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WORLD, September, 1947
member of Alcoholics Anonymous managed to get Joe out of
jail after he let them know where he was. He had phoned
the association because it seemed the only way to escape
a sentence of thirty days for vagrancy. But what began as
a expedient became decisive in Joe's career. Alcoholics
Anonymous was in the way of doing for Joe what it had done
for countless others who had come to it acknowledging their
weakness and resolved to take the means to stay sober.
more than one occasion Joe had tried to break with drink.
He went on the wagon, took pledges, vowed the most solemn
and holy and usual vows - and kept them for a time. He made
the old familiar brave efforts which so often prove simply
futile for such a person.
Joe would not admit he was an alcoholic. Like so many others
he harbored the illusion that his weakness was temporary,
passing, beatable, not his fault but due to family or business
troubles. The latest slip would be the last absolutely!
He would prove who was master.
Joe came out of the sanatorium, where some members of the
association had placed him, for the first time he frankly
and humbly confessed his helplessness. He was an alcoholic
and realized that if he was to recover he needed help. He
could not do it alone.
from his family for a dozen or more years, Joe bummed around
the United States from coast. He followed the bitter pattern
of a clever and personable middle-aged man, finding jobs
with astonishing ease, holding them briefly with distinction,
getting drunk and losing them, again sinking into penniless
and sick degradation to wake up parched and hungry and dirty
and emaciated to start the cycle all over again.
his family suffered the privations of a fatherless and poverty-stricken
home. Joe's wife with a brood of young children made heroic
efforts to be breadwinner and mother and father and housekeeper.
As the children grew up they did their part to keep the
home together. Difficult as it was, all managed to finish
high school and some went on to college. They were a family
any father could be proud of.
brief glimpse of Joe's background is not by way of biography.
It is the necessary preface toward understanding a mistake
I made in trying to help him. While he was on the way to
making good, though not yet united with his wife and children,
I wrote a letter, pointing out all he had to gain by keeping
sober and all he had to lose by crashing. His reply was
a succinct explanation of Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy,
which showed how unrealistic and dangerous my ideas had
been. For this I was grateful. But I was no less astonished
at the apologetic attitude Joe took toward the motive of
keeping sober for one's own sake.
of Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy," Joe wrote, "I
reminded James yesterday of one of its first and foremost
precepts: that is, to stay sober for ourselves and ourselves
alone. It was always for someone else and I always failed
in the end. The theory has been proved time and again that
when an alcoholic stops drinking for his wife's sake or
for the children or in order to get a job or gain someone's
favor, it never succeeded permanently. When the family's
good will was restored, the job secured or favors received,
invariably the person returned to the habit.
you know Alcoholics Anonymous is not a pressure plan; in
fact, pressure is like emery in its smooth design. We promise
nothing, we take each day as it comes and resolve simply
to avoid that first drink that day, never anticipating tomorrow's
trials, much less next week's, month's or year's. I am sober
today for myself, not because I might disappoint James or
anyone else, and although I am fully aware of how many chips
are at stake, I am not to consider the risk, but leave the
whole matter in God's hands when I commit my will and desire
to avoid drink that day.
is no doubt that pressure from the outside works inversely
on the alcoholic. To remind him constantly of his tremendous
undertaking (which is really nothing more difficult than
avoiding the first drink for one day) and continue to point
the terrible consequence of failure, is like having a man
walk across a mine shaft over a six inch timber and let
him see the certain destruction which awaits below if he
falls. Whereas if he can be distracted from the danger by
even some flimsy covering to hide the specter below he is
more apt to retain his balance and cross successfully.
I remain sober for myself I risk nothing and have everything
to gain. That is a pleasing, comfortable thought, and puts
me completely at ease. But when I consider I am doing it
for James, for you and others, for my job, I find I am risking
everything with nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Soon I am teetering precariously, with a tight apprehensive
feeling and a constant specter of defeat. I am robbed of
my easy comfort and begin to look around for some distraction,
finally winding up perhaps by getting drunk again, the very
thing to make my fears materialize.
as I told James, if you think that reminding me of the consequences
is to strengthen my resolve, don't believe it. That could
be as bad as sympathy. Rather accept my daily program for
what it is worth, and believe that I will succeed that day
at least, and tomorrow - well, tomorrow is another day ....
