higher Purpose” no matter what! That’s what continues to give me hope.

    I’ve experienced the gift of recovery (from whence I know not, and more and more I don’t care to know or understand where it came/comes from) as I keep experiencing “daily – sometimes breath by breath – reprieves” for over 41 years because I don’t pick up and I go to meetings to share experience, strength and hope – also, despair, rage, frustration, and resentments – with other drunk/druggies. That’s what keeps me sober.

    For me, the essence of the recovery process is what you’ve discovered by pursuing your higher purpose in helping others at Renascent. That’s what happened when Ebby came and spoke to Bill. That’s what happened when Bill met with Bob in the Henrietta Sieberling’s Gatehouse – I’ve had the privilege to sit at the same table where Bill and Bob sat. There is a description there of what happened. Bill looked at Bob, who was only going to stay 15 – 20 minutes max, and said words to the effect, “I’m not here to get you sober – I’m here to tell you my story so that I stay sober. If you get sober that’s fine, but I have to share with another alcoholic so that I don’t drink.” That’s what captivated Bob – he wasn’t being preached to, he was told a story by someone who had been as desperate as he was. They spoke for something like four hours that first meeting!

    The program is regressing, in my not so humble opinion, into the rigidity of early 20th Century revivalist religiosity that was PART of what happened in Akron and Cleveland. I’m powerless over that, but I’m not powerless about going to meetings and speaking my truth of being a confirmed agnostic whose leaning more and more into atheism due to the rabidly rigid proclamations that one MUST find GOD in order to get and stay sober – I want no truck with any god of any religion that demands such cessation of the gifts of the mental processes I’ve been given, along with my sobriety, from whence I know not, but like you, Wayne, no matter what, I practice my higher purpose of being a positive example of someone with long-term sobriety who does it without religion of any ilk, spirituality maybe, because I do pray affirmations, mostly to calm my ragged nerves, and also meditate. I read and study spiritual stuff too, most of it non-conference approved, from all the wisdoms traditions around the world, about which our species have speculated for the last several thousand years.

    Being Scotch-Irish, of late, I’m exploring my Celtic roots, pre-St. Patrick, that is – I’m much more comfortable with a perhaps sacred goddess that I don’t understand than I am with any male god who commands that he and only he be worshipped and killed for . . .

  9. bob k. says:

    Thank you for such an articulate expression of feelings and experiences common to so many of us. Some years back, in an exercise of “faking openmindedness,” I purchased and read Rick Warren’s book, “A Purpose Driven Life.”

    Although the Reverend and I have little to agree about, it is unsatisfying to be “purposeless.”

    Abstinence from alcohol does not eliminate my problems – merely changes them. For some time I followed the cycle so well described in “THE DOCTOR’S OPINION.” In spite of very SERIOUS reasons to stay away from liquor, I am driven back to drinking by the unpleasantness of sobriety.

    Fortunately, for me, I was able to suppress my disdain for the much that I didn’t like about AA, to take advantage of the therapy that comes from a very secularized version of what is available.

    Many years later, I have a life of sober contentment. I continue to be involved, trying to shine a light for those repelled by the religiosity. It’s good to have a purpose.

  10. Susan says:

    Great share Wayne. Love the concept of a higher purpose. Thanks so much!

  11. Les C. says:

    To Wayne, and all others: Thanks to Ernie Kurtz and Roger, I am a new member of AA Agnostica, and appreciate the openness of each discussion. As some of you know I am a native “Vermonter” so geographically I’m sort of close to you who live in Canada. In this current discussion I’d like to contribute the thought (fact) that Bill Wilson, as a child rebelled against formal religion and had the great intellectual support/mentoring by Mark Whalon who was by all measures an agnostic. As Bill was drafting the 12-steps he still had lots of questions about just what his spiritual beliefs were. Remember… Allegedly, his expression at Towns Hospital when he had the ‘white-light’ experience was: “If there be a God, let him express himself”. As I gained knowledge about AA beginning in 1994, I developed a lot of empathy for Bill’s mixed beliefs because I was raised in a small Vermont town, Arlington, just like Bill in East Dorset. These are only about 20 miles apart and the cultures were/are very similar. It surprises me a good bit, that there is so much emphasis, over time and in so many areas and in the 12-steps, upon the word GOD (even though softened by those words “as you understand him”), considering Bill’s wise caution that the ONLY important reason to be associated with AA is the wish to become sober! It is refreshing that there has been a growth of free-thinkers and open-mindedness evidenced in these posts.

    [Editor’s note: Les is the author of Rogers Burnham: The Original Man Behind Bill W., and wrote an article for AA Agnostica called When did I become an alcoholic?]

    • Tommy H says:

      Welcome, Les.

      I’ve been here about a week and really like it.

      Les has a unique perspective on A.A. history.

    • Denis K says:

      Thank you Les for your wonderful posts, you are a breath of fresh air and a great new member of our Agnostica community.
      I am currently enjoying “Rogers Burnham, The original man behind Bill W.” I spent two rewarding hours today with the book, marvelous!

  12. steve b says:

    I don’t have a higher power or a higher purpose; I just want to live a fairly normal life, and I know I can’t do that while drinking. Fortunately, I have been sober for many years and I do have a reasonably good life. I continue to participate in AA, and I suppose it continues to help me, but it’s hard to tell, and I strongly suspect that if I left it for good I’d be fine. But I think it’s good for me to be around people, and I do get something out of the meetings from time to time, so I guess I’ll stay for the time being.

    • realneal says:

      So many old timers have dropped out of AA, myself included for periods of time. I am glad that they were there when I came in.

