Harry M. Tiebout, phychiatrist and friend of AA, said,
". . .The two essential ingredients to maintaining
sobriety are . . . the preservation of a reduced ego
and the continued presence of humility. . ." In
the following articles, three AAs offer their thinking
on our struggle with the big "I"
to a popular idea, AA is an ego-deflating outfit. We're
supposed to have a knack for spotting and puncturing
the big ego of the alcoholic newcomer, thus setting
him up for true self-knowledge and acceptance of sobriety.
themselves frequently perpetuate this idea by relating
how somebody deftly needled them into self-realization.
Or they tell about shooting a bold question at a prevaricating
pigeon and shocking him into seeing himself in a new
way for the first time.
stories, perhaps, but do they represent the whole truth?
Others prove the opposite point: that AA often feeds
the ego the most lavish diet it's ever had. Where else
can a down-and-out bum suddenly become a touring speaker,
sometimes playing to audiences running into hundreds?
Where but in AA can a born loser find himself sharing
bottle-hiding experiences with country-club dropouts?
Who else gives the battered outcast an opportunity to
turn his sordid past into AA's unique currency of exchange?
AA not only pampers the individual's ego, but lets it
run all over the lot.
maybe that's okay. Despite our shortcomings, most of
us come into AA needing deflation about as much as we
need another hangover. We've already been cut down to
size hundreds of times by judges, employers, policemen,
bartenders, and our own sick faces looking back at us
in bathroom mirrors. Putting people like us through
an ego-deflating process would simply be overkill.
is not always "bad." We need to be delivered
from our own egos when they become inflated and drive
us to self-destructive actions. But it is also true
that ego, properly tamed and positively directed, moves
us to sound accomplishment and healthy growth.
some cases, ego is defined as the self-asserting, self-preserving
tendency in man. AA's good friend the late Dr. Harry
M. Tiebout called it the feeling of importance, of being
"special." It's not altogether bad to have
some self-assertive, self-preserving tendencies, or
even to think that one is a little special. These tendencies,
though obviously a liability while one is drinking,
can be assets in other ways.
certainly know enough about the liabilities of ego.
Here's an alcoholic, eaten up with ambition and frustrated
over his lack of achievement to date. When he is off
on a bender, his frustrations may cause him to impersonate
J. Edgar Hoover, or pose as a neurosurgeon, or put in
a long-distance call to Mao Tse Tung. All of this is
pretty bad behavior, of course, to say nothing of possible
adverse reactions from the FBI or the State Department.
people recognize, however, that the personal needs expressed
in this kind of behavior aren't really wrong. Put the
same person on the sobriety track, and these same needs
can come out in useful ways, as assets. The experiences
even become useful material for AA discussions; every
group has somebody who impersonated J. Edgar Hoover
or did the equivalent of telephoning Mao in the middle
of the night. Such stories make a big hit in AA, because
most of us can locate the same kind of out-of-control
ego within ourselves. Now we can laugh about it.
it is a mistake to believe that the ego no longer causes
trouble simply because the individual no longer drinks.
For one thing, colliding egos often do get AA groups
into serious troubles, in spite of the fact that the
Fellowship is deliberately structured to play down this
kind of thing. There's also the chance that an individual
will become overconfident after a measure of sobriety,
and this sometimes takes him back to the bottle.
practically a synonym for egotism, also causes trouble
in a more subtle way. While seemingly useful in giving
a person the drive and motivation to accomplish many
worthwhile things, it has built-in limitations. After
a certain level of performance has been reached, the
self-centered person grows unevenly, often progressing
splendidly in some areas and standing still in others.
Eventually, he is overtaken by his shortcomings.
see that process working all the time: in the brilliant
businessman who neglects the need to develop personal
kindness and finally loses all his friends; in the towering
intellectual who has never learned to control his temper;
in the marvelous athlete who becomes consumed by jealousy.
In all these cases, ego seems to be producing both good
and bad results.
there a way out of this dilemma? Or are we condemned
to go on living with a self that is at some times positive
and constructive, at others hateful and downright treacherous?
If God is good, why were we created with such a dangerous
duality, a duality over which we apparently have little
a possible theory, one that seems to fit what we've
already learned in AA. It goes like this: The ego is
a necessary part of man's being at this stage of his
development. It is part of being a self-conscious, self-knowing,
self-improving creature. If man didn't have ego, he
would be hardly more than an animal. He wouldn't have
made the painful trek out of savagery and gone to all
the trouble of discovering important things like the
wheel, the lever, and alcohol. Men in general are rather
self-centered, and some of the most remarkable accomplishments
have come from the most self-centered people. So far,
a certain point, however, the self-centered man reaches
the limits of the growth he can make in his present
state. He has gone as far in this state as he can, but
now he is ready to outgrow it. The process is somewhat
like outgrowing an experience that was useful for a
time, but would have become a liability later on. It
is like the caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly:
The change is probably somewhat painful and requires
giving up desirable things, but it's necessary, as well
as rewarding. Man, like the caterpillar, needs to give
up self-centeredness so that he can figuratively grow
wings and begin to fly.
replaces the ego? Something so remarkable that few of
us, so far at least, have ever become aware of it. The
idea is expressed in a couple of ways in a book of ancient
writings. One of them goes: "He who humbles himself
shall be exalted, and he who exalts himself shall be
humbled." Another way to put it is: "He who
seeks to save his life shall lose it, and he who seeks
to lose his life shall find it."
the self out of the picture, these ancient words say,
if you want the wonderful, joyous life. The self was
a helpful friend, as well as an occasional enemy, but
now he's outmoded. There's something finer and better
beyond the self, if you can find it--or, rather, if
you let it find you. But the price of this finer life
is to give up utterly on self-centeredness, to say absolutely
and without reserve, "Of myself, I am nothing."
remarkable something-beyond is hard to name; we AAs
would call it spiritual awakening or conscious contact
with God as we understand Him. If we could but receive
it, some of our major problems would quickly solve themselves,
often in ways that we would find thrilling and startling.
We would easily give up the painful struggle to be somebody,
to get things, to prove we are right, to protect what
we have, or to plan for the future. We would stop struggling,
not because these things aren't important, but because
we would have a new view of them. We would be able to
forgive injuries, instead of wasting time brooding over
the hurts of twenty years ago. We would be able to accept
a threat without fearing or hating the person making
the threat. We would have all the confidence we needed,
but at the same time we would learn that we need far
less than we had previously supposed. There would also
he less worry about the future, because there would
be the intuitive feeling of having an endless future,
of living forever. We would be conscious of great personal
worth without having any pride over it. And there would
be no sense of guilt, because there wouldn't be any
sense of doing wrong or of wanting to "sin."
this sound like the impossible dream? It isn't; it's
really somewhat like the state of mind AA's Bill W.
found himself in during the events of his sudden spiritual
awakening thirty-five years ago. It was of short duration;
as Bill tells us, he soon found himself again trapped
by self-pity and resentment, mostly problems of the
ego. The important thing, though, was that a better
world had been glimpsed, and some day all of us can
have it. But the price to pay is the complete destruction
of self-centeredness, absolutely and thoroughly relinquishing
self and letting spirit take over.
most of us, this great day of the spiritual awakening
is in the future, not now. Today we pick up such spiritual
moments as we are able to find, successively winning
and losing struggles involving the ego. Some day we
may be able to put the ego aside altogether, as a caterpillar
puts aside the once-nourishing leaf when it begins to
fly. Like many things in life, the ego is good as far
as it goes. But it just doesn't go far enough for what
we really want to be.
even that great aspiration may be the ego talking!