A power greater than ourselves

Step 2

By Mykel P.

The second step of AA reads as follows: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”.

Perhaps a sensible approach would be to break down the statement into its component molecules and to define key words in the understanding that this step is meant to guide the suffering alcoholic to a path that leads inexorably toward recovering from a hopeless state of mind and body brought on by chronic alcoholism.

The first few words of this statement, “came to believe”, implies to me that this is not an event but rather a journey, a part of a process. It does not state that one must immediately have an epiphany that provides an instantaneous and miraculous “conversion” but rather involves a gradual expedition, an evolution of one’s core belief system which enables alcoholics to solve their drink problem, and to transform their lives for the better.

Secondly, the necessity of “a power greater than ourselves” is of great importance, something which many an alcoholic of the hopeless variety (such as myself) will understand all too well.

Over the years I have heard many times that “will power” is inadequate to provide the necessary leverage for the cessation of the uncontrollable consumption of alcohol. A personal favorite that I have heard and even utilize in my own repartees is the use of will power in the midst of an uncontrollable fit of diarrhea.

The concept of “a power greater than ourselves” is often understood as a supernatural, hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional being often referred to as some sort of a god. In our 21st century western culture this implies the existence of the trinity of YHWH (Yahweh), Yesu han-nostri (Jesus the Nazarene) and the Holy Spirit/Ghost as being a single entity. How this is not polytheism, especially coupled with all the angels and saints, confounds me. But people are entitled to their beliefs and I would even encourage this if it assists the individual in recovering from the hopeless state of mind and body that is alcoholism as long as they are peaceful about it and do not condemn every other faith – or lack of faith – to an eternity of torturous existence in hell. In fact, there are times when I envy people of faith such as my father, but it would seem that such blind faith is something I am incapable of.

As Richard Dawkins quite poignantly put it in the opening remark of chapter 2 in his book The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Professor Dawkins actually intended to open this chapter with a bit of wit and humor, but the multitudes of believers in the mythology contained in the Old Testament did not find this statement very humorous at all. That being said, I have studied the mythological literature of the Arabian Peninsula region of the early centuries of antiquity in depth for roundabout a decade, and after close study of the literature known in our modern society as the “Old Testament”, I find Professor Dawkins to be completely correct in his analysis.

That being said, the Jesus figure, whether he actually existed or not (there is compelling evidence on both sides of the debate), miracles aside (such as a virgin birth), was given credit for important comments concerning morality and how we should live our lives and treat our fellow homo-sapiens. The relationship I have developed with this historical Jesus figure and his moral teachings (which closely resemble the moral teachings of the Buddha) have had a great impact on my life.

Obviously, when it comes to the god of the Bible (YHWH) I am not only an outspoken atheist, but I am proud to be one. As many atheists, when I came out of the closet it did irreparable damage between me and many of my family members as well as with my other relationships, both personal and professionally.

As a person with an inquisitive mind who subscribes to the steadfast truths birthed out of the scientific method, I cannot possibly be one hundred percent atheist; I mean who really knows for certain? I believe that it is highly improbable that there is a creator god, especially one who bothers to interact with our tiny little species (likely soon to be extinct) on a miniscule piece of rock hurling through the vastness of our galaxy which itself compared to the vastness of the entire cosmos, is but a single drop of water in comparison with the oceans on this planet.

And to anthropomorphize this god as a “He” is inexcusably egocentric and misogynistic. The entire concept of a being who created the universe leaves me astonished. Not only do people believe they know the one true path, but they have historically murdered one another over such differences in this belief on a scale that would make Hitler envious. Stalin said that the death of a man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is merely a statistic. So the “statistics” of those murdered in the name of religions of all types throughout history is prodigiously in the starring role of such sadness.

I have gone into some detail as to why I do not subscribe to the god YHWH any more than I do unicorns, fairies or leprechauns in an enchanted forest. But I do respect that if belief in such notions as supernatural beings helps a person toward a better path, then I am all for it regardless of which god(s) they choose to pledge allegiance to and blindly worship.

My higher power is the literature (a lot, but not all) in AA; the program that has developed as a result of the pioneers that assisted in the creation of this solution for alcoholism, a program which has helped millions; and especially the people, those that would not ordinarily mix, who come together usually in love and solidarity that we may solve our common problem.

Finally, as for the last part of the step, the “restoration to sanity”, I haven’t the slightest clue what sanity means exactly. A simple definition comes from Merriam-Webster which I can relate to:

Sanity (from Latin: sānitās): the condition of having a healthy mind: the condition of being sane: the condition of being based on reason or good judgment.

Although my “reason or good judgment” is not on par with the most responsible and together persons I have ever met in my life, my parents, I can relate to it this way and especially in the exemplary example they set for me.