I am convinced that the Almighty is lending aid to this
movement, but there are no natural or spiritual laws being
violated, and a man still has to be willing to do his part
in the age-old way. It works simply because it is extremely
practical and because God is a friend."
was happy to have such a helpful exposition of Joe's philosophy.
However his statement that keeping sober simply for oneself
was harsh rather astonished me. Discussing it with him later
on I got the impression that such a motivation needed an
apology. This seemed likewise to be the attitude of the
organization. The psychology seemed correct in the sense
that it worked. But apparently many members were a bit ashamed
of it as being on the selfish side, and thought it needed
an apology. Emphatically it does not.
reason for this attitude is not hard to find. It stems from
the false altruism which characterized many earnest and
unselfish thinkers and writers of the nineteenth century
and which has carried over into our own day.
instance of this occurred not so long ago. To the question
of whether it was right or wrong for a man to drink to intoxication
in his own room without hurting anybody else, an astonishing
number of students thought it was all right. They reasoned
that as long as the man hurt no one but himself his conduct
was not evil.
need not be emphasized that to love one's neighbor, to do
good to him, to aid him in his physical and material and
intellectual and spiritual needs, to think and speak well
of him certainly is virtuous. But the pro-social character
of the conduct is not the sum total of virtue.
to hurt one's neighbor, in his property or person or good
name or in his family is evil and vicious - but the anti-social
aspect of the crimes is not the essence of their moral evil.
In other words, moral goodness and moral evil are not simply
factors of the loving or unloving character of a man's dealings
with his fellow-man.
the last analysis the motive for a man's leading a good
life must be sought in his personal relation with the ultimate
goal of his existence.
destiny is not just to serve as a tool for social betterment
in general nor for the welfare and happiness of some human
beings in particular. He has the obligation of self-fulfillment
untainted by selfishness.
is not self love. The two are opposed as vice and virtue.
For a man to give his life for his friend is self-love.
For him to benefit himself to the injury of his neighbor
is the vice of selfishness. Self-love is the obligation
a man has to conduct himself relative to himself and to
his neighbor in such a way that his conduct will conform
to his destiny, which is his inherent and over-all perfection
measured in terms of his highest and most truly human ideals.
a man strives for these ideals, he is bound to fit into
the social pattern. For by his nature man is a personal
as well as a social being - not two things artificially
sandwiched together, but one thing with an intricate dual
aspect. True human perfection implies development along
all truly human lines.
man's first duty is to provide for that development which
can not be divorced from himself. True self-love means that
he will strive to attach himself to such things and conduct
as will advance him along the path of his truest good. Unlike
selfishness which draws man away from his perfection, self-love
urges a man toward true and complete personal moral goodness
and his ultimate goal, a share in God's infinite goodness.
destiny, then, is personal-not, of course, in the sense
that it is exclusively centered in himself, but in the sense
that it is primarily related to his own person. There is
absolutely no reason for a man's feeling apologetic about
clinging to sobriety for his own sake. It accords perfectly
with a reasonable view of life.
along with reason, revelation is appealed to, it is evident
that Jesus Christ never condemned self-love in its proper
meaning as opposed to selfishness. Far from castigating
self-love or subordinating it to love of neighbor, even
if the neighbor be wife or husband, son or daughter, friend,
acquaintance or enemy. Christ made self-love the standard
of loving others. Love thy neighbor as thyself is the way
the Savior put it.
one, certainly, can accuse Christ of favoring a selfish
way of life or of encouraging His followers not to love
and to do good to their fellow human beings. Rather He was
simply expressing the due order which should characterize
love of self and love of neighbor. What does it profit a
man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own
soul? is another expression of the Savior's message, that
salvation is personal. And to want to be saved means to
love oneself properly. The Brotherhood of Man is a profound
reality. But all the reality it has comes as the consequence
of the Fatherhood of God.
