1. Introduction: Alcohol, Alcoholism, Acceptance, and Me
I sometimes think that everything I know we learned from booze.
It started when I entered Alcoholics Anonymous (AA.) in 1969, in the basement of a Lutheran church that sat across the street from the Library of Congress’s Shakespeare Library and just a block or so away from the U.S. Supreme Court. The meeting held approximately 10 to 15 persons who met twice a week. I had just a week earlier enrolled in graduate school in Baltimore, and rode the Philly train to school four or five days a week, returning in the evening.
My wife Carole and I lived in the Methodist Building located right next door to the U.S. Supreme Court, a building, as I learned some years later was constructed to house members of Congress who voted for Prohibition and who were pledged to keep it.
This discovery was somewhat startling since my dissertation research on the political consequences of the disease concept of alcoholism, and it was not so long that I found out I had much to learn about alcoholism, alcohol problems and even Prohibition. As it has turned out, alcohol, alcoholism, and alcohol problems play a huge part of the American story, and in my life as well.
I grew up in Texas without much experience with drinking. I didn’t drink in high school, and just barely at the University of Texas my first year, just one night in our residence hall (an ex-Army barracks) where I lived for a few months. Drinking was not permitted until 21 in Texas, and I didn’t make much effort to see what booze was all about. My family didn’t drink and I didn’t even wonder why. Even in the Army, I didn’t drink very much until Korea, and things changed fast. In Korea, at Camp Red Cloud, the nightly entertainment was going to the Enlisted Club and drinking. A bottle of Heineken’s was .25 cents. American beer was .15. A fifth of Tanqueray’s Gin cost $1. Everyone drank Heineken's.
In Korea I drank, a lot, every night, for 13 months, and then I kept that up for the next 10 years, years in which I burned up two marriages to two beautiful women, and leaving a 4-year-old behind in California with her mother. It didn’t help that I wound up working in Washington, D.C. as a representative for a Life Sciences Division of a major aerospace corporation; my job included taking clients or potential clients to lunch or dinner, and having drinks was how we worked. In those days we lived on D Street, S.E., just around the corner from Mr. Henry’s where a schoolteacher by the name of Roberta Flack sang on Sunday afternoons. Then we moved to the Methodist Building about a dozen blocks away, closer to the Union Station that was soon to become a big part of my life as a student at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Homewood Campus.
My wife and I lived for three years in the Methodist Building riding the elevators with members of the House and Senate who also lived there, as their “Washington” residence. I finished a dissertation on the concept of alcoholism as precarious politics while unaware of the ghosts haunting that beautiful building in the Nation’s Capitol. After we moved in, I discovered that The Methodist Building was built to house members of Congress who supported prohibition, an oversight as I wrote my first book, Beyond Alcoholism: Alcohol and Public Health Policy (Temple, 1980).
Today I refer to this period of our life together as “Living Cluelessly in the Methodist Building.” My A.A. meeting was one block away, in the basement of a small Lutheran church. Some of those attending the meeting were staff for Senator Harold Hughes, and one member parked an old Woody at the curb and I discovered later while watching television that he was a United States senator.
2. Acceptance: A Spiritual Practice and Discipline
I am writing about acceptance at the other end of my life, as I am now 80 and living in a small town in Arizona, a town that actually has some links to the Serenity Prayer and our labor strike in Bisbee, a strike supported by the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral, and eventually to the struggle for the nation to accept the necessity to respond to the Nazi and Japanese menace.
Acceptance as I am using the term and as it occurs within the Big Book means something close to “coming to terms” with our problems as they arise from drinking heavily and alcoholically and as necessitating sobriety and non-drinking, and confessing our regrets about the harms we created during our days with alcohol and drinking and to those we harmed. Acceptance as a spiritual practice asks or prays for the compassion and wisdom to avoid the dangers and pitfalls of continuing drinking for those of us who have suffered serious problems with alcohol and alcoholism. It also asks for the strength and compassion to live with acceptance as a stance toward life itself.
