By John B
Something about 12 Step recovery that continues to pique my interest is how some assertions that make absolutely no sense to me have been endowed with the status of AA infallibility. Very early I was astonished to hear, “my best thinking got me here.” I thought that statement ignored reality; after 36 years of sobriety, I’m still convinced that it was my worst thinking that led to my qualification as an AA member. The persistent warning to guard against a return to “stinking thinking” supports this view.
Another of the maxims clothed in infallibility is this sentence… “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” (Big Book, 4th edition, p. 417) My intent in this essay is to address how I think the concept of ‘acceptance’ is misapplied in the Big Book by Bill Wilson and the doctor who wrote the chapter quoted from above, “Acceptance Was the Answer”. The views by these two authors are in direct confrontation with a non-God approach to recovery. But…
Before I take issue with Mr. Wilson and the doctor, I want to acknowledge how many of my sober friends have applied the concept of acceptance to Step 1, which is the point in recovery where I have heard it shared most frequently. I’d be amazed if you haven’t heard some version of this; it goes like this…”I just couldn’t get Step 1 done thoroughly until I fully accepted that I was an alcoholic. I admitted it to myself and to others, but it took more time for me to fully accept it.” I don’t pretend to know what motivates other alcoholics, what it takes for them to get sober and to stay sober, and my intent is not to engage in a semantic argument concerning any nuance between the meaning of the two words admit and accept. That’s up to each individual. Reason and personal experience lead us to discover what works for us, and it is important to remember that we are under no obligation to accept suggestions based solely on tradition or on some form of self-endowed authority emanating from a self-appointed Big Book guru.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that my major deficiency throughout the four miserable years that I failed to successfully complete Step 1 was lack of honesty. More drinking, more problems, and more pain shoved me over the threshold of honesty just far enough for me to make Step 1’s required admission and that admission placed me on the uninterrupted path of continuous sobriety. The completion of Step 1 quickly made it possible for me to admit the necessity for outside help. I can see where a person might see the influence of acceptance here, but I see it as the gradual awakening and the gradual strengthening of honesty which served to sustain my commitment to start living like a responsible adult. A life worthy of respect. Acceptance was the by-product of honesty, not a derivative of authoritative tradition designed to lead me to a relationship with God as portrayed by the Doc and Mr. Wilson in The Big Book. Without equivocation they both conclude that the most important function of acceptance is to accept the necessity to find God and put Him in charge.
Apparently it was the visit from Ebby Thatcher in late November, 1934, that jump started Wilson’s thinking that reliance on God would rid him of his addiction to alcohol. Having found God through his involvement with the Oxford Group, Thatcher had been able to stay sober for two months prior to his visit with his old friend Bill W, and Bill saw him as a miracle sitting, “across the kitchen table.” (Big Book, p. 11) At this point in his life Bill described his attitude toward God as “intense antipathy”. He tells us he could accept concepts such as, “Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind, or Spirit of Nature, but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens.” (Big Book, p. 12) Less than a month later after the Thatcher visit, Wilson checked into Towns Hospital on December 11, 1934, and it was here that he relinquished control of his life to God. “There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction.” (Big Book, p. 13) Acceptance to Bill pointed in one direction – accept God into his life or remain a slave to alcohol.
I’ve noticed many sober alcoholics recommend that we don’t focus too much on Wilson’s earlier writings and instead concentrate on his later thoughts where he opened up a much wider interpretation to the clause, “as we understood Him”. I’ve done that myself on occasion to validate my own view, but there is a serious problem with that suggestion concerning newcomers. Those later thoughts are to be found in books like As Bill Sees It and The Language of The Heart. Those sources are unknown to raw beginners, and for that matter to a high percentage of Big Book worshipers. The Big Book is still the source placed into the hands of newbies, and there Wilson is all about God. It serves as the opening whammy to slap down any hint that a person might be able to use reason and willpower to build a sober life. Accept God or be a loser.
As a non-believer, freethinking alcoholic I’ve received an abundance of, “there he goes again”, body language in meetings. One certain way to get the eyes rolling is to challenge the validity of this oft quoted favorite of AA infallibility: “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” (Big Book, 4th edition, p. 417) Like Wilson, the Doc emphasizes the need to accept the reliance on God as the driving force that leads to sobriety and also to get squared away to living life in general. The first ten pages of his story makes for a long drunk-drug-a-logue that paints a perfect picture of a high functioning alcoholic/addict. He lays out a vivid picture of his arrogant denial and after seven months of treatment and AA involvement, since he wasn’t staying sober, he decided to have a conversation with God.
The divinely inspired wisdom that ensued was this: “When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the answer, the problem went away. From that moment on, I have not had a single compulsion to drink.”(p. 417) That sounds a lot like what it takes to do Step 1, and that step contains the word admit, not accept. In addition, the sustained commitment necessary to remain focused on “living in the solution” requires action not acceptance. Quite simply, the author conflates acceptance with honesty and the necessity for corrective actions. His famous line, “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today,” is just his intro to his claim that “nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.” (Big Book, p. 417) To finalize this divine contract, he leaves us with this: “Acceptance is the key to my relationship with God today.” (Big Book, p. 420)
My objective has not been to denigrate the varied applications of acceptance that have been useful to many of my sober friends. I too applied acceptance to my own recovery with the belated decision to allow a select group of sober alcoholics to overrule my sick thinking, but I am also convinced that it’s a tool that needs to be used with caution. Over reliance on acceptance can lead to complacency and in the extreme can feed denial. What I had to do was correct the unacceptable attributes I had allowed to dominate my life. Acceptance was a derivative of honesty, not my primary motivator. Acceptance designed to ultimately rely on divine authority can lead to submissiveness, which has the potential to dis-empower the individual. On this count, Bill Wilson and the Doc need to be rejected. Just one more reason to view the Big Book as a museum piece. Look and move on to the next display case.
To date, John has written a total of 16 articles posted on AA Agnostica, five on various sobriety subjects and eleven on the Steps. Here they are:
Acceptance? (October 11, 2020)
Religion Free AA – Is It Possible? (August 9, 2020)
How It Works Without A God (May 31, 2020)
Schaberg’s book on the Big Book – A Few Thoughts (January 22, 2020)
My Recovery in Traditional AA (March 10, 2019)
And now on the Steps:
John’s Recovery: Step Twelve (February 26, 2020)
John’s Recovery: Step Eleven (February 12, 2020)
John’s Recovery: Step Ten (January 29, 2020)
John’s Recovery: Step Nine (January 15, 2020)
John’s Recovery: Step Eight (January 1, 2020)
John’s Recovery: Steps Six and Seven (December 11, 2019)
John’s Recovery: Step Five (November 27, 2019)
John’s Recovery: Step Four (November 13, 2019)
John’s Recovery: Step Three (October 30, 2019)
John’s Recovery: Step Two (October 16, 2019)
John’s Recovery: Step One (September 18, 2019)
John is an eighty-four year old sober alcoholic with 36 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 54 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.