Say What You Mean
By Adam N.
I am on record as having a problem with the word ‘spiritual’ and its commonly overused variants. Even within the tiny and idiosyncratic atheist niche of Alcoholics Anonymous within which I thrive, that is somewhat unusual. I suppose my main objection is that it is sometimes allowed to become such a vague, catch-all term that, from my seat at least, I really am not sure about what people are saying at times.
In fact, I am thinking that sometimes the people using the phrase themselves may not be all too sure about what they are saying. After all, some element of what works for people in AA is parroting. As unflattering as these barnyard metaphors may be, it is nonetheless disturbingly accurate to say that, to some extent, we become like sheep, copying what others in the herd do. However, since that includes not drinking, copying the herd may not be all that bad an idea!
Now, don’t go getting all upset and defensive if I just described you as a sheep or a parrot. We are all sheep or parrots to some extent. I am suggesting that this is a very natural, evolutionarily explicable expression of our tribal nature. Alcoholics Anonymous, in spite of being based largely upon the very Christian Oxford Group, hit upon something so definitively human that it can in fact be traced back to our evolutionary roots in the African savannah, where our brains developed to be what they are within small tribal bands of 10 to 100 people. That is: fellowship. Peer support. Our definitively tribal nature. So, relax, we are all sheep and parrots to some extent. Or monkeys. When told to do as the winners do, are we not in fact being advised to ‘monkey’ those self same winners?
But I still think that ‘spirit’s’ variants get overused and under-clarified. Today at my home group of AA it was no exception. After 20 minutes I had to leave. I did not leave in anger. I did not leave in frustration, sadness, disappointment or any other disturbed mental or emotional state. No. I had just heard enough, and it was time for me to get back to work. So I left. But, as I always do, on the way back to work, I thought about what I had heard….
We were finishing reading the Big Book. It’s a Big Book study, and we had cycled through to the end once again. Then we read the Spiritual Appendix. What a name. Always sounds like we’re prepping for surgery. I used to love that piece because I spent years in AA waiting for some kind of burning bush experience, and I thought something was wrong with me because it never happened, in spite of my genuine, concerted effort. After a while I got the point of the appendix. I finally accepted that I was just going to be one of those educational variety types. And so I was, for many, many years.
But then I finally did have a spiritual experience. I mean, I guess that’s what you would call it. It changed everything for me. I had a new clarity and confidence that I had never had before. Things made sense in a very stable and real way, and I finally realized that I was right here and right now, as complete and OK as any mortal being can ever be. I realized that there was no more striving or worrying to be done, and that I did not have to be a relentless, restless seeker anymore. Gone was the existential anxiety, that constant, nagging fear that there was something to get, but I was never going to get it, whatever the hell it was.
The only unusual thing about all of this was that, for me, my spiritual experience was the moment I finally acknowledged and fully accepted that I was an atheist. So, for me, the “Spiritual Appendix” was, indeed, kind of like having something surgically removed. The god part.
Anyways, so I am sitting there listening to people talk about spirit this and spiritual that, and all I can think is that I really have to struggle to filter through the jargon to really understand what they are saying. Every time they talk like that, like when they say they are living a spiritual life, or living by spiritual principles, it serves more to muddle things than to clarify them. So, I guess, for me, as an atheist, it’s not even as deep as god vs. no god, or spiritual vs. material. It’s really more like ‘say what you mean.’ For me, theistic language obscures the core operative principles. Avoid obfuscation. Be specific.
I guess that’s my whole point, in a nutshell. Be specific. That’s what the newcomer needs. I have been around for a hundred years. I know how to turn on my internal cerebral interpreting device and secularize the god-speak that runs like the plague through our beloved 12 step culture. I spent years cultivating that skill, and if I forget to turn on my secular interpreting device before entering an AA meeting, then the subsequent agony is entirely of my own making and essentially my own fault. But the new guy, he is struggling just to stay in his seat. Don’t make it harder for him or her with sub-cultural clone speak that buries your point under layers of religious detritus. Get to the heart of the matter. Be specific. Say what you mean.
I realized, as I was driving away, that this was the main problem that I had with the term spiritual and its derivatives. I realized it because of something that New Jersey Dan said. He was, like, the 6th or 7th person in a row to talk about spirituality. It was all starting to turn into ‘blah blah blah’ in my head, like the trumpeting grown-up’s in Charlie Brown, and I was starting to worry about the newcomers, the guys in the back row of the room.
But then Dan said something that made me snap to attention. He was talking about doing work in the world, some kind of work or other; I do not know exactly what it was. Could have been a job, or working steps, or working on a relationship. Some kind of work or other. Then he talked about not getting caught up in the results. He talked about doing the footwork, taking the actions needed to bring about a certain result, and then letting go. Accepting whatever results came about.