3. God Grant Me the Serenity… A.A., Acceptance, and Bisbee, Arizona
The Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, is believed by Niebuhr’s daughter as having it roots in the 1917 mine strike here in Bisbee, and to the response by religious leaders expressing support for the strikers.
Acceptance does not mean a passive “live and let live” stance, but rather an acknowledgment and accounting of the wages of drunkenness and alcoholism and the path of sobriety, and quitting drinking as the only resolution that achieves our fullness and our purpose as human beings and life together.
4. Acceptance As Willingness, Responsibility
Acceptance is the willingness to respond to, to acknowledge and feel unpleasant thoughts, memories, and painful experiences as they haunt us, often years later. Here acceptance does not mean agreement or resignation. Instead, acceptance means to acknowledge thoughts and feelings that trouble us while not attacking those we believe are causing this disturbance.
Memories and thoughts can be based on events and statements of long ago, and that has little bearing on the present situation or present experience, that is often imagined events that never happened, yet the thoughts and feelings persist.
We should calmly accept and respond to these feeling and thoughts as “first drafts” from the past, drafts that should be discarded as outdated and discredited. The key here is our willingness to respond to, acknowledge, and finally to reject such old business. (I think I got the idea of acceptance as “willingness?” from Ann Weiser Cornell's books on acceptance.)
5. Acceptance As Compassion, As Being in the World Together
Another side to acceptance is compassion, or the stance of “suffering with” others who are struggling with their own crises, pasts, and what have you. We must have compassion for ourselves and for others at the same time. More than a head trip, compassion is a bodily or gut feeling more than mental assent. (For a good discussion of what compassion entails see Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus. Meyers describes compassion as an affair of the bowels and the heart rather than the head, as a sign of our connectedness and covenant. Tattoos on My Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Fr. Gregory Boyle, also offers a wonderful treatment of compassion.
6. “Who Are We?”: Anonymity, Alcoholism, and Acceptance
In A.A. our spiritual tradition of anonymity was designed to prevent grandstanding as a sober alcoholic, but it also creates a kind of mystery around the experience of A.A. “What do people talk about in A.A. meetings?”
It might help to recall that non-drinking is practiced by one-third of the adults in the U.S., and the next third of the adult population drinks so little that it is hardly noticeable. So “not-drinking” does not put a person into a tiny minority. Indeed, two-thirds of the American adults either don’t drink at all or drink very infrequently. Most of the alcohol in the U.S. is consumed by 10 to 15 percent of American adults, who drink daily, and we alcoholics fell into that 10 to 15 percent.
Also, we should avoid the fallacy that we are recovering alcoholics because we lack some protective faculty that most other people possess, as ‘social drinkers.” It is the case that we can’t control our drinking, but it doesn’t mean that others who drink regularly without problems do so because they have a capacity to control their drinking that we don't have.
The fact that in the distribution of alcohol consumption, two-thirds of those adults surveyed do not drink or drink only occasionally, does not mean that they have a capacity to drink, while others who drink heavily or addictively do not. This is the fallacy of composition, or what Gilbert Ryle in his The Concept of Mind calls a “category mistake.”
7. Acceptance and Our Story
The story of our personal experiences with drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism is our narrative or account of our experience and struggles with alcohol addiction or alcoholism, what happened during that experience or time, and how and when we entered A.A. and how our sobriety was achieved. This is also the story of our “coming to believe” that we can stop drinking and face life as it occurs without the lubricating lens and feelings of alcohol addiction.
While there is no standard format for structuring our story, usually it includes a kind of “drunk-a-log” reciting the dangerous, heedless, destructive behaviors associated with heavy alcohol use and abuse, and the entry into A.A. for support for the many others who are in the same boat. While it is true that stopping drinking is hard, and that it entails a whole new set of associations, friends, and experiences without alcohol, the great gift of alcoholism is that it teaches us the power of acceptance, especially our acceptance of ourselves as alcoholics, as addicts.