a practical point of view the best argument for the motive
of keeping sober for one's own sake is that it works. This
is not to suggest that it works alone or that it is something
which all by itself can bring a man or woman to forgo that
first drink day after day. In no instance does the motive
of self-love stand solitary. Clustered about it with more
or less clarity are any number of motives. The important
thing about this motive of keeping sober for ones own sake
is that being dominant it fits into the psychological needs
of the alcoholic.
agree with Joe's analysis of the alcoholics state of mind
is not in the least to minimize the terrific importance
of motive. It is merely to select the motive which experience
has proved to be the most helpful and involving the least
risk and which should be cultivated most carefully.
example of a man walking a narrow plank over a deep mine
shaft illustrates the psychological situation perfectly.
Now add to the facts of self-consciousness the special problems
of the alcoholic who is trying to reform. He knows with
all the sharpness of heartbreaking memories what a fall
will involve. He remembers what it is to lose the respect
and perhaps love of wife and children, to lose his job and
home. He knows as the non-alcoholic can never know the semi-conscious
existence of alcohol-sodden days and weeks. He knows the
misery of coming to and finding himself dirty and hungry
and sick and alone - with the damming knowledge of what
he has done to those he loves. That memory with the thought
of its possible repetition is the abyss the alcoholic is
crossing on the narrow plank of his not taking a drink.
To remind him of the chasm is to weaken him and invite disaster.
this is clear to me now as it was not when I wrote Joe that
letter. The motive of self-love has philosophy and theology
as well as solid empirical and psychological considerations
in its favor. For all things which it does not need is an
apology. But of all things that it does need and most needs
is not selfishness. It is not pride. It is a just appraisal
of a difficult situation and on one's own worth and weakness.
All this involves humility.
is not weakness any more than pride is strength. It is not
weakness which leads a man to a just estimate of his own
resources before he begins building a house or meeting an
opponent on the golf course or challenging an expert bridge
player or meeting the disastrous attraction of drink. Humility
is just plain honest common sense.
such it plays a tremendous influence in the program of Alcoholics
Anonymous. Most alcoholics have tried to recover but for
the most part it has been on the assumption that they were
not alcoholics, that they were men who "could take
it or leave it alone." Until they are prepared to admit
that they are not men who can take it or leave it alone,
there is not much hope for them. Hope begins to shine when
they admit they cannot meet the challenge of alcohol, when
they admit they are not as other men, when they confess
they have drunk up their privilege to drink and are sick
and weak and cannot cure themselves. It is the truth; it
is humility. Humility is one of the consequences of truest
Anonymous is not a religion. Any attempt to think of it
in those terms is to convert it into a false thing. Nor
is it a substitute for religion. So to consider it turns
a good thing into a counterfeit. But Alcoholics Anonymous
does urge its members to consider themselves in alliance
with a power greater than themselves. This is a product
trying to appeal to all men and to escape the differences
of religious beliefs Alcoholics Anonymous purposely leaves
vague the definition of this power greater than oneself.
It is phrased to fit into any man's or woman's concept of
the Deity. But this dependence upon the Supreme Being effects
the perfection of truest self-love and sincerest humility.
in the last analysis, man's destiny as measured in terms
of his being a creature of God signifies his journey through
life toward the goal of fulfilling his heritage. There is
no relation of himself with his fellow-man which can take
priority over his relations with his God.
of his relation with God is his acceptance of God's dominion
over the world and all that it contains and all that goes
on in it. He trusts God as his ally. He faces each new day
with a quiet moment Of thought and reflection, that his
battle to keep away from from that first drink is in company
with his Almighty Friend.
two things, then, the motive of self-love and an honest
humility which brings a man to admit his own weakness and
find strength in God make a strong team. Of course, they
are proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous on the purely empirical
basis that they have worked and will work - granted that
the man or woman takes up the entire program in earnest.
the purely empirical basis for the motive of self-love is
not enough. It leaves the person of deeper thought dissatisfied
and leads him, perhaps, to be distrustful of the program
in theory even while he admits its practical usefulness.
For this reason it seems worthwhile to vindicate not only
its utilitarian worth but its psychological soundness and
philosophical and theological justification as well.