  13. Dan L. says:

    Thank you Wayne for putting something so close to my own thoughts into print. I too could not comprehend a higher power being involved in my recovery. Was my problem so huge that only the whole power of the whole universe could change it? Was I so mighty that only God Herself could fix me? Talk about humility:

    I have a substance abuse problem. I demand to speak
    to God immediately! Heaven we have a problem!

    I am just a person who used alcohol to change the world about me. It worked so well I became addicted to alcohol. To recover I had to change me so I could fit into the world and regain my purpose in society.
    AA and others helped me to try to do this by making myself want to be sober instead of drunk. I have been accused by the devout for taking credit for something I did not do by myself. What possible response is there to this kind of statement? Of course I needed help. I got from the people in AA.

  14. larry k says:

    What a great message…from a great member! You have spoken plainly about your experience, strength, hope and perserverance!

  15. Manfred says:

    I am 67 years old, and I have been addicted to alcohol since the age of 18. There was a time that I was sober for 12 years, but my higher power being me, I slipped, as they say, since my higher power could control my drinking. It could not. I have been going to meetings off and on, even speaking at times; I stay sober for maybe three, sometimes almost six months, and then my higher power assures me that I can slip for a day or two. Sometimes that day or two is indeed a day or two; sometimes it is a month.

    During meetings (meetings in this area of Canada are very conservative, very God oriented), I sometimes voice my skepticism as far as a higher power is concerned. My friends listen; they do not comment.

    So here I am again, being drunk after six months of sobriety. I got your e-mail, and I am just grateful that I can write you. I have the remains of a stash of vodka that I feel guilty not to finish. Maybe that is my higher power.

    I pray for humility.

    • Dorothy H. says:

      Dear Tommy;

      I am so happy that you found this site and feel that there are others out there who you can relate too. I also encourage you to seek out We Agnostics and Freethinker (WAFT) meetings in your area.

      I have personally seen 70-year-old newcomers come into my home group and remain sober. Anyone at any age can get sober. Stay in there we are here for you.

  16. Tommy H says:

    If there is a higher purpose in life, it is what we give it, not something that comes down from above.

    I confound people in mtgs occasionally when I state that the word supernatural is not in A.A.’s basic texts and that the word god is dog spelled backwards. I am in my seventies and my third decade of sobriety and can get away with it. I am also known to ask smokers if their god is so powerful, why can’t it relieve their compulsion to smoke.

    However, the reason I go to A.A. is to stay sober.

    A really well put post, Wayne. Thanks for posting it.

    • realneal says:

      I ask smokers the same thing… I came to AA 30 years and was a believer at the time. In any case, I used the principles of the program to get off tobacco. I get very frustrated at all of the people that are killing themselves with it. I have seen a few people in the fellowship die of lung cancer including one just a couple of weeks ago. So sad.

  17. Joe C says:

    Not to be too tongue-in-cheek, but as it was written, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change…”

    It is good to be skeptical (curious) but I must say that I was cynical about claims put in writing. It is different for me hearing personal accounts, like Wayne’s. The transformation in AA members translates into hope for me. I heard someone say at a meeting last night that his treatment counselor gave them a Big Book and told them to read the back first. And as it turned out for him, he wasn’t resistant to the experience of others and he, too, found hope from others like Wayne who found a purpose that was higher than drinking themselves to death.

    I know Wayne and I always look forward to what he has to say on pretty much any topic. Even if it’s a story or rant or experience I have heard before, like a favorite song, I always enjoy it. At the risk of sounding too much like a groupie, I wouldn’t mind an AA Agnostica with more Wayne.

    • Tommy H says:

      Wilson also told people to read the back first.

      He considered the stories a major force in recruiting.

  18. JHG says:

    The importance of having a higher purpose is too easily lost amidst the fascination with the more ethereal dimensions of spirituality. What is most impressive about Bill W’s account of his white light spiritual experience is not the pyrotechnics of the event but is instead his immediate recognition that he would need to work with other alcoholics. And when Dr Bob remembers his initial encounter with Bill, what stood out for him was not that Bill had a unique plan for getting sober or anything about God, but was instead the empathetic connection. As he put it, “he talked my language.” What Dr Bob most emphasized about his subsequent sober life is that he spent “a great deal of time passing on what I learned to others.”

  19. Lech L. says:

    I am bemused by all the thought that goes into why someone doesn’t drink.

    I have never seen it as much different from not smoking.

    Both are addictions, but I never hear anyone going into lengthy monologues on how the Sacred Steps saved them from a life of cardio-pulmonary disease. Nor how they need a higher purpose to stay away from smokes.

    Colour me simple.

    • Roger says:

      You are so coloured.

    • Jaye says:

      Although both cigarettes and booze can kill, Lech, alcohol is such a mind-altering drug that it affects much more than lungs. It affects one’s happiness, spirit, job, family, ability to think rationally. I’m not sure I know of people who lose their job, family, and home because they smoke. It is not uncommon to hear of such stories with addiction to drugs and alcohol. There is rarely anything simple about getting sober and staying sober. And there are 12-step smoking cessation groups.

  20. Pat N. says:

    Words ARE important, and I like the simple verbal change you’ve created, from “higher power” to “higher purpose”. I hadn’t thought too much about it, but you reminded me that everything I do, from blinking my eyes to buying a house, is done for a reason. Even if some action turns out to be a mistake in some way, I can find some sort of serenity in knowing I did what appeared best at the time, and I can forgive myself. On a good day, I can even forgive others for their mistakes.
    What you’re talking about is love, for self and others, and I think love is the glue that holds the universe together. We’re all roped together as we climb this mountain. Thanks for expressing your experience, and thanks for my sobriety.

Translate »