8. Acceptance As “We Are Accepted”
Acceptance more than anything is a stance of openness to the world, to its beauties and its sorrows. That’s why in the A.A. prayer we ask for serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Acceptance is not “taking your medicine,” or swallowing a bitter pill. (Okay, sometimes it may be close to that.) Accepting things that you cannot change hints that, if you could, you may change many, many things. I am getting old (I’m 77) and this does not make me happy. So, is acceptance facing up to reality? Yes, as long as we think of reality as what is the case, and remember, as Byron Katie says, reality rules.
Life itself must be accepted if it is to be fully experienced, enjoyed. Acceptance means to receive the world, to embrace its joys and sorrows. Acceptance means to fully experience life itself as the gift without the giver. Acceptance is the struggle and endurance to reach the end, which is the beginning, the awareness that “we are accepted.”
I rarely hear this at A. A. meetings and I intend to introduce these ideas. I think James Carse’s books are central to this thesis: Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Life, and The Silence of God. I also like Byron Katie’s, Accepting What Is.
Acceptance does not end with a decision nor a simple agreement to stop drinking. Acceptance is not about alcohol per se; it is the process of embracing and accepting the world in all of its fullness, love, beauty, sorrows, and tragedy, and that takes time and patience, which is another way of thinking about acceptance. And that acceptance also means accepting, even asking for death itself.
This is getting very close to why I continue in the life of faith, a faith and trust in the intimate, interconnectedness that I sense around, under, and above us, a connectedness that is behind the immensity we call the universe, a connectedness that beckons and reassures, a connectedness that feels embracing and waiting. This is the meaning of Paul Tillich's "We Are Accepted."
In this sense, we accept, we wait for life itself and its end, death. Life Itself as this expresses that connectedness, a connectedness that has no center and yet holds us all in its embrace.
9. Acceptance As Mindfulness, Being in the Present Moment
One of the biggest things about retirement is fear or the gnawing sense that the main events of life are over and now the only challenge is to wait, to endure. Running on empty is meeting myself again in a small Arizona town and other unlikely places. Aging is “running on empty…” without a big project, job, or place to console one’s self, and facing that emptiness with joy and gladness: “Count It All Joy…Evermore”
Aging can quickly become the quintessential challenge and the promise and acceptance of “running on empty.” When we age we run out of goals, things to do. What’s left but “being here, now?” Now that's acceptance.
Acceptance is being in the present moment, as much as practicable. I remember James Webb’s story of the platoon in Vietnam, resting in the jungle, when a new lieutenant arrives, and strides up to the group and inquires of the corporal, “Soldier, where are the enemy?” Without standing up, the corporal said, “We are here. They are everywhere else.” If we turn that image upside down, if we remain here, instead of everywhere else then we will be all right, we will be present now. And how we constant stray from here and now. To help me I recall Jimmie Dale Gilmore's song, “My Mind Has a Mind of Its Own.
Acceptance of God as grounded in an elemental trust in life Itself is to honor the web of life that we are born into, participate in and are sustained by, a connectedness that, at least for me, is the foundation of our acceptance and our sense of belonging.
When, in the Serenity Prayer, we pray for the courage to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, we are praying to accept this elemental connectedness as the sign of elemental trust.
Thus, when a famous theologian (Paul Tillich) argues, “We are accepted” he is referring to that sense of trust and faith in our elemental belonging to the universe and to life itself as gift and connectedness.
10. God, Atheists, Agnostics, and A.A.
Once after moving back to North Carolina for three years, and taking my leave from the sometimes craziness of serving as Bisbee’s Mayor, I attended an A.A. meeting at the Duke Newman Center. The meeting was titled, “Atheists, Agnostics in A.A.” Because Newman Centers on college campuses are sponsored by the Campus Ministry of the Catholic Church, I wondered whether the Pope or at least the Bishop of North Carolina knew of the apostasy.
