essay on Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous. As readers of Bad Lawyer know, I am an alcoholic and I attend AA meetings sometimes twice a day--and, previously for many years beginning in the mid-1980s.
"The first implication of [the Wired Magazine] essay is that we should get used to the idea that we will fail most of the time. Alcoholics Anonymous has stood the test of time. There are millions of people who fervently believed that its 12-step process saved their lives. Yet the majority, even a vast majority, of the people who enroll in the program do not succeed in it. People are idiosyncratic. There is no single program that successfully transforms most people most of the time.
The second implication is that we should get over the notion that we will someday crack the behavior code — that we will someday find a scientific method that will allow us to predict behavior and design reliable social programs. . . Each member of an A.A. group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another.
Nonetheless, we don’t have to be fatalistic about things. It is possible to design programs that will help some people some of the time. A.A. embodies some shrewd insights into human psychology.
In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness. In a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, A.A. relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another — learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort.
In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but A.A. allows each local group to form, adapt and innovate. There is less quality control. Some groups and leaders are great; some are terrible. But it also means that A.A. is decentralized, innovative and dynamic.
Alcoholics have a specific problem: they drink too much. But instead of addressing that problem with the psychic equivalent of a precision-guidance missile, Wilson set out to change people’s whole identities. He studied William James’s 'The Varieties of Religious Experience.' He sought to arouse people’s spiritual aspirations rather than just appealing to rational cost-benefit analysis. His group would help people achieve broad spiritual awakenings, and abstinence from alcohol would be a byproduct of that larger salvation.
In the business of changing lives, the straight path is rarely the best one. A.A. illustrates that even in an age of scientific advance, it is still ancient insights into human nature that work best. Wilson built a remarkable organization on a nighttime spiritual epiphany."
Let me make a further point or perhaps a clarification that I made on Bad Lawyer a short time ago; the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is absolutely explicit: alcoholics suffer from a mental obsession that is characterized by drinking alcoholically. In other words there is: (1. a drinking problem; and, (2. a thinking problem. It is simplistic to think that arresting the one problem solves the other problem. People active in AA know that you get sobriety only when both problems are addressed in tandem--and this can only be accomplished by following a "program of recovery" that consists of nothing short of cognitive restructuring. In sum: stop drinking, and change your whole life.