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1967 AA Grapevine
Big Book Stories - Updated (1 of 5)
The Big Book of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, was first published
in 1939. A revised edition was published in 1955. Now, twelve
years later, the Grapevine begins an exciting new series
of articles, to appear every other month for as long as
the articles hold out: Big Book Stories - Updated. On page
336 of the Big Book (2nd edition) appears "The Professor
and the Paradox." Now the professor, from a vantage
of another dozen years' sobriety, reflects on why he became
alcoholic and why AA works for him:
IS THE WORD
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., July 1967
I have tried hard not to be proud that my little narrative
- "The Professor and the Paradox" - was included among the
Personal Stories in the Revised (1955) Second Edition of
the Big Book. Whenever I get too puffed up about it,
I usually remind myself of an appropriate AA story I have
told on several occasions. It concerns a young Canadian
priest who was serving his church in northeast Canada, travelling
about on snowshoes and dog sled, covering a territory about
twice the size of Texas, and ministering to a total population
of about twenty-eight people. After five years of
this, his headquarters in Montreal decided he needed a short
rest, and he was accordingly called home for a mild celebration.
At the welcome banquet given in his honor when he arrived
in Montreal, the master of ceremonies of course praised
the young priest highly, and apparently overdid it.
For later in the evening when the banquet was over and the
young priest had retired to his room, he was overheard saying
his prayers. Here is what he was saying: "Dear Lord,
please keep me humble, because I am a very great man."
There is at least one disadvantage in having one's story
in the Big Book. Most of us in AA have basically only
one story, and that one in the Big Book is mine. As
the evening's speaker, before and since the Revised Edition
was published, I have delivered that speech more or less
word for word to many groups in many places, particularly
in my own and a few neighboring states. Once after
I had thus delivered it as part of a program at an AA State
Convention out west where I was virtually unknown, I was
standing alone among the crowd in the lobby of the convention
auditorium and happened to overhear one man telling another
about me: "That last speaker was a liar and a thief and
a fake. He stole every word he said right out of a
story printed in the Big Book!" In the rush of the
crowd I never saw him again or got a chance to correct him
as to my character.
In my original account of myself I described my advent into
AA as a happening brought about by some forces at work that
I did not - and still do not - understand. I knew
only that something happened to me that had never happened
before. At one time I thought I had simply made
a decision instead of a mere alcoholic promise, but
I discarded that idea in favor of assigning the cause to
the guiding hand of God, following by my own attempt to
take the Twelve Steps to Recovery. I ended by saying
that "whatever it was that brought me in, I have been in
AA and I have been dry ever since." Very fortunately,
I can still say so.
I have often wondered why - precisely and exactly why -
I got myself into the horrible alcoholic condition I was
in when I joined our AA group. I am not sure that
I have discovered this yet. Of course, the alcoholic
has been variously and diversely defined. It has even
been suggested that he simply does not know what he really
wants, or always wants something that he doesn't have, and
one of the humorous definitions of him illustrates this
theory beautifully. An alcoholic (according to this
definition, which I learned from a fine AA from Dallas)
is a fellow who when he is rich wants to be poor, and when
he is poor wants to be rich; when he is single he wants
to be married, and when he is married he wants to be single;
when he goes to a wedding he wants to be the bride; when
he goes to the dinner table he wants to make love, and when
he goes to bed he wants to eat!
But let us be serious. It is now generally recognized
that alcoholism is a symptom of some deep-seated maladjustment
of one’s personality, a symptom of some emotional
conflict which one has been unable to solve. For example,
in my case (perhaps not in yours, but at any rate in mine),
I am a self-centered person, very egotistical, and quite
unreasonable in my demands upon other people (either actually
or in my thoughts about them). I became so self-centered
that I withdrew myself into a small circle which got smaller
and smaller until there was no one in it but myself.
There was no real company there except my bottle.
Next, I am “emotionally immature,” which I explain
as being emotionally susceptible (far beyond the normal)
to resentment, envy, fear, anxiety and grandiose day-dreaming.
(Most alcoholics I know well are extremely affected by one
or more or all five of these.) Then, I tried hard
to be a perfectionist, and failed, of course, to advance
to anything even remotely perfect. Finally, I was
running away from something - perhaps from the reality of
These (self-centeredness, emotional immaturity, striving
for perfection and running away), I think, are the chief
personality traits which play havoc with the alcoholic’s
way of living. At least they seemed to do so with
me. And they are difficult traits to get rid of.