I have been down the path of many alcoholics of the hopeless variety, living on the streets, sleeping in homeless shelters when I was lucky enough to get a bed, standing in lines at soup kitchens to get a meal, plenty of time in jails and prisons, and drinking/drugging myself nearly to death. Worse yet, a severely underweight and malnourished shell of a sick person, when I would get my hands on a few dollars it went to buy alcohol or drugs rather than a hot meal.

That is total and complete insanity.

Right now as I type this essay, I do not have a swanky nice home, but a decent 5th wheel trailer in a quiet neighborhood (a far cry better than a park bench). All my bills for the month are paid; I have enough food to get me through the month and can even afford food for my dog and enough gas to get me through the next few weeks (I hope). And even though this month’s bills have cost me nearly every penny I have, I am learning to do something I have not ever been able to do in my entire life’s history while staring at the bottom of a bottle – and that is to live on a budget and within my means.

There is still, I believe, quite a bit of effort and guidance for me to follow in order to improve my situation further – so I do not know if I am becoming sane but even though I cannot afford to go out to a movie or a steak dinner, I have a bed to sleep in, a pot to piss in with a shower right next to it, a small living room with a TV (no cable or even local channels), and a couple of computers with high speed internet where I get my entertainment, a small kitchen with a fridge and freezer with a little food in it, and even a telephone.

And without what I refer to as my “higher power”, none of this would be possible. It has been work on my part, but mostly a gift given to me by the grace of the love of the support groups I have, people of differing belief systems, blue and white collar workers – without a doubt groups of rouges who most definitely would not mix in their old lives but it is through the love and solidarity of these beautiful motley groups of wonderful people who come together that I have been given the gifts I so enjoy at this stage in my life. And even the times, the many times I have relapsed in the past three decades, I keep coming back to open arms.

Those people have helped me to rid myself of shame and, as time goes by, when I stand in front of a mirror I find myself slowly becoming less disgusted with the person I see staring back at me. Perhaps I remain ninety percent disgusted with the image staring back, but the eradication of the ten percent is a testament to the remarkable power of love and kindness that can often be found in those circles of hope that draws me as a moth to a flame, not to burn in the fiery pit of alcoholism, but so that I may have a chance to live, to become a better person and to loathe myself a little less at periodic intervals.

In closing, I can honestly state that “I have come to believe in a power greater than myself that can restore me to sanity”. Even though I am still not certain what sanity is, it is this power that is greater than myself that leaves me with a passionately grateful sense of appreciation that I am not living the life I experienced in the past and I can be hopeful that I will never have to return to the demoralizing existence and the self-loathing person I was in the past. To sum up, most simply put: the higher power for me is the program and the groups as well as the service work I am able to take part in from time to time in the facet of 12 step calls, chairing meetings, giving other alcoholics a lift to a meeting or sharing in our fellowship afterward.

Mykel is an alcoholic who has had the compulsion to consume alcohol virtually taken from him. There were many years of relapse back and forth, treatment centers galore, prison, and he has even died, and been resuscitated, in hospitals. There was one occasion when he was in a coma and his fundamentalist young earth creationist family members (three of whom are Pastors) were told to make funeral arrangements.

Mykel could not fake his way into believing in any sort of anthropomorphic type of a god pulling our human strings, and that belief drove him away from AA many times. As an atheist through and through, the secular 12 steps he discovered on AA Agnostica assisted him greatly in finding a way to navigate the program simply by a change of semantics, and that is now working for him wonderfully. His past professional life included doing television production work and he was also a skydiving instructor for many years; he has over 4,000 skydives. Even though he has retired from that vocation, Mykel hopes sobriety will ultimately get him back into the air for some fun one day. At a time.

19 Responses

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you so much!

  2. Christopher G says:

    The word believe or belief has two ambiguous meanings for me, an old one and a new one. The old one, which still pops up in my thinking and is outdated, is one that means adopting someone or something else’s view, something outside of myself. The new one is rooted in the fact of my own experience. When I came to the fellowship of AA with a desire to stop drinking, I stopped drinking! Period! AA, the fellowship, was sufficient to remove the obsession, actually, it replaced it. I like to say that my first 5th step was that first meeting when I said out loud to others that, “I’m alcoholic” even though I was parroting to fit in. I find all the steps to be incremental and not absolute, that I tend to beat myself up over not perfecting them, but not so much now. Coming to believe is a continuum as aforementioned, and it is based now on my own personal experience, often influence by others’ experience but solidly rooted in mine. Thanks for writing and thanks to all others for their insightful and thought provoking shares.

  3. Eric T. says:

    Thanks very much Mykel, I appreciate your perspective and thoroughly enjoyed this post!

  4. Greg H. says:

    My own 12th Step work is primarily focused on newcomers who can still follow my own example and quit drinking while their story belongs in “They Stopped in Time.” The biggest problem I have with the Steps is that the way in which they are worded almost always obscures the actual point of “working” each step, and therefore often makes them appear either irrelevant or impossible.

