“We don’t struggle,” Praying Atheists, and Other Sober Paradoxes

Posted: May 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

For the active alcoholic or the newly sober, there are probably things in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that will stick in the proverbial craw, confuse, or simply sound ridiculous.  Of the things that stuck with me during my painful, three-year relapse, the words “We don’t struggle” (BB, p. 86) probably caused the most blinking.  The phrase is part of a section from Chapter Six, “Into Action,” which is about the later steps and forming a relationship with God.  But they rang for me in a jarring, out-of-context way for a long time, including the first few months of this still-new sobriety.

“We don’t struggle,” huh?  Really?   I struggled.  With everything, I struggled.  Before I had developed a drinking problem, I struggled with things–everything, it seemed.  Okay, maybe I was good at my job or good in bed or a decent cook; but, the things that really counted, like relationships and honesty and feeling comfortable in my own skin, were simply beyond me.


I have always been myopic–not metaphorically, but literally–and this created a childhood of pretense in terms of my relationship to the visual world.  What others could see–at what seemed telescopic distances–were, for me, Pissarro-inspired smudges and foggy outlines at best.

“Do you see that?”

“Oh, yes!  Neat!”

Only one of my high school teachers noticed that I had trouble seeing the board from my third row seat.  Only one, which shows you how well I hid it. So, yes, I struggled even to see, and became very good a faking it.   And somehow that dynamic spilled out into or perhaps simply created the space for understanding the rest of my life, the things that didn’t come easily or naturally, anyway.  I struggled, failed, and faked it.


Sobriety was supposed to make this all better.  Right.  We don’t struggle.  We don’t struggle?   Just deciding what to do with my day, especially sober, seemed impossibly difficult.  Whatever I was determined to do would probably be wrong, as I knew from experience.  I lived with the constant certainty of failure, which made even simple decisions sometimes excruciating. And now the mechanism that had for so long helped me fake it after failure, alcohol, was no longer available.  So, let’s see how The Big Book says it works, in context:

In thinking about our day we may face indecision.  We may not be able to determine which course to take.  Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision.  We relax and take it easy.  We don’t struggle.  We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while. 

Eh-hem–question from the myopic girl in the third row:  “So what do you do if you’re an atheist?”  Now, before I got to Chapter Six, which assures me that “We don’t struggle,” I had presumably to have read Chapter 4, which should have gotten me beyond my disbelief, my atheism.  P. 44 says, “But cheer up, something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics.  Our experience shows that you need not be disconcerted.”

I was disconcerted, but I had promised myself that I would go to any lengths to be sober, so I went in search of that holy grail:  my HIGHER POWER.  Where could it be?  The cupboard, the closet, the duffel bag I saved from college?  Do the doctor or the mountains have it–No, the Indigo Girls already looked there.  Crap.  Where the hell was my Higher Power?  In the end, I resolved that I should at least try to articulate for myself why I’m an atheist before giving up altogether this spiritual quest.  What ensued were a few nervous weeks of soul-searching (souls I believe in, metaphorically) and identifying my real beliefs and spiritual positions.  It was a little like trying to determine whether or not I was gay when I was 14.  The answer was similar: “Yep, I’m an atheist.”

I’m going to leave aside how I arrived at this self-assured self-knowledge.  And I’m also going to forego most of the objections people make about atheism and 12-step recovery.  Anyway, most of those encouraging suggestions to atheists boil down to equating atheism with agnosticism–an epistemological blunder that Bill W. & Co. make for reasons that make perfect sense in the 1930’s context of the BB’s authorship.  Real atheism, however, is as far from agnosticism as Pluto is from being re-declared a planet, no matter how much we’d like to see it happen.  The other silly suggestion to atheists is that, rather than believing in an anthropomorphized deity, we believe in an unathropomorphized one that we call variously, “The Universe,” “Spirit,” “Good Orderly Direction,” “The Power of the Group,” etc.  I put this undeniably slippery compromise into the same category with the insistence that Big Book isn’t really sexist, as if the entire chapter “To Wives” doesn’t by default limit the audience and the quaint use of the term “our womenfolk” is some kind of typo.  The Big Book is just sexist.  So’s Shakespeare.  Doesn’t mean I won’t learn anything from it–but don’t insult this chick’s intelligence!


Digressions complete, I should now admit that I did manage to stop struggling.  First, I stopped struggling because I was able to see the Big Book and those cool cats who penned it for the limited, flawed, historically defined, fantastic human beings they were.  This is harder to do than it ought to be, because so much of the human atmosphere around AA is evangelically charged by its practitioners.  That’s no accident:  Bill W., Bob S. and the first AA members were not so different from Paul and the early Christians, who were misunderstood (deliberately), surrounded by death, and felt certain they had found a way out of the hellishness of existence.  Paul has some pretty inane things to say as a result of his historical context, which weren’t at all inane at the time.  Bill W. & Co. are no different.  Neither am I.  I read the Big Book through my feminist, queer, atheist lens (thick lenses, thank you), and it still makes sense to me, though a different sense than it might to the guys who wrote it or to a Christian-leaning agnostic who reads it.

