PROFESSOR AND THE PARADOX
he, "We A.A.'s surrender to win; we give away
to keep; we suffer to get well, and we die to live."
am in the public information business. I use that phrase
or designation because if I say I am a college professor
everybody always has a tendency to run the other way.
And when they learn that I am a specialist in English,
they have looks of horror for fear they are going to slip
up and say "ain't". I often wish I sold shoes
or insurance or fixed automobiles or plumbed pipes. I
would have more friends.
My story is not a
great deal different from others—except in a few specific
details. All the roads of alcoholism lead to the same
place and condition. I suppose I have always been shy,
sensitive, fearful, envious, and resentful, which in turn
leads one to be arrogantly independent, a defiant personality.
I believe I got a Ph.D. degree principally because I wanted
to either outdo or defy everybody else. I have published
a great deal of scholarly research—I think for the same
reason. Such determination, such striving for perfection,
is undoubtedly an admirable and practical quality to have,
for a while; but when a person mixes such a quality with
alcohol, that quality can eventually cut him almost to
pieces. At least it did so to me.
I began drinking as
a social drinker, in my early twenties. Drinking constituted
no problem for me
PROFESSOR AND THE PARADOX
well after I finished graduate school at the age of thirty.
But as the tensions and anxieties of my life began to
mount, and the set-backs from perfection began to increase,
I finally slipped over the line between moderate drinking
and alcoholism. No longer would I drink a few beers or
a cocktail or two and let it go at that. No longer did
I let months or even weeks go by without liquor. And when
drinking, I entered what I now know was the dream-world
of alcoholic fantasy. Then for about five years of progressively
worse alcoholic drinking, of filling my life and home
with more and more wreckage, it looked as if I were going
to ride this toboggan of destruction to the bitter end.
Maybe I didn't get
as bad as some of the others. I must confess that I never
went to teach one of my classes drunk or drinking—but
I've been awfully hung-over. My pattern was to be drunk
at night, boil myself out to creep to work in the morning,
drunk the next night, boil myself out in the morning,
drunk again the next night, boil myself out the next morning.
I may not have drunk as much whiskey as some, but there
isn't anybody whose drunk any more Sal Hepatica than I
Now there are all
kinds of drunks: melancholy drunks, weeping drunks, travelling
drunks, slap-happy and stupid drunks, and a number of
other varieties. I was a self-aggrandizing and occasionally
violent drunk. You wouldn't think a little fellow like
me could do much damage, but when I'm drunk I'm pure dynamite.
I'm not going into any of the details—the University can
fire me yet!
I came to believe
actually that life was not worth
unless I could drink. I was utterly miserable and sometimes
desperate, living always with a feeling of impending calamity
(I knew something was bound to "break loose").
And to do away with such a fear, I would try a little
more drinking, with the inevitable result—for by this
time one drink would set up in me that irresistible urge
to take another and another until I was down or hungover
and in trouble. In the hung-over stage I would vow never
to touch another drop, and then be drunk the next night.
I knew at least that
there had to be some changes made. I tried to change the
time and place and amount of my drinking. I tried to change
my environment, my place of living—like most of us who
at one time or another think that our trouble is geography
rather than whiskey. I even entertained the idea of changing
wives. I tried to change everything and everybody, except
myself—the only thing I could change.
I did not know that
it was physically impossible for me to drink moderately.
I did not know that my body's drinking machinery had worn
out, and that the parts could not be replaced. I did not
know that just one drink made it impossible for me to
control my behavior and conduct and my future drinking.
I did not know, in short, that I was powerless over alcohol.
My family and my friends sensed or knew these things about
me long before I did.
Finally, as with most
of us in A.A., the crisis came. I realized I had a drinking
problem which had to be solved. My wife and a close friend
tried to persuade me to contact the only member of Alcoholics
Anonymous we knew of in town. This I refused to do. But
PROFESSOR AND THE PARADOX
agreed that I would stop drinking altogether, maintaining
stoutly and sincerely that I could and would solve this
problem "on my own." I would feel much better
doing it that way, I insisted. I stayed sober for two
entire weeks! Then I pitched a "lulu"—a terrific
drunken affair in which I became violently insane. I also
landed in the City Jail.
