Paganism and A.A.: The Second Step

Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

So, having admitted powerlessness over alcohol*, the only recourse we have left is to seek outside help. There is no explicit reference in this step to God, or even to a power conceived of as divine (since God is introduced in the next step, however, that may be a moot point…). The bottom line here is that alcoholics can’t get better all by themselves, but that if we put our trust in a power greater than ourselves, we can behave in a sane manner once again. If we could do it ourselves, there would be no need for the Twelve Steps—indeed, there would be no such thing as an alcoholic. I can’t tell you how many times I resolved to quit drinking and doing drugs, and I can tell you that I didn’t get very far on sheer willpower. The only way I’ve ever been able to stay sober over extended periods was to look outside of my own personal resources for help.

Source: J.M.W. Turner/Public Domain

Much of the writing that I’ve seen on this step focuses largely on defining what “a power greater than ourselves” might mean. For some, this will be God, but not everybody believes in God. Although the wording of the steps is Christian, in the meetings I have attended, I have always been taught that this higher power can be just about anything other than ourselves—call it God if you want to, or “nature” or “spirit,” or [insert deity name here]. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, as I have read that some A.A. groups can lean towards Christian fundamentalism. I am glad I have never encountered this (I’ve met fundamentalist individuals aplenty in A.A., but never attended a whole meeting dominated and run by them). When such conceptions fail, the next suggestion is that we consider other humans who have managed to stay sober to be our higher power—often referred to as “Good Orderly Direction” (G.O.D.).

Looking at this step from a Pagan viewpoint, however, an entirely different and far more interesting question arises, and it’s one that must be answered before considering what constitutes a higher power: Which self are we talking about here?

Many people think of self as being entirely singular: “Myself is me, of course!” However, there are many worldviews that look upon the self as made up of several parts or aspects, and Pagans seem to fit into this category more often than not. In fact, some of us adhere to more than one model of selfhood, each with a differing number of aspects (myself…er…selves?…included), holding them all as valid.

At its simplest, this manifests as the dual model that divides the self into higher and lower selves, with the Higher Self representing our spiritual, enduring self that transcends death, and the lower self, which is essentially our personality.

There are also models that hold selfhood as threefold, consisting basically of the conscious self, the unconscious self and the superconscious self (with so many different names for the three selves that keeping track of them all will make your head spin).

Those who adhere to the ancient Egyptian model acknowledge the body and at least three separate souls (according to this page, anyway—I have not studied this in depth myself and don’t want to mislead anyone), while Theosophists view the self as seven-fold.

These are just a few different models, and as I said, it is not necessary to narrow one’s conception of self to just one of them.

However, there is a slogan in A.A. that bears mentioning at this point: K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Regardless of how one conceives of the self, there is a place in every model that I know of for that aspect of ourselves that is roughly equivalent to what we usually call the ego or the personality, and in every model that I know of, this is identified as the part of us that thinks it runs the show, but really doesn’t. For the purposes of step two, this is the self we’re talking about.

For those who practice various forms of spirituality, then, step two is natural whether we are dealing with compulsions or not; releasing our true selves from the single-handed tyranny of this ego-based self that thinks it is boss of the rest of ourselves (and maybe even the world) is often the central task. It’s something most of us already recognize. This is a spiritually wholesome concept that is almost universally agreed upon when you get up close and look at pretty much all of the world religions—yes, even the Abrahamic ones–at their esoteric or mystical cores.

The only problem I have, as a Pagan, with the way A.A. handles this matter is when certain members take it to the extreme, coming to view themselves and their own thinking as inherently flawed and beyond all hope of renewal (and to be fair, I’ve seen it outside of A.A. in various spiritual circles, as well). It’s not the norm, but I have encountered people who constantly question any idea they came up with on their own, with the rationale that their own thinking brought them years of drunkenness, and thus they should not trust their own thinking at all. People in this situation are often highly dependent upon their sponsors, rarely doing anything important without first consulting them or others in A.A. They will often try to foster this same level of co-dependence in others by spreading around the idea that we all need to totally abandon all self-will and independence. To them, the words “me,” “I” and “self” are tantamount to slurs.

Needless to say (I hope), I disagree with this idea, and so would most Pagans that I’ve met. To most of us, the self is sacred and although we recognize that it perhaps wants to be more important and powerful than it is or should be, it nonetheless serves a divine purpose as the anchor of our spiritual selves to this material plane. It is the reference point that we need in order to function in this world. It may be true that as alcoholics, we shouldn’t let this self run away with the idea that we will be able to drink again without incident one day, but we can heal the self and bring it into balance with our other aspects and with the rest of the world; it can be restored to sanity and become trustworthy once again.

Anyone who says otherwise is going way too far (and, I might add, directly contradicting Step Two).

*Throughout this series of posts, I will be keeping things simple by referring to “alcoholism,” and alcohol abuse, but this is a placeholder for addictions/compulsions of any kind.

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