Step 1: Admitting Our Powerlessness

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 2

Step 1: Admitting Our Powerlessness
Sunday, November 22, 2015

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. —Step 1 of the Twelve Steps

The very first step of the Twelve Step program is our admission that we have come to the end of ourselves. Once again we see the truth of the paschal mystery: life comes out of death. In the case of alcoholics, it’s not just the death of their ego’s belief in their human ability to manage their drinking; their physical death is literally imminent. As Bill Wilson describes his own story, “My weary and despairing wife was informed that . . . she would soon have to give me over to the undertaker or the asylum.” [1]

The Big Book says that when Alcoholics Anonymous began in the 1930’s, doctors largely thought that “most chronic alcoholics are doomed.” [2] Moreover, “an illness of this sort—and we have come to believe it an illness—involves those about us in a way no other human sickness can. All are sorry for a person with cancer, and no one is angry or hurt. But not so with the alcoholic illness, for with it there goes annihilation of all the things worthwhile in life. It engulfs all whose lives touch the sufferer’s. It brings misunderstanding, fierce resentment, financial insecurity, disgusted friends and employers, warped lives of blameless children, sad spouses and parents—anyone can increase the list.” [3]

For all of us, whether addicted to alcohol or something else, unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot “manage,” you will never find the True Manager. God or Life ensures you have numerous opportunities to encounter your powerlessness. Self-made people, and all heroic spiritualities, will try to manufacture an even stronger self by willpower and determination—to put them back in charge and seeming control. This pushy response does not normally create loving people; rather, it produces people in ever deeper need of control. Eventually the game is unsustainable. [4] As English poet W.H. Auden put it in “Apropos of Many Things”: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.” [5]

Fortunately this was not the choice made by the honest, humble, and newly sober friend who came to help Bill W. at his lowest point. Bill explains:

My friend sat before me, and he made the pointblank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat. Then he had, in effect, been raised from the dead, suddenly taken from the scrap heap to a level of life better than the best he had ever known!

Had this power originated in him? Obviously it had not. There had been no more power in him than there was in me at that minute; and this was none at all. . . .

I saw that my friend was much more than inwardly reorganized. He was on a different footing. His roots grasped a new soil. [6]

It is just as Jesus, St. Francis, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux teach us: there is incredible power in powerlessness! The quickest ticket to heaven, enlightenment, or salvation is a willingness to face our own smallness and incapacity. Our conscious need for mercy is our only real boarding pass. The ego does not like that very much, but the soul fully understands. [7]

Gateway to Silence:
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 7. A Simple Program is a gender-neutral translation of the original Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

[2] Ibid., xxii.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 3-4.

[5] As quoted in ibid., 6.

[6] A Simple Program, 10-11.

[7] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 107.

Image Credit: Femme assise (Melancholy Woman, detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-03, The Detroit Museum of Art.