I don't know exactly
what happened on this bender, but here are some things
that did happen which I was told about subsequently. First,
the officers who had come out to my house did not want
to take me in—but I insisted! Also, I insisted that they
wait in the living room while I went back to the bedroom
and changed into my best and newest suit (with socks and
tie to match), so that I would look nice in jail! I don't
remember the ride downtown, but when I "came to"
in the jail corridor, I didn't like the looks of the little
cage they were shoving me into, so I took issue about
that with three officers and indulged in some fisticuffs
with all three of them at once—each one of them twice
my size and armed with a gun and a blackjack. Now what
kind of thinking and acting is that? If that isn't insanity,
or absurd grandiosity, or some sort of mental illness,
what is it? Because I yelled so loud and made so much
noise, I ended up downstairs under the concrete in a place
they call "solitary." (That's a fine place—now
isn't it?—for a college professor to spend the night!)
Two days later I was willing to try A.A., which I had
only vaguely heard of a few months before. I called at
the home of the man who started the A.A. group in my town,
and I went humbly with him to an A.A. meeting the following
As I look back, something
must have happened to
during those two days. Some forces must have been at work
which I do not understand. But on those two days—between
jail and A.A.—something happened to me that had never
happened before. I repeat, I don't know what it was. Maybe
I had made a "decision "—just a part of Step
Three (I had made lots of promises but never a decision)—though
it seems to me that I was at the time too confused and
fogged up to make much of one. Maybe it was the guiding
hand of God, or (as we Baptists say) the Holy Spirit.
I like to think that it was just that, followed by my
own attempt to take the Twelve Steps to recovery. Whatever
it was, I have been in A.A. and I have been dry ever since.
That was more than six years ago.
A.A. does not function
in a way which people normally expect it to. For example,
instead of using our "will power," as everyone
outside A.A. seems to think we do, we give up our wills
to a Higher Power, place our lives in hands—invisible
hands—stronger than ours. Another example: If twenty or
thirty of us real drunks get away from home and meet in
a clubroom downtown on Saturday night, the normal expectation
is that all thirty of us will surely get roaring drunk,
but it doesn't work out that way, does it? Or talking
about whiskey and old drinking days (one would normally
think) is sure to raise a thirst, but it doesn't work
that way either, does it? Our program and procedures seem
to be in many ways contrary to normal opinion. And so,
in connection with this idea, let me pass on what I consider
the four paradoxes of how A.A. works. (A paradox, you
probably already know, is a statement which is seemingly
self-contradictory; a statement which appears to be false,
but which, upon careful
PROFESSOR AND THE PARADOX
in certain instances proves to be true.)
1. We SURRENDER TO
WIN. On the face of it, surrendering certainly
does not seem like winning. But it is in A.A. Only
after we have come to the end of our rope, hit a stone
wall in some aspect of our lives beyond which we can go
no further; only when we hit "bottom" in despair
and surrender, can we accomplish sobriety which we could
never accomplish before. We must, and we do, surrender
in order to win.
2. We GIVE AWAY TO
KEEP. That seems absurd and untrue. How can you keep anything
if you give it away? But in order to keep whatever it
is we get in A.A., we must go about giving it away to
others, for no fees or rewards of any kind. When we cannot
afford to give away what we have received so freely in
A.A., we had better get ready for our next "drunk."
It will happen every time. We've got to continue to give
it away in order to keep it.
3. We SUFFER TO GET
WELL. There is no way to escape the terrible suffering
of remorse and regret and shame and embarrassment which
starts us on the road to getting well from our affliction.
There is no new way to shake out a hangover. It's painful.
And for us, necessarily so. I told this to a friend of
mine as he sat weaving to and fro on the side of the bed,
in terrible shape, about to die for some paraldehyde.
I said, "Lost John"—that's his nickname—"Lost
John, you know you're going to have to do a certain
amount of shaking sooner or later." "Well,"
he said, "for God's sake let's make it later!"
We suffer to get well.
4. We DIE TO LIVE.
That is a beautiful paradox straight out of the Biblical
idea of being "born again" or "losing one's
life to find it." When we work at
Twelve Steps, the old life of guzzling and fuzzy thinking,
and all that goes with it, gradually dies, and we acquire
a different and a better way of life. As our shortcomings
are removed, one life of us dies, and another life of
us lives. We in A.A. die to live.
Professor and The Paradox" John
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