    To my way of thinking, the fundamental point of Step One is simply to say to oneself, “I want to quit drinking.” That can be for any reason at all. In my own case, it was not because my life had already become unmanageable, because it hadn’t. I could just see the writing on the wall, having watched my grandfather slowly work his way through the progressive stages of alcoholism and eventually die from it. So 13 years ago I decided to be proactive and keep my own life from becoming unmanageable the way his ultimately did.

    It was vitally important to me that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking, and I definitely had that. Reading “The Doctor’s Opinion” on the morning of my sobriety date clinched that for me, and I went to my first AA meeting ever that evening. I did not have to become a low bottom drunk of the hopeless variety first. On the other hand, I have met newcomers to AA who had no problem admitting they were “powerless over alcohol” and also that their “lives had become unmanageable,” but they still did not really want to quit drinking. They matched the wording of Step One, but they never got the underlying point. Needless to say, they never stayed sober for long unless they changed their mind about that. Obviously, nobody is ever going to quit drinking and stay quit until after they have made the decision to do so for themselves, so getting the actual point of Step One is absolutely indispensable for lasting recovery.

    Having taken Step One, I could see that the entire point of Step Two is simply to say to oneself, “I’m sure I can quit drinking.” If believing in some kind of “higher power” who will somehow “fix” us makes it possible for someone to say that, then fine, whatever it takes. If using the example of other sober members of AA as a source of inspiration makes it possible, then that’s just as good. In my own case, it had never even occurred to me that I couldn’t quit if I wanted to, because I had never tried to quit and failed. I must have been right about that, because I have never experienced a single slip or relapse. So getting what I see as the fundamental point of Step Two was a total no-brainer for me.

    Finally, as I see it, the fundamental point of Step Three is simply to say to oneself, “Okay then, fine, I have quit drinking. That last drink I took, that’s it, that’s the last drink I’m ever going to have, period, end of story. And if hanging around with this bunch of screwballs in AA can somehow help me make sure that I never change my mind about that, then by golly that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

    So there, as I see it, you have the actual underlying points of Steps One, Two and Three in a nutshell, regardless of how they may be worded: “I want to quit. I can quit. I have quit.” Any way you can get there is fine, so long as you get there. It’s really just that simple.

    • Katie A says:

      Greg H what an amazing comment I am right there with you. I really have no words to express how much I agree with you, you truly have validated a lot of what I believe in. Thanks so much for your incredible post. Katie A

    • Joe B. says:

      Greg H. Thank you for clarifying the first three steps. I have benn putting undue pressure on myself through my rather dogmatic interpretation of them. Indeed, I think a relapse was on its way since I was continually beating myself up because of a sense that I was not “in acordance” with the full requirements of these steps. I feel a weight has been lifted from me. Again, thank you for making simple what I had made complex.

  5. Faith R. says:

    Thanks, Mykel, for your clear words about your journey regarding step 2. I totally relate to what you’ve said so well. I’ve been sober in AA since 1978. I found that my path became more agnostic as time went on, and in the past six months culminating in actually “becoming” openly agnostic in the AA groups I attend. Not in a belligerent way but more as a statement of fact and only when it was in connection with something under discussion. At first I was frightened about even mentioning it. However, since honesty is part of our AA code, I have become more open about it. Even started a “We Agnostics” meeting here, and have announced it at the meetings I attend. I think people saw me as secular anyway. Now I don’t say prayers at the end of AA meetings. I do hold hands. I think the people connection is important for me and others. People seem to act the same way towards me as they did in the past. I feel that people in AA have always been kind to me with only a very rare exception. I love that we can allow our perceptions about the steps and our interpretations of them to evolve as we grow in the program.

  6. Jo says:

    Mykel, A wonderful post. A wonderful man. Incredibly inspiring and articulate. Thank you. Jo

  7. Thom L says:

    Good article! For years I’ve been identifying my “higher power” as the power of acceptance – one that I have to activate. At the WAAFT convention in November, I heard people talk about a “deeper” power. I like this – less hierarchical, reminds me it’s an inside job.

  8. Skip D says:

    I found a couple of alternative versions of this step that are helpful in describing what happened to me.

    First the Humanist version by B. F. Skinner: “2. We believe we must turn elsewhere for help.”

    Second, a Buddhist-inspired version: “2. Came to believe that a power other than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

    Both of them get rid of the idea of the power being ‘greater’ than me; an arbitrary, judgmental quality with strong religious parallels.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks Mykel or sharing your ESH with us. In my early days in AA I became a born again Catholic for a while, then a Unitarian, then played with Buddhism before bursting into an unlabelled joy.

