Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
I could tell that she was conflicted. “I pray a lot to God,” she told us. “He keeps me sober. I have to keep praying every day.” Failure to pray, she was telling us, is a danger to my sobriety. There seemed to be a direct line here, for her: In the power of prayer lay the formula for continued recovery.
Yet, in the same sharing, she said this: “I keep coming to meetings, and this keeps me sober. When I have been sober for several months, I begin to slack off the meetings, going to one or two a month. Then I find myself drinking again.”
Was she confused? Was it both God and the meetings keeping her straight? As in a good many of these personal chronicles publicly shared at AA meetings, she had been rambling. There seemed to be no clear focus to her remarks in terms of a message. There was clearly more self-exploration than communication going on—almost a stream of consciousness purgation. In the final analysis, she was doing fine—as long as we and God had her back.
But it seemed to me that she was not clear even to herself, and this is what struck me: This soundtrack had been played before, in other meetings, by other sufferers. Some had emphasized the role of God, but insisted that the group was essential to keeping things safe; others emphasized the social context, but the spiritual was not far behind. All were slicing through fog for some anchor, feeling around for one buoy after another.
Then, as she closed, she made a telling remark that seems, now I reflect upon it, a common confession in AA groups. “I’m not sure there is a God,” she told us. “Probably nobody knows for sure—but it works for me, so I keep praying.”
It wasn’t, after all, confusion between two discordant entities—God and the group. It was the conflation of two transposable powers: private communion and public confession. The “Higher Power” inscribed in the AA protocol is ineffable in a way not encountered in church canon because in its attempt to define itself broadly, it defines everything and nothing.
To the devout, it is clearly God, and this was the initial intent of AA as it emerged from the Oxford Group in the mid-1930s. For the non-believers among us, its intentional ambiguity is designed to cast a wide net. The result is a kind of faith grounded in a benign mysticism for which the logical mind is ill-prepared (and towards which logic is uniquely irrelevant). It is spirituality in search of a God-like focal point that may be explicitly not God. In its perplexity, it is satisfying at the level that matters: the alcoholic grasping for a life jacket.
The psyche of the drowning addict finds gratification in the value of such practice without questioning its authenticity. It is comforting to the discomfited to find some deliverance in such an ecumenical group that welcomes all: lack of precision is precisely its worth.
“Keep coming back; it works if you work it” is the mantra we prod at the close of every meeting, holding hands in a circle, trusting the connection.
Ronald Wetherington is a retired professor of anthropology. His novel, Kiva, was published in 2013. He lives in Dallas, Texas.