Part of this summer's journey has meant a return to the 12-step meetings that saved my life fifteen years ago. I selfishly gained the gifts of sobriety (becoming employable, a husband and family, a busy life) and left my duties to still-suffering drunks behind. I also left behind the spiritual growth that propels us, one day at a time, in recovery. Although I didn't pick up a drink or a drug in the six years that I stayed away from meetings, I retreated into my faith. This isn't a fact I'm overly maudlin about, but it is a fact. We either 'grow spiritually or die', is a recognized truth for addicts. I've moved through the deep shame and regret of leaving this first facet of good living behind --- that progress being due to the unfailing welcome of beautiful strangers who now inhabit my heart and my home. Thank God they were still there when I put my hand to the doorknob. The worn carpet, bad coffee and tattered slogans on the wall spoke in sacred, silent tones. May I never forget where I came from.
In a flash, I was relieved of my embarrassment at the realization that I'd concocted two different Gods: one for alcoholism and one for Christian living. I had a merciful God and a legalistic God. To reconcile the two was not the kind of protracted analytical exercise I first expected; rather, God returned wholly to me the same way He first appeared --- in my utter surrender. We know the expression 'there are no atheists in a foxhole', hinting at the simplicity and willingness of the human soul to cry out for divine aid when all other hope is lost.
The Twelve Steps are undeniably rooted in Christianity, even mirroring Ignatian and Benedictine spirituality so closely that Bill Wilson (their author) was once asked by a priest if the rumor was true --"had the Steps in fact been written by a Jesuit seminarian?" These roots are not restrictive, however, and the program is presented in the most unobtrustive way. Any seeker of God is free to their conception of a Higher Power, and this is no doubt a wellspring of their efficacy. The fruits of Christian love and service abound, free from moral authority or hierarchy. We exist in concert with recovery from profound, intimate trauma, and humans of every possible stripe are well-represented in our numbers. We are bikers and doctors, mommies and felons, sometimes all in one person. It's this variety of experience plus the purity of our mission, that gives us the ability to reach one another. And here I come to the question first posed --- can someone who denies the existence of God make use of the 12 Steps? YES. A thousand times yes.
Picture a symphony. If you have any experience with a musical instrument this will be easy. I played the clarinet gleefully and with mediocrity as a teenager, never reaching first or second chair but learning rapidly and deeply enjoying the experience. And we had a conductor who was one in a million. This conductor exists and is leading the show whether I acknowledge him or not --- a 'higher' power, if you will. I can reasonably get by and gain new techniques by copying the person sitting next to me. I never even have to look at the Conductor unless and until I'm willing to find that specific direction. What's vital is only that I discard my way, my self-will, and my ideas about how it should go. Humility, that elusive condition, is essential. I can copy the technical skill of another player, I can merely pretend to play ('fake it 'till you make it'), I can dither between numbers and let others carry the weight. I don't even need to be copying a player of the same instrument; I may play the clarinet but be enamored with the bassoon. It doesn't matter. All have varying results but all are different than hiding in the gutter or the catwalk --- if I'll come in, sit down, assume some postures, and allow for a new way of living from the inside out, I have a chance.
Taken as a straight parallel, any souse has already done this. In active addiction, many of us eventually exit polite society, learning a new vocabulary, new cultural norms, and a host of frightening new "skills" as we descend into hell. We trust in all kinds of unseen forces, for better or worse, to carry us through to the next fix. This mimicry of addicted life is much like the map out of the morass and into healthy and whole life --- just copy the people who have what you want.
The principles of getting well after a period of degradation so bleak that we find ourselves beyond human aid are universal and personal. It works to replace 'atheist' with the spiritually arrogant (hi!), the proud, the lazy and the skeptic: we lay aside our old ideas in exchange for a new way of living. This is simple yet difficult. If it were easy, Skid Row would be empty. As usual, this painful, privileged sojourn is best summarized in the perfect locution of wounded healers, reaching for their own:
bring your ass and your heart will follow.