    AA has given me the freedom to do all of this, have thoughts and changing beliefs over the years. Have the odd kerfuffle with AA bible & BB thumpers, but overall this magnificent freedom from the chains of my alcoholism is a gift I cherish, that is my HP, not an anthromorphic old white guy in the sky clutching rules and spouting insanities.

    The responsibility pledge remains, for me, one of the most profound writings ever.

  10. steve b says:

    Nice essay. I don’t consider AA or anything about AA as a higher power, because, for me, a higher power implies religion and supernaturalism. I just say that AA helps me stay sober, and I am much happier with that characterization. I am not envious of religious believers; I consider them irrational and deluded. And, it isn’t hard for me realize now how insane I thought and acted as a drunk. It’s pretty obvious. Compared to how I was then, I am quite sane today.

  11. life-j says:

    thanks. At first i thought ahr! not another argument with step 2, i’m tired of those, but then it turned out really different and an honest account of your own journey which was really uplifting.
    Yet, while i guess we will be forced to argue with step 2 if we remain part of AA, I also think it is futile to always try to bend our own minds to show that we have a higher power because step 2 says we need one to believe in, even while our own experience shows none is necessary, none that goes by that name anyway. We need to believe that we need help from other recovering alcoholics. not even certain that that is absolutely necessary, but at least that is as much as i am able to concede to step two. I would like to get away from *naming* such help higher power, because it buys into the continuum created to insure that little by little we slip and slide over to the real god.

  12. Suzanne says:

    Thank you for your post. Your story is so inspirational.

    I remain so grateful to my Buddhist sponsor for making steps 1,2 and 3 so easy for me. So I’ll pass this on.
    1. Step One is AA’s description of the problem.
    2. Step Two is AA’s description of their solution.
    3. Step Three is my decision: Do I commit to work steps 4 thru 9 in order to work thru and get rid of all my resentments, so I won’t be driven to drink again.
    This is just a yes/no

    So for Step 2 Bill writes that the obsession of the mind that tells us it’s okay to take that first drink is our “alcoholic insanity”.
    Example: Page 154: “…it was the old, insidious insanity – that first drink.”

    For me it took a good 3 years and some big crisis situations before I realized and accepted that my obsession to take that first drink was “lifted”… it just disappeared. I hadn’t had one thought or urge to “take a drink just to take the edge off” etc.

    I went on to work steps 4 thru 9 very thoroughly. The power of this process has helped me rid myself of deep hatred of being raised by alcoholic/addicts and it helps me today to work thru my anger and accept life as it is, not as I wish it were! lol

    Personally I attribute the lifting of my obsession to the complete surrender I experienced in hitting bottom and turning myself into a treatment center hospital.

    I attribute my recovery to the steps, which are very powerful for any person who is desperate enough to work them. While the transformation feels miraculous, I attribute my transformation to the power of this process.

    I am in awe of those of you who have found recovery in the AA meetings and the power of human fellowship. And I am available to guide anyone who wants it through the steps in a simple, effective, non-thesistic way.


    In the Fellowship of Loving Kindness,

  13. Gordy says:

    I agree with the sentiments expressed, and find that being forthright about my views diffuses the opposition. Let all believe what they need to. I went from a belief in R. Catholic theology to atheism while in the rooms, and sobriety hasn’t suffered any – DOS = 8/26/89. Arguments and debates belong outside, and after the meetings. That works.
    Interestingly, this month’s (March 2015) Grapevine is dedicated to the 2nd step, and atheism and agnosticism are fairly represented! Perhaps things do change for the better.

  14. JP says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I believe in the steps and believe that through thoughtful and searching examination each individual can find a way to use them in their sobriety. Especially liked this comment:

    But people are entitled to their beliefs and I would even encourage this if it assists the individual in recovering from the hopeless state of mind and body that is alcoholism as long as they are peaceful about it and do not condemn every other faith – or lack of faith – to an eternity of torturous existence in hell.

    I totally agree… believe in whatever you need to, just leave me the hell alone about my beliefs.
    All the best.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    Ah, Mykel – THANK YOU !~!~!

    You exquisitely express what my “spiritual”journey, trudging the road of uncertain destiny has been since I was gifted – I know not by whom or what – with recovery thru the Fellowship of AA in 1972.

    I have recently begun to describe myself as an agnostic atheist – just as I cannot definitely prove that a god/goddess/supreme being exists, I likewise cannot know for certain or prove that one does not exist. It’s an ineffable mystery way above my pay grade to know one way or the other.

    I strive, with lots of resistance at times, to practice our code of love and tolerance – starting with myself – towards all who attend our circles of fellowship, and, like you, I am sometimes most envious of those who are so certainly comforted by their ardent belief in their one, true lord of the Kosmos and all being…

  16. Bill C. says:

    It’s hardly a step, but an overview.

  17. Steve says:

    Absolutely fantastic post. THANK YOU!

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