This is what he meant when he said spiritual. So, I am, like, oh, I get it! You are talking about humility, acceptance, and surrender. I could see Dan, could see myself, all balled up and freaking out because the exact end result I had in mind was not coming about. Then I could see Dan, could see myself, letting go, accepting, surrendering to fate, reality, or whatever. Accepting what is. Wearing the world as if a light garment.
And then, serenity.
Dan was talking about cultivating a mentally healthy, psychologically and socially sustainable and sane state of mind wherein you are not trying to over control the outcomes of your actions, or over control other persons. He was talking about cultivating an attitude of acceptance, acceptance of the the world, the universe, as it is. He was talking about doing the footwork, whatever is required at any time, and letting go of the results.
To me, these are moral actions, psychologically sound choices, pro-social behaviors. Humility is a virtue. It is a virtue because it is, as a general rule, a pro-social attitude. It is also very often a virtue with significant psychological benefits. Why do we call these things spiritual? I suspect that, in some measure, it is because these things have historically been associated with Christianity. Humility, acceptance and surrender have been core components of Christian religious teaching for thousands of years. These are psychological and pro-social dispositions that are at the very core of the AA lifestyle, the AA experience. Yet they are unquestionably a part of AA because they have been handed down, baton style, to AA through Christian religious tradition.
Now, I have no problem with this. I may be an atheist, but I am an atheist with some knowledge of, and a profound appreciation for, our theistic roots. I do not believe in god or gods or supernatural intervention. But I also do not believe in throwing out the baby with the bath water. These are great, useful virtues which absolutely help recovering alcoholics and addicts to handle life on life’s terms, one day at a time. As such, I consider them to be integral to my own personal recovery. I am also totally comfortable with the fact that some of what works in AA comes to us from religious traditions. But AA member’s use of the term spiritual is not merely very often vague and imprecise; it is also very often a poorly disguised effort to distance themselves from established religious traditions. In this sense its frequent abuse is either obfuscating or disingenuous, take your pick.
It is also, in a sense, factually misleading. The implication is that spirit is distinct from matter, from our bodies, from our worldly selves. Look, I am not making this shit up. Straight from America’s encyclopedia of the 21st century, Wikipedia:
The English word spirit (from Latin spiritus “breath“) has many differing meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body (emphasis not mine)
As such spirituality is a furtherance of the bad religious habit in AA of associating all things bad with our frail human nature, and all things good, all of our ‘spiritual’ success, with god.
But, IMHO, none of this is true. The things we describe as spiritual are very much human, very much an integral aspect of our very material, all too human selves. These are not traits bestowed upon us by some breath which animates our otherwise zombie-like corpses, by some wind which can be distinguished from the sail it drives. These are very much human traits, hard wired into us by eons of natural selection, an inseparable aspect of our corporeal bodies which enable us to live together, happily forever and ever, in human tribes of one kind or another. By calling them spiritual, we inaccurately disassociate them from their very human roots.
For the record, I am also happy to acknowledge the obvious fact that some very nasty things are also all too human. The selfishness we exhibit, the callous or maudlin indifference towards others, all too human. The hardening ourselves against the emotional pain we cause ourselves and others, these are also all too human. The progression downwards, the miserable slide into the alcoholic abyss, all of these things are very much a natural aspect of our hominid legacy.
But so too is everything about the reverse trajectory of recovery. This, too, is entirely and completely human. Restitution amends, and the good, clean conscience they imbue, all of this is completely and totally human. Gratitude and humility are one hundred percent human traits. Just because they are maybe somewhat new to we self centered alcoholics, because some of us did not much live by these principles when out there, does not mean that they were subsequently beamed down to us from some alien culture or breathed into us by some otherworldly supernatural force. With the growing awareness of the implications of post-Darwinian thinking, Cartesian Dualism, body-mind distinctions, and the schism between the spiritual and the material are all coming under considerably increasing suspicion.
No, these most excellent, psychologically and socially beneficial traits are exactly the best of humanity, these are us in our finest hour. And it is our freely choosing them, choosing to live by them, above and beyond the call of our more bestial nature that is, above all else, the most beautifully and definitively human act. This is perhaps the most glorious and magical thing about recovery: that, of our free will, we all too flawed humans daily make choices to walk on this higher road in the face of very strong inclinations to the contrary.
This cultivating of beneficent attitudes and actions, such as humility, acceptance and surrender where appropriate, these make us feel a calm, serene, lasting kind of pleasure, and they ensure that we are more likely to follow the injunction of the late, great Saint George of Roxas: “Don’t be a dick”. These choices, which serve to make us less of a pain in the ass to both ourselves and to our fellow tribe members, are entirely and completely human behaviors. The cause of imparting or reinforcing these beneficent traits in our brothers and sisters in recovery is not well furthered by the use of obfuscating jargon or internal cult-speak. In fact, I believe it is just such talk that gives the greater public the distinct impression that we are some kind of quasi-religious cult rather than a practical solution to alcoholism and drug addiction which is available to every man and woman who is afflicted. So, say what you mean. Be precise. A newcomer’s life may depend upon it.