WHENEVER the question of solving drinking problems by means of
willpower arises, I think of the well-known Oriental, finger puzzle. This
finger puzzle, a dime-store item with a centuries-old history, is a
plaited fiber sheath that fits the fingers snugly and has a diabolical way
of gripping with increasing pressure the more one struggles to pull
himself free. The irony in this entrapment is that a person's own exertion
of strength is used to hold him fast.
The alcoholic's plight is a lot like that of the person caught in the
finger puzzle. In his panicky struggles to set himself free, he applies
his willpower wrongly, thus making it another factor in his bondage. The
more he consciously wills to quit drinking, it seems, the more often he
fails and the harder he falls when he does fail.
We AA members have long known that willpower works this way in the
alcoholic's life, but few of us really understand why it works this
way. We have had to argue against the idea of using willpower without
knowing the fundamental reasons why willpower doesn't work. What is
willpower anyway, and why has it become a negative element in the
alcoholic's life? Can it become a positive element in the alcoholic's
life? Can it become an asset again when it is understood and properly
The will is the individual's faculty of initiating choice and
desire. The power of the will, obviously, is the personal
factor in the ability to bring one's choices and desires into realization.
When a determined individual arrives at a certain goal in spite of
overwhelming odds, we recognize that his willpower is high. When a person
fails even with everything going in his favor, we usually say it's because
his will to succeed was weak.
But "willpower" is a somewhat misleading term, for the will is an
executive or decision-making faculty and has no power of itself. The will
must set other powers into action in order to achieve; unaided, it fails.
It must also work intelligently. As one of our friends says, "A
strong-willed person might want to pick up a house, but willpower alone
won't do the job. He has to get help."
A strong will becomes a distinct liability when it is used
unintelligently, and this misuse of the will seems to be at the heart of
the alcoholic's personal problem. At some point in his life, he chose to
drink under the delusion that it would bring him pleasure, poise and
friendship. The choice of alcohol was probably rather casual and innocent
at first, but in time it became a dominant, willful thing that demanded
its way even when warning signals of every kind were beginning to flash.
The alcoholic cannot use willpower to stop drinking, because it is the
will itself that is out of control; it is his own secret and swollen
desire that is pulling him on towards disaster. Like the hapless victim of
the Oriental finger puzzle, his frantic efforts to yank himself free only
bind him more tightly to his problem. "Self-will run riot," this terrible
condition has been called.
It is harsh and unfair to say that an alcoholic's will is
entirely given over to drinking even at this point. As a matter of
fact, he most likely seems to be "double-willed" at this stage, with at
least one part of his nature protesting against the outrage of his
compulsive drinking. Unfortunately this warfare in his own will only makes
the alcoholic more vacillating and erratic than ever, the "double-minded
man who is unstable in all his ways."
Let us never forget, too, that alcoholism is an illness. It is
practically useless to arrest an illness by means of a strong-willed
frontal attack. An individual who attempted to use willpower to cure
cancer or tuberculosis in himself would soon pay for this delusion with
his life. The alcoholic is similarly helpless and ill.
Since it is the will that is out of control, how can an individual
choose to regain mastery of his life and his affairs? The alcoholic's own
dominant desires are destroying him, so how can the will be counted on to
originate choices and desires that will lead to recovery?
The answer, I believe, lies in Thomas Aquinas' explanation of the
nature of the will. As Aquinas explained it, the will always chooses the
individual's good. When it makes bad choices (as when the alcoholic first
willed to drink), it does so through ignorance and error. Since the
tendency of the will is to choose the individual's good, it follows that
the will starts to initiate new choices and new desires once the folly of
the former choices has been revealed.
