Unitarian Universalism and the Twelve Steps
O Great Love,
For being Licked,
For Being Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired,
For Giving Up,
For Enough Finally Being Enough,
For the Path of Descent That Finally Reaches the Place Known as the Bottom,
I am profoundly grateful.
(Restored to Sanity, Skinner House Books, 2014, 7)
The admission that one is powerless over alcohol is the first step in the Twelve-Step program. That prayer comes from the book Restored To Sanity, a book of essays compiled by two Unitarian Universalist Ministers.
For people who struggle with addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous has for many years been a lifeline of hope and recovery. The Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is a time-honored practice that has brought thousands of people who struggle with addiction to sobriety and, some would say, to sanity. There are other recovery programs, such as LifeRing and Rational Recovery, but none is as well-known as AA.
Unitarian Universalists are among the people supported by the AA Twelve-Step practices, but there can be a challenge to some who find the language and teachings about a higher power problematic. I would like this morning to look at some of the twelve steps through the eyes of the Restored to Sanity authors, all of whom are UUs. I believe their writings will give us insight into the philosophy and language of Twelve-Step programs, and help us to see that a spiritual, rather than religious perspective, may be helpful for the hard work of recovery. What is more, much of the work of the Twelve Steps can be beneficial for UUs who are not in need of a recovery program.
Romantic, tragic figures hopelessly addicted to alcohol or drugs litter western popular culture – from the fictional Nicolas Cage anti-hero determined to drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas to real-life people such as John Belushi, Kurt Cobain, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead with a needle still in his arm last year. But these larger-than-life names glamorize and give us a false picture of addiction: people who abuse drugs and alcohol are ordinary people like you and me, who have jobs and children and go to church.
As we learn to employ coping mechanisms to handle the challenges of daily life, so do they – except for them, those mechanisms become another challenge: as Denis Meacham writes in the Addiction Ministry Handbook (Skinner House Books, 2004), “Chemically dependent people are stuck in a coping behavior that probably served them well at one time, briefly, and now they can’t change without help.” (1)
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.:
“One in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking, and more than 7 million children live in a household where at least one parent is dependent on or has abused alcohol. (https://ncadd.org/learn-about-alcohol/faqsfacts) And it is estimated that 20 million Americans aged 12 or older used an illegal drug in the past 30 days. This estimate represents 8% percent of the population aged 12 years old or older. Illicit drugs include marijuana/hashish, cocaine (including crack), heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, or prescription drugs used without a prescription. Each year more teens enter addiction treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than all other illegal drugs combined."
"The estimated cost of drug abuse exceeds $190 Billion in lost productivity, in healthcare costs, and in legal costs including efforts to stem the flow of drugs. Beyond the financial cost is the cost to individuals, families and society through the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, either through sharing of drug paraphernalia or unprotected sex; deaths due to overdose or other complications from drug use; effects on unborn children of pregnant drug users; and the impact on the family, crime and homelessness.” (https://ncadd.org/learn-about-drugs/faqsfacts)
So how do people begin to get to grips with recovery, once they hit the bottom? Anne Lamott observes that “Willingness to change comes only from pain.” (Small Victories, 2014, p. 275) The decision to seek help is one thing, but then the resistance to the Christian trappings of AA programs may keep many people from fully committing to a Twelve-step recovery program. Theistic language turns a lot of people off. Two of the Twelve Steps contain the phrase “God as we understand Him”; for people who have had negative or even traumatic experiences with male authority figures can’t find meaning or fulfillment with this kind of description.
The key to the first step for addicts is being able to turn over their fight against drugs or alcohol, and admit that their lives are unmanageable. Reaching out and seeking help outside of oneself is possible only when one knows the limits of exerting control “in the face of uncontrollable external forces” (27); that means being realistic, and a prayer that is often recited at Twelve-step meetings is the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
What are the things we cannot change? According to David Richo’s book The Five Things We Cannot Change, and the Happiness We Find by EmbracingThem, they are: everything changes and ends; things do not always go according to plan; life is not always fair; pain is part of life; people are not loyal and loving all of the time (cited in Restored to Sanity, 41). Aligning ourselves with reality means being open to what life has to offer, and abandoning our denial of those givens.