I stopped arguing with Bill W. just as I had stopped arguing with my alcoholism, and as I had recently learned to stop arguing with my atheism.  I stopped struggling, and a tremendous peace filled the place of that struggle.  What worked for Bill would work for me in part, but not in whole–just as the rotary phones available to him would work in a limited context, but won’t fit in my back pocket when I leave the house.  Simple.  But I spent a good deal of time complicating it.

So many things have wound up being this simple, thankfully.  For instance, that feeling of always being left behind, not seeing what others see… Well, it’s true that I do not see what others see, but that, as it happens, is not a “failure,” though it felt like one and still does sometimes.  Feeling left behind–that the world was sped up around me, that everyone was somehow “ahead” was also a misunderstanding.  It also happens that the failure there was not the inability to “catch up” to others, but the refusal to slow down and pay attention to what mattered to me.  In other words, I am learning to approach my life on its own terms, my beliefs and emotions on their own terms, and other people as radically separate from me (rather than as tacit lines drawn in the sand by which to “measure up”).

I also learned to pray.

I have said elsewhere that I’m not going to go into my beliefs, which would take another blog post to explain the rabbit-hole that finally led me to them; but, let’s suffice it to say that I believe in many things greater than myself (Higher Powers, if you will), including and definitely not limited to gravity and other laws of physics, great poetry,  cute kittens, the urge to pee, and the will of my mother on Christmas-related decisions.  Sometimes I find the need to come into contact with these things in a general way, to focus myself, just as Bill W. & Friends suggest we do.  And this is the way I begin my conscious contact, “Dear Lord, I pray…”  And this is how I end the communication, “In the name of Our Lord Jesus I pray, Amen.”

Yes, I do.

My mother and father, a quiet atheist and a mercurial agnostic respectively, obviously had nothing to do with my religious training, which was moderate Southern Baptist.  (The term “moderate” attached to Southern Baptist is almost like saying that I have a “moderate” case of terminal cancer, but in the context of my very southern, rural hometown, we were moderate.)  My grandmother, however, dragged me to Sunday School, presided over my eventual baptism, and until the day she died, modeled for me what a genuinely decent, fulfilling spiritual life looked like.  And she taught me to pray.

When I realized I needed to find a way of articulating my gratitude, hopes, and desires to The Ineffable (or just The Innumerable, as is my case), I tried talking generically, just journaling, even addressing It as “The Entity in Which I Do Not Deistly Believe” (which was a real step backward, in my opinion).  My instinct, taught from my earliest days, however, was just to fold my hands, bow my head, and pray as I had when I was a twelve-year-old.

So, I stopped struggling.  The God in Which I Do Not Believe is not going to be angry at me for addressing Him this way.  The things in which I do believe are, by definition, beyond such personal communication anyway.  If I am embarrassed by this, it is only the audience of one (myself) who is sniggering.  And what’s her problem, anyway?   I stopped struggling with it, and just started praying and feeling more peace with each communication.  It is a wonderful heuristic or therapy, prayer.  It will help me prioritize, help me stay quiet, help me find answers.  I don’t struggle, just like the Big Book says.

So many paradoxes in recovery, I find.  To defeat my alcoholism, I had to surrender to its permanent fact.  To find my spiritual center, I had to articulate and embrace my atheism.  To practice my atheism, I had to learn to pray.

  1. Manny Klystron says:

    Thanks for this! I’m a guy in early recovery who was struggling with “To Wives”, and googling around on it turned up some pretty scathing critiques of AA.

    • soberfornow says:

      Oh…yes. Babies…bathwater…etc. Given the way AA works (or the way AA thinks it works), it’s impossible to revise the main text of the BB, even though its dated material is extremely offputting to many 21st century, Western readers. I suppose the fear is that it would create division, where AA unity is everywhere prized in the Traditions. This stance fails to acknowledge that divisions already exist, of course. But, who am I to question the wisdom of the collective conscience?

      What winds up happening is that people who have been helped by the program defend every word of the BB, just as fundamentalist Christians defend every word of the Bible. (Thus, there’s a Creation Museum with dioramas of fur-wearing cavemen riding dinosaurs 90 minutes from my house. If it didn’t cost $19 to get in, I’d got for sheer cheek!) It’s completely unnecessary. There’s plenty of good stuff in AA–in the BB and in the people I meet–without demanding that I genuflect to some very silly crap that genuinely insults my experience as a woman and as an atheist. But…you know… “take what you need, and leave the rest.”

      I should confess that my “primary fellowship” is Women for Sobriety, not AA–for precisely the reasons I cite here and elsewhere. There are problems with any program, but WFS members have never claimed, for instance, that ours is the only way to get sober. It’s just a facet of AA one has to deal with if one wants to work that program. I still read the BB (dare I say, religiously?). I get a lot from friends and acquaintances working that program. Most WFS members work some “dual” version like this–because, we think that recovery is recovery is recovery.

      Best wishes on your journey. We all DESERVE our sobriety.

  2. Well, I am taking what I like … AA is what worked for me(believe me, it was THE last house on the block) and I do not walk on water yet so….I’ll leave the rest BUT….You my dear are very gifted AND I think this blog and your ability to communicate at this level is simply amazing. Better than a movie with a triple plot! Keep up the GREAT work, I mean that from the bottom of my heart…simply amazing!

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