STAYING sober is largely a matter of right thinking. If a person is thinking "straight," he will see to the other things that protect his sobriety: work with beginners, constant inventory, fairness in all relationships. He will avoid the dangers of resentment, jealousy, self-pity, arrogance and anger.
Few AAs will argue with this, but how many of us ever ask why an individual's thoughts and feelings should have so much bearing on his life. After all, what does a resentment have to do with drinking? How does jealousy injure a person? What harm is there in a few rounds, more or less, of self-pity?
I found answers to these questions in Emmet Fox's The Sermon on the Mount, an amazing little volume that seems to be in almost every minister's library. Thoughts are things: Fox insisted that one cannot have one kind of mind and another kind of life. Any thought pattern that is persisted in must sooner or later materialize in a person's outer circumstances. If you would change your life, change your thoughts first.
I did not buy this right away. It seemed to me that some of my drinking acquaintances harbored very little resentment or jealousy, yet they still got drunk. Do lynch victims arrive at the end of a rope because of their thinking? Are tornadoes created by the thoughts of the people living in the areas they strike? Had Chinese coolies "thought themselves" into the destitution and drudgery of their lives? "Thinking" may have some effect, but it certainly couldn't be as important as Fox thought it was. . . .
Of course, I was fogging the issue, chiefly because Fox's propositions didn't jibe with my present conception of things. This was understandable; the AA program had also seemed preposterous and impractical when I first heard about it in the shadowy comfort of a barroom. But as later events proved, it was the barroom state of mind that was wrong, not AA.
Nor was it fair to reject an idea simply because it was difficult to prove that it applied to all human problems. It really wasn't necessary for me to determine the role of thought in lynchings or tornadoes. Such matters should rightly be deferred until I had seen how thoughts worked in my own life.
At least, I should keep an open mind on the subject. As a quotation attributed to Herbert Spencer puts it, in the first edition of the book, "Alcoholics Anonymous": "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation."
Anyhow, I had been exposed to Fox's ideas; now the AA experience began to show how right he was. As the months of AA sobriety rolled by, the external conditions of my life began to change. Not rapidly, but steadily. I developed a wider range of interests; my physical health seemed to get better. I took better care of my clothing and started a small bank account. By the end of a year I had a brand-new automobile for the first time in my life.
My automobile was certainly a "thing"; it had come as a result of thought! Not only had it required a change of thought to earn and save the money, I had also needed to get a belief that I could accept better things. Sure, I had often dreamed of getting a new car, but deep in my heart I hadn't really felt I was entitled to one. I had always kicked away opportunities, destroyed most of the material things in my life.
The automobile was only a beginning. I began to notice that my thinking had a bearing on the kind of place I lived in and the type of people I associated with. It is not by chance that writers speak of "a room taking on the character of its occupant," and there is profound truth in the old saying: "Birds of a feather flock together." If I didn't like where I lived or the people in my environment, I had only myself to blame. If I wished to change my surroundings, I had to change my thinking first.
The effects of thought are rather easy to trace in close personal relationships. It is sometimes astonishing to observe what happens when a person gets rid of strong feelings of hatred, fear or dependence in regard to another person. Most likely the relationship changes drastically, or the other person simply drops out of one's life. Soon comes the breath-taking discovery that people tend to draw unto themselves the very persons they claim to detest. Hatred, it turns out, is every bit as strong a bond as love. The unhappy persons thus affected are not the prisoners of one another but of their own tortured thoughts and feelings.
It would be a poor law that did not work both ways. Just as bad thoughts attract wretched conditions and troublesome people, so do good thoughts put one in touch with better conditions and more congenial people. A close friend tells me that in his AA experience he has always had people entering his life just when he needed their association most. It worked so often that it was obviously beyond mere coincidence. Was there some hidden magnetism or force that brought them together?
I cannot explain it except to say that something is there and it works, just as the AA program works. Perhaps some great network of subconscious communication exists among people. More than likely it is a facet of what we call the Higher Power. In any case, I believe that a man's thoughts go out to his fellow men, and do not return to him void. This may have been what brought Bill and Dr. Bob together so many years ago, and has helped accomplish so much since.
Simply recognizing that thoughts are things is not enough. We must face the formidable job of building up the good and starving out the bad. It is no easy thing for a person to change something so close to him as his own thoughts. It is a rare individual who can stand back from himself, so to speak, and erase bad thinking from his mind as he would sentences from a blackboard. Sometimes so much strong feeling surrounds a particular problem that it is virtually impossible to "switch it off" in the mind.
Fortunately, we have learned in AA to seek progress, not necessarily perfection. If we can improve our thinking from time to time, we are accomplishing a great deal. The change is bound to express itself in our lives, though perhaps not as quickly as we might desire. If we can definitely see that our thinking is gradually improving, we are at least on the right road.
Thinking is best improved by concentrating on good things rather than dwelling on how to get rid of the bad. As a matter of fact, this may be the only way of eliminating wrong thinking. We relieve the darkness, for example, not by trying to drive it away, but simply by turning on a light. In the same way, a bad trend of thought can be reversed by replacing it with something better. If I find myself being consumed by indignation over a certain injustice, the best solution for the time being is to turn my attention to a less upsetting matter. We can think of only one thing at a time; when we are dwelling on something good it means that bad thinking isn't getting a chance to intrude.
Though I didn't understand it well then, this technique worked for me during my first few weeks of sobriety. Each morning, as I started the day, I would find myself thinking about all the possible difficulties that might arise; I would also fret over similar troubles from the recent past. But I was able to quiet the disturbance in a few seconds by remembering that my most important task for the day was to avoid taking a drink, and that life was going to be beautiful and successful if I observed that, a day at a time.
We also have working in our favor the fact that thinking patterns become habitual. If one trains oneself to seek good thoughts, the time comes when it is almost automatic in one's life. It is like learning a new way of swinging a golf club. At first it seems difficult and unnatural, but when the correct way becomes seated in the mind, it takes over and supplies its own momentum. When that happens in the thought-life, one undergoes a change of character or personality.
Since changing one's thoughts lies within the power of every person on earth, why don't more people do it? We know that most of the severe problems in the world stem from the way people think and feel. Why don't they do something about it?
For some reason, few do. Many people seem to believe that their problems are caused by society as a whole or by certain other people, and scoff at the suggestion that miraculous changes could occur in their own lives simply through finding new attitudes.
Should they ask (with some sarcasm) if people living where a tornado strikes invited it with their thoughts, I'd still have to say, despite my own deep convictions about the power of thought, that I don't have an answer to that kind of question.
But about the possibility of changing much of our lives by changing our thoughts, I'd say what we used to say in the gin mills: "Don't knock it until you've tried it."
1*Harper & Brothers, New York City, 1938.