At any rate, in the Big Book, there is mention of Agnostics (and Atheists), so the concept of non-belief is not new to the Fellowship.
This is perhaps another facet of Acceptance: accepting those in the Fellowship who, while they do not profess a belief in God or who actively reject God, or who are “unknowing,” may have the paradoxical effect of dividing the Fellowship. I recall one member of the group, a professor in the philosophy department, who frequently noted that there were two benefits to this kind of A.A. group for Atheists and Agnostics: He, with the group’s support, was several years sober and who also enjoyed the added benefit of going to sleep each night without believing, in his words, something stupid." AS I se it his perspective entails standing on the shoulders of the Atheists and Agnostics in the group while standing on the face of those who believe in God.
11. Acceptance in Politics: Bisbee, Sewers, and the Serenity Prayer
We in A.A. are often involved in politics, as ordinary citizens, either as elected officials or administrators. I served as the mayor of a small town in Arizona, Bisbee, a town with a huge wastewater problem, okay sewers failing everywhere, a problem that had been building for decades. Bisbee is a famous former mining town settled in the early part of the 20th Century, and which grew enormously during WWI with its huge demand for copper. Ditto WWII.
But in 1976, the Phelps Dodge Company announced the closing of the main the Lavendar Pit Mine, the town an mine then became a haven for artists, hippies, and others who wanted to escape the sameness of Generica. (The Man Who Knew Too Much; If You Meet the Buddha…; “This is All Contingency”; “The Winner Gets To Drive It Away” “God’s Thumbs.”)
12. Acceptance As Realism, Political Realism
As I have said, acceptance is “running on empty…” without a big project, job, or place to console one’s self. Then you decide to run for mayor of a small town in Arizona, a town with a big problem, a sewer problem. Acceptance is embracing and struggling with a complete change of scale. When I ran and I indicated I was a health official in New York State, one of my opponent’s supporters asked, “Do We Want a New York Bureaucrat to be Our Mayor?” My response was, “I’m not from New York; I’m from Texas.” A man in the back said, “You didn’t help yourself much there.”
Acceptance as realism is to take the world as it is, without illusions, as the precondition for working for any measurable changes. Realism does not deny dreams or hope; rather realism is the acceptance that the path of hope is hard and frequently disappointing.
13. Acceptance as Process: The End is the Beginning
Acceptance is not a decision but rather a process, a path. To accept the world is to receive it, to embrace it, as I have said, but this is work, endeavor. Is this a kissing cousin of the idea of Amor Fatis, a kind of fatalism or accepting one’s fate, one’ lot? Yes and no. In some ways yes: to accept the things we cannot change is to accept life itself as given to us, as presented to us. We should not, cannot struggle with the things we cannot change.
We journey toward the end that is the beginning, the original blessing of life itself. We are accepted, and in being accepted we can begin to return to the end that is the beginning: we accept life because life itself accepts us. The end is the beginning.
Postscript: “We Are the Conscience of the Nation”: Abstainers or Non-drinkers?
Once in 1976, during a research trip to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and England, sponsored by the W.H.O., I had lunch with a group of Finnish members of an abstinence society. Their membership was composed of individuals who signed the “pledge” of abstaining, and my hosts, leaders of the Finnish group, said proudly, “We are the conscience of the nation.”
Abstinence used this way is not only the act of non-drinking for each member, but a group stance and lifestyle that alcohol was the cause of many societal ills beyond drunkenness, alcohol abuse or frank alcoholism, as well as family breakups, divorce, and so forth. Abstinence or non-drinking in A.A. is based on the desire to stop drinking and to end our powerlessness over alcohol, so as to make our lives manageable. We do not regard abstinence as a rejection of alcohol itself; we in A.A. do not participate in this particular outside cause or crusade as it will likely produce splits and divides among those whose goal is serenity and sobriety through non-drinking.