Affirming the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part, is Our Seventh Principle, and it is a way to understand our place in a world that does not revolve around us. It also allows us to frame our understanding of a higher power in ways that are familiar for UUs: the Restored to Sanity essay by Paul says that “God, for me, is in the process of living and is a verb rather than a noun.” (30)
One well-known AA slogan is “Let go and let God”; Meacham says that “it is not only acceptance of a higher power that is difficult or impossible for some people but also the call to surrender their will to that power.” (26) The Third Step is the decision to turn one’s will and lives over to the care of God. The surrender step means reassessing our sense of self-importance and our inability to beat forces that are more powerful than we are. Meacham says that to surrender in the spiritual sense means not only to change thoughts and attitudes, but also to enlarge one’s existence in a relationship with a higher good that can transform the very foundation of one’s being.” (28)
Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: “when we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own wired, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us.” (Stitches, 2013, 91)
It can be tough for a UU to see how it’s possible to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God precisely because of the way we might understand Him. In an essay in Restored to Sanity, Kent writes that he is acutely aware of the unfairness of life; when he surveys the suffering in the world, he rejects theologies that claim that God is in charge of everything and has a larger plan that we should trust: “Many of us have wondered why we should risk “turning ourselves over” to a chaotic, unfair world. I have come to believe there is a gracious goodness in AA groups, the church, the community, and the world. If we open ourselves up…we can benefit greatly.” (34)
A belief in a new, higher good can free us to follow a new direction in life and to reconnect with others; here at this church we call that reconnection the beloved community, a faithful gathering of people whose lives are for service to the greater good. We offer each other companionship along the spiritual path that each has chosen, and those who are in recovery can offer as much to our congregation as their peers do to them.
There is a commonality between AA and UU – in the First Principle UUs affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. In AA those struggling with dependency learn that they have inherent worth and dignity. Julie writes: “In AA we learn, often for the first time, that we alcoholics have inherent worth and dignity. Once we understand this about ourselves at the deepest level, we know the First Principle.” (40)
The 4th and 5th steps are difficult for many people because they ask for inventories, the 4th for a fearless and moral inventory of ourselves. Step 5 is admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. (61) Chris writes that there is nothing a person can do or not do that can add to or subtract from their worth and dignity: “Whereas the forms of Christianity I experienced taught me that I am a ‘fallen’ human, a sinner, and that only through Jesus Christ can I be redeemed, Unitarian Universalism teaches that I am worthy already.” (62)
There are other steps that are very challenging - Step 6 asks that a person be ready to have God remove all defects of character, 7 that God remove our shortcomings. “I realized that having character defects simply makes me human – no more, no less…As I engaged with Step Six, I realized that the part that I could do was to get ready – to prepare; the part that God did was to remove my shame about having character defects at all.” (73-74)
But the next two steps are very involved: Step 8 is to make a list of all persons we have harmed and be willing to make amends to them all; the 9th step is to make direct amends to those people whenever possible. (93, 99)
Step 11 is seeking through prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for our knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. Meacham in the Addiction Ministry Handbook suggests that in order to work on this step we need to Cultivate an awareness and receptivity to the transcendent in life: “being open to such experiences as we go about our lives belies the notion that there are specific times or places for the soul to be refreshed or inspired. Recovering people must be in the world with such openness and trust that they can be fully ready for the numinous to break through at any time. Being open to the transcendental in life requires being fully present in the moment – being here now.” (35)
Sarah writes in her essay "Will and Power", “Step 11 brought spirituality out of the musings of my intellect and intot he experience of my heart and soul; it came to life. I am no longer interested in being right ot=r wrong. Rather, I seek to be connected to spirit, to live with peace, serenity, and an overflowing fountain of joy.” (141)
We all can benefit by being mindful of and present to our lives. Anne Lamott says that “Grace meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.” (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/annelamott391308.html) In the hymn Amazing Grace we sang “‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far…” so dare we use the word salvation to describe the ‘spiritual awakening’ that the 12th step mentions? For UUs who can reframe the experience and thus enrich their well-being, that is a question worth asking and answering.
Lynn Ungar’s poem Salvation asks this:
By what are you saved? And how?
Saved like a bit of string,
tucked away in a drawer?
Saved like a child rushed from
a burning building, already
singed and coughing smoke?
Or are you salvaged
like a car part—the one good door
when the rest is wrecked?
Do you believe me when I say
you are neither salvaged nor saved,
but salved, anointed by gentle hands
where you are most tender?
Haven’t you seen
the way snow curls down
like a fresh sheet, how it
covers everything, makes everything
beautiful, without exception?
What is meant by salvation is in the end not as important a consideration as the inclusive faith of Universalism, as articulated by theologian Forrest Church, that rejects the divisive notion that people fit into two separate categories: sheep and goats; the saved and the damned. As Ziggy Marley wrote, “bring all the lovers to the fold, cause no one is gonna lose their soul” (Love Is My Religion). Even as we are spiritually awakened, we can follow our mission to carry our saving message to others, not from a position of superiority but of solidarity, as fellow human beings, each of us with inherent worth and dignity.
And in the words of Forrest Church:
“The surest way to find the sacred is to decode our own experiences, not only of beauty…but also in sacraments of pain by which we commune with one another… We all suffer. We are broken and in need of healing. We struggle to accept ourselves and forgive others. To adopt the old language, we are all sinners. Aware of our imperfections, we seek more perfect faith, hope, love, and justice. At our best, we empathize with one another's pain and rise together in answer to a higher law.” (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/2786.shtml)
May we be the ones who make it so.