In this self-healing process, the will goes to work and builds up an
intense desire to stop drinking. Though the alcoholic has lost the power
of choice where drink is concerned, he can at least choose to contact
sources of help. He wills to pick up the telephone to call for
help, he wills to go to the AA meeting and he wills to
expose himself to the AA Fellowship and its ideas. Powers beyond those of
the will then come to the alcoholic's aid and do their redemptive
Now the will is becoming an asset instead of a liability, and it has
freely chosen a new way which it construes to be for the individual's
good. The Way--let us capitalize it--begins with the admission of
admitted we were powerless over alcohol. . .that our
lives had become unmanageable.
return to the analogy of the Oriental finger puzzle,
the individual recognizes that he cannot pull himself
free, so he gives up the struggle. At this point,
though he may not realize it, he is already on his
way out of the trap, for he is no longer contributing
his own energies to the instrument that has been
binding him. Alcohol has no power other than what
we give it, and we unwittingly reinforced the desire
to drink during those times when we fought savage
mental battles to "stay on the wagon." We were really
thinking about drinking when we were scheming to
stave off the desire to drink, and may have even
rehearsed future drinking bouts without realizing
next step on the Way describes a brief period of
transition, during which the wrong application of
the will is supplanted by one that works:
came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves
could restore us to sanity.
is restoration to sanity? For most alcoholics, it
is simply being restored to a condition in which
we are able to use our natural endowments and energies
creatively instead of destructively. We are no longer
forced to preside over our own debasement.
what is a Power greater than ourselves? This Power
is God, of course, but not a God who is a distant
and unapproachable Potentate of the Universe. Our
Higher Power, at least for the majority of us, is
perceived as an Indwelling Presence whose activity
is here and now. The individual selves
undergoing restoration to sanity are the former
selves, the selves who made ignorant and shortsighted
choices that led to alcoholic ruin. In each of us,
a new and higher self is found through the Grace
of Higher Power. Did this higher self come from
outside the alcoholic's own being or was it with
him all the time, waiting only to be discovered?
Perhaps it was a little of both, as when an electric
light bulb is connected to a circuit--the illumination
comes both from the bulb's own structure and from
the power flowing through the circuit.
the Third Step on the Way, the self-healing process
of the will is well on the road to completion:
a decision to turn our will and our lives over to
the care of God as we understood Him.
are back to the will again, and in this Step we
seem to be abandoning it altogether, giving up all
personal freedom as well as personal choice. We
are turning our will and our lives back to the Source
Who is said to have given us free will and life
in the first place.
should it be necessary to do this? Why was man given
free will in the first place if he was so prone
to misuse it? If God's concern for man is as absolute
as it's supposed to be, why did He ever let man
have the power of choice and decision? Why did He
give man free will if He wanted man to resubmit
his will at some future time?
can only speculate that it was necessary for us
to have free will in order to have individuality.
Free will is a good thing, though it became a temporary
liability when it was used wrongly. But the will
itself, after choosing the road to disaster, reversed
its own choices and elected to follow a new Way.
So we were given a free will that could make mistakes,
but could also correct its own mistakes. Surely
this natural self-healing tendency of the will must
have been God-given.
we choose to accept the Third Step and to let the
Supreme Power of the Universe operate as will in
us, we do not really give up our personal will and
personal freedom. In truth, we only put our will
and our lives on a spiritual basis. We grow into
a conscious contact with Divine Will instead of
the "self-will that ran riot," To the extent that
we are able to maintain this contact and let Divine
Will work in us and through us, our choices and
desires result in lasting happiness and success.
of us have had to work against a belief that God's
will for us meant groveling self-abasement and perpetual
suffering. But it was the old self-will that brought
abasement and suffering; in God's realm, the will
and its actions are consistently good. If He makes
His will known to us and gives us the power to carry
that will out, the result can only be good for all
concerned. As Ernest Holmes wrote, ". . .we should
interpret the Will of God to be everything that
expresses life without hurt. This seems to be a
fair, logical, sane and intelligent criterion. Anything
that will enable us to express greater life, greater
happiness, greater power--so long as it does not
harm anyone--must be the Will of God for us."
the human will has made the choice to reunite with
the Divine Will, the will is restored to its role
as a permanent asset instead of a temporary liability.
There is no loss of freedom in this decision, for
we are always free to do anything that expresses
life without hurt. I understand God as Love, and
this Love, for all I know, is reaching out from
every point in the Universe with no other purpose
than to live through you and through me. This Love
gives us perfect freedom to do any good thing. It
is always good. It is always intelligence. It is
always God. I hope I never desire another way than
that of love.
over in the twilight world of the self-will, John
Barleycorn is playing the Oriental finger trick
on a lot of strong-willed but basically good people.
I pray that we AAs keep the way to freedom well
lighted for the day when they find the will to seek
M. D. B.