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.


14 Responses

  1. Tom K. says:

    This is why Dr Bob told Bill and us all to keep it simple. Cherry picking and twisting meanings always work for those who want to tear something apart. My best thinking is more sarcasm than anything and almost everyone understands that and AA never claims infallibility, just those who think they are as individuals and those who accuse those who trigger fear in themselves.

    RULE 62 baby!!! And have a great day, really.

  2. John B. says:

    Thomas – Whatever label you want to use, the meaning of the words remain intact. Please let me and the other readers know what your view is. John B.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Cherry-picking lines from the big book can support my view or not.


  4. Jackie K says:

    Very good article about accepting vs admitting. I am 26 years sober and put the Big Book away a long time ago, now practicing the 4 Nobel Truths and the 8-fold path of the Buddhist teachings vs the 12 steps. The same principles, but without a god.

  5. Doc says:

    One of the problems that I have at times in AA is that actual thinking is discouraged. Part of this comes from the rigid application of some of the dogma, including the idea that people can only get sober with the help of the supernatural. While the idea of acceptance has its place in sobriety, the rigid application of this concept to all problems does not seem logical.

  6. James J. says:

    John B,

    Thank you for your article. After 20 years in a “bad marriage” of sorts (traditional AA!) I am finally moving into some resemblance of true sanity with a breath of fresh air. Even hearing, “…God as we understood Him” is still is a kick in the pants to an agnostic like me. The Big Book might as well be renamed the “Book of Him”!

  7. Eric says:

    Thank you John B. for taking the time to write this article. One of the ideas that really got my attention: “Acceptance was the by-product of honesty…” I must have read it 10 times. It was one of those ideas, that for me, really made me think and go, “huh, that really makes sense.”

    I am deconstructing my initial take on AA after many years of sobriety and ‘coming out’ atheist last year. There is much I’ve heard over the years that needs to be re-examined. Articles like this one help me sort the silly from the sane. Thanks again.

  8. Lisa M says:

    I liked the part about “my best thinking”. I always hated that line “my best thinking got me here” (as in, so God will get you out of it). The reason being that Alcohol impairs Pre Frontal Cortex function in the brain… and guess where the thinking occurs? So really, while drinking I wasn’t thinking. There is so much science behind this such as “The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that helps us decide whether we should take actions or not,” said John J. Woodward, a professor in the department of neurosciences and the Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs at the Medical University of South Carolina. “It weighs the relative risks and benefits of our behavior and normally protects us from risky or dangerous actions or those that may be inappropriate during social situations. When the PFC is damaged or its activity is decreased, behavior can change dramatically and people can lose much of their inhibition and ability to weigh the consequences of their actions.”

    I just could not be blind to the science and listen to the stuff spouted in Trad AA meetings. I appreciate your wonderful articles, John!

  9. David W says:

    Unfortunately AA has adopted an approach where ideas and beliefs are presented as if there were rigid truths that are chiseled in granite. The result is meetings where people either are intimidated into keeping their differing opinions to themselves or explaining why they don’t agree with a god centric perspective. I’d much rather hear people tell me what works for them in recovery rather than what doesn’t work for them. I wish we could neutralize the literature and remove the things that so many people seem to trip over. It’s lunacy having to create an acronym to replace the god word with. Recovery is hard enough without creating unnecessary rules and constructs and insisting people put their intellect and common sense on the shelf and blindly accept them. A lot of people who have found secular AA for the first time on-line due to the pandemic seem to be in recovery not just from alcoholism but from Traditional Big Book AA.

  10. Bill D says:

    Right on Bob. I just insert a comma after the no and it works for me. =))

  11. Bill D says:

    After 8 weeks sober and regular attendance at AA meetings, I thought it was a good idea to buy a jug to have at home for my friends that could safely drink. (I had drinking acquaintances not friends and none were of the safe variety.) Five minutes later I threw the cap out the car window and in a state of abject despair “accepted” that I was going to drink till it killed me.

    Remember a time not too long ago when if you purchased a ticket for an event, a movie, concert, even a circus etc, and examining the stub you’d notice the words ‘Admit One’? See, I thought ‘admitted we were powerless over alcohol’ meant telling a roomful of AA members that I was an alcoholic named Bill was what admitting was all about. No not entirely. Allowing entry to the honesty that booze had me down, was not going to let me up, and was going to kill me was the admission required. The first step (for me) was no magic moment. It was a lonely terrifying place to be and led to the second step: I need help; to the third: I’m going to try the AA program in hopes that I can stay sober for just today.

    This past week I learned that I have exudative (wet) macular degeneration of my left eye. Acceptance wasn’t the answer, admitting I need help was.
    Happy trails to all till we meet again.

  12. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the essay John. I would posit that my best thinking got me to AA free of any clever irony. When the jig was up I got help and here I am. I believe that acceptance is the beginning and not the end of sobriety. Acceptance of reality is a fundamental for me. That doesn’t involve capricious yet somehow benevolent “higher power”. I believe that Bill was obsessed with the idea of “Power” and I can follow his idea of God assisting in the internal power struggle that is recovery. It doesn’t work for me but I have no doubt it works for some.

    At any rate acceptance is just the start. After accepting we must choose a course of action – as per Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”. We must incorporate acceptance of the unchangeable into our attitude and approach or we must set out to change the things that need to be changed. I accepted I was an alcoholic some considerable time before I decided I did not want to behave like one anymore. Thus I essentially took ten or more years to complete step one in about a minute. Acceptance got me nowhere until the desire for change overpowered it.

  13. bob k says:

    The “Acceptance is the answer” quotation is something I hear less often as the years pass. At one time, I claimed it was the most frequently quoted line from the Bigga Booka. The most frequently misquoted line is: “(b) That no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.” The word “probably” is left out more often than not, presumably because it only confuses newcomers.

    In the modern era, I see BB thumpers dissing “acceptance.” For one thing, it comes in the story section which is generally ignored by the worshipers of the “First 164.” Further, acceptance as the answer conflicts with working the Steps exactly as written as being the answer.

    “God as we understood Him” isn’t helpful to me. As one raised in the prevailing Christianity of the North American culture, my understanding of God is much as described in the BB. I rejected all that long before coming to AA. Of the helpful resources I’ve used in AA, not one is anything I would call “God.”

    I wrote a few weeks ago about the very brief shelf-life of non-God “higher Powers” in AA. That might be worth a glance for those who missed it — “Sleight of Hand; Slight on Inclusivity.”

    AA’s solution is theistic. Non-theists need to tap dance like Gene Kelly.

  14. Darrell D. says:

    Yes my best thinking got me here. My drunkenness and being sober is a gift that my thinking got me here I love my life. With my drunkenness I have the power to help others. Thank You. 53 years of my best thinking kept me here sober.

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