I haven’t got rid of mine yet, but I have improved.
I have improved to the extent that I no longer have to take
a drink or a pill to overcome them.
Do not ever let anybody tell you that the AA program is
easy to make. It isn’t. That I am unmanageable
and have personality weaknesses or shortcomings which can
lead me to disaster was to me most unreasonable. It
was very difficult for me to realize that the Twelve Steps,
which looked so naïve at first, would succeed better
than all my well-thought-out methods. That I was powerless
over anything was a bitter pill to swallow. It was
hard for me to keep “an open mind” or do my
part to let others “live.” It took a “bottom”
of considerable crisis to reduce me to personal helplessness
so acute that I was ready for humility and surrender.
And all of this was not attained by me by my simply walking
into an AA meeting place.
The AA program and procedure has worked well for me and
for a tremendous number of other people. Why does
it work when other things fail? We don’t know.
We really don’t know. We do have a lot of ideas.
We know a great deal about drinking - its pleasure as well
as its tragedies, its humorous side, the flimsy alibis,
the hiding places, the degradation and helplessness of alcoholic’s
victims. Nevertheless, we don’t really know
precisely why AA works.
But we do know that we get a lot of help from continual
association with our groups. We get a lot of help
from the observations we can make there. We benefit
from associating with excessive drinkers who stay sober,
and this seems to have some sort of favorable psychological
effect (so much so that one is tempted to speculate that
sobriety among alcoholics is contagious). We benefit
from association with excessive drinkers who do not stay
sober, which seems to have favorable results too.
We also sit around and take everybody else’s “inventory,”
until the thought strikes us that we had better take our
own. But above all we learn to eliminate alcoholism
by doing certain things which strike at the deep-seated
causes of the malady, rather than simply taking away or
shutting off the whiskey. We learn to change our self-centeredness,
to stop running away from things we don’t like, and
to remove or at least adjust our emotional shortcomings.
We do these things by taking seriously and honestly our
Twelve Steps, the nearest thing to a “cure”
for alcoholism that anybody has yet discovered. We
learn that these Steps (over a sufficient period of time)
will change our attitudes, change our thinking, change our
personalities (if that be possible), change the inner man
or woman into something it had not been before, and change
our pattern of living into one we had not enjoyed in the
past. We learn to do these things not by just memorizing
the Steps (though that is a good idea), but by attempting
to live and act them each day of our lives. And eventually,
often when we least expect it, we discover that as a result
of all this we are happy and contented and full of thanksgiving
- something I once knew (or thought I knew) I could never
be, without drinking.
Members of AA groups are full of miraculous changes like
that. I am one of those fortunate ones who has had
it happen to me. There are hundreds of thousands of
others in AA today.
PROFESSOR AND THE PARADOX
Says he, We A.A.'s surrender to win; we give away to keep;
we suffer to get well, and we die to live.
I 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.
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 until 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 setbacks
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.
I didnt 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 hungover. 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
isnt anybody whose drunk any more Sal Hepatica than
there are all kinds of drunks: melancholy drunks, weeping
drunks, traveling drunks, slaphappy and stupid drunks, and
a number of other varieties. I was a self-aggrandizing and
occasionally violent drunk. You wouldnt' think
a little fellow like me could do much damage, but when Im
drunk Im pure dynamite. Im not going into any
other details - the University can fire me yet!
came to believe actually that life was not worth living
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 hungover stage I would vow never to touch
another drop, and then be drunk the next night.
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.
did not know that it was physically impossible for me to
drink moderately. I did not know that my bodys 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.
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 I 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 of a terrible
drunken affair in which I became violently insane. I also
landed in the City Jail.
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 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 isnt 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
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 night.
I look back, something must have happened to me 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 happen to me that had never happened before.
I repeat, I dont 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.
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 doesnt 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 doesnt work
that way either, does it? Our program and procedures seem
to be in many ways contrary to normal opinion.
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 examination, in certain instances
proves to be true.)
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. Weve got to continue to give it
away in order to keep it.
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. Its 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 - thats his nickname - Lost
John, you know youre going to have to do a certain
amount of shaking sooner or later. Well,
he said, for Gods sake lets make it later!
We suffer to get well.
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 our 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.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., July 1967
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