Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: STEP1: Development of powerlessness into an all encompassing existential stance
Author: Fraser Trevor
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 In AA, the bulk of arguments are outside issues. Although there are a few members in every group that manage to develop powerlessness in...
AA Big Book
 In AA, the bulk of arguments are outside issues. Although there are a few members in every group that manage to develop powerlessness into an all encompassing existential stance, for most powerlessness is powerlessness over the use of alcohol. It is the inability to stop drinking even when one has realized that drinking no longer offers any pleasure or reward. This kind of powerlessness is an objective condition for the alcoholic, and in pragmatism is encompassed by Dewey's far reaching theories of habit and the enormous role it plays in personal and social life.
Dewey's concept of habit varies from the ordinary use of the word in one significant way. In ordinary usage, habit tends to refer to the trivial. In Dewey it goes to the basic behavioral mechanism that forms individuals and communities. Habit is human activity which is influenced by prior activity, and is thus in a sense acquired, but which contains a systemization of action that is projective, dynamic and ready to go at a moments notice. It is not repetition, but an acquired predisposition to certain types of responses. Thus, the imortal soul, conscience, and even consciousness have no independent role in how a person responds to the world. "Concrete habits do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, conceiving and reasoning that is done." Knowledge lives in the muscles, not the consciousness. Habit is will. One does not change habitual behavior directly, say by exercise of will, but by modifying conditions and by intelligently selecting the objects of our attention. He uses the example of a man with poor posture. The man is told to stand up straight, or maybe he simply decides that he will stand up straight in the future. Making an effort to do so, he manages to stand differently for a while, but having no experience of correct posture he is largely incapable of comfortably standing correctly even when he keeps his mind focused on doing so. Once his mind wanders, he returns to his old ways of standing. His habitual way of standing is an objective condition which prevents improvement of his posture. If the objective condition were a spinal deformity, everyone would understand the problem. However, when the condition is habit, there exists a tendency to blame his poor posture on insufficient desire or will. This belief that one can bring about a desired result by summoning up a powerful wish and a stiff dose of resolve, is in Dewey akin to a belief in magic. It ignores the objective conditions surrounding the behavior and looks to a supernatural power existing in the mind to achieve the result. The Big Book states it succinctly, " At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail." To change a habit, a person must make a "flanking movement." Thus, the man with poor posture must take up activities which promote correct standing without requiring him to think about his posture. On the issue of drink, Dewey suggests as follows:
The hard-drinker who keeps thinking of not drinking is doing what he can to initiate the acts which lead to drinking. He is starting with the stimulus to his habit. To succeed he must find some positive interest or line of action which will inhibit the drinking series and which by instituting another course of action will bring him to his desired end. In short, the man's true aim is to discover some course of action, having nothing to do with the habit of drink or standing erect, which will take him where he wants to go. The discovery of this other series is at once his means and his end.
AA's first step essentially asks the new member to quit trying to give up drinking. Wanting to stop drinking is a condition of membership but is irrelevant to ones ability to stop. The mental magic will not work, primarily because an alcoholics return to drinking is more often than not a thoughtless and unplanned passing into familiar behaviors. Instead, one must turn ones energies to other matters, matters contained in the steps that follow. Of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first one is the only one that mentions alcohol.
Since the start of AA, powerlessness has been intimately connected with the disease model of alcoholism, and AA has been a significant force in the decisions by medical groups to accept alcoholism as a disease. However, expansion of the word "disease" to include that wide variety of behaviors that make up alcoholism still leaves many uncomfortable, and the relative importance of biological factors and personal decision still sparks debate among addiction specialists. The essence of this debate concerns the cause of alcoholism, rather than what to do with the existing alcoholic, and, as in many such arguments about causation, the object of the debate is to assess blame. Moralists blame the poor choices and general character of the alcoholic. Others blame hereditary and biological factors. From a pragmatist perspective both sides make the same error. They separate man from his physical nature, and mind from the world. The moralist is angry that the alcoholic drank, and by blaming him for his alcoholism needs not deal with the conditions that create and nurture alcoholism. The predestinationist works sentimentality the other way, sympathizing with the plight of the alcoholic and turns a cause into an excuse. By emphasizing antecedent causation, both avoid having to make intelligent scientific and moral judgments about what acts are still to be performed. Both Dewey and AA, view the emotional responses based upon antecedent causation as a hindrance to an intelligent next step. The Big Book, however, fails to reject either position. Like many religious and quasi-religious texts, it is often inconsistent and obscure. Rather than choosing between the moralist and the environmentalist regarding the origins of alcoholism, or even rejecting both as the Dewey would have us do, AA accepts both and thus flirts with the errors inherent in each. The root of alcoholism is treated as a paradox. It is a failure within the mind and a biological condition.
Bill Wilson credited Dr. Silkworths idea of obsession accompanied by an allergy to alcohol as one of the founding concepts of AA. The Big Book emphatically identifies alcoholism as a disease, and did so long before science had established the biological and genetic aspects of the condition. However, the book also states that alcoholism is a symptom of an underlying spiritual malady. There is the paradox. The condition is both a disease and a symptom. It is an allergy and an obsession. It is a physical condition and a defect in character. Dewey accepted neither formulation. AA accepts both. The disease concept helps the newcomer disassociate prior alcoholic behaviors from the ephemeral and guilt ridden "self" that the alcoholic usually brings to the program. The disease did it, not you. However, once the shakes have gone away and the newcomer's head has cleared, he is faced with the other side of the paradox. He had the disease because of underlying defects in character. "Character" is never defined in AA, but nothing in the program is inconsistent with Dewey's concept of character as the interconnected bundle of habits, each affecting the others, which over a period of time combine and recombine to form a person's disposition toward and response to existence. In the fourth step, the moral inventory, an AA member is required to identify those habits which have contributed to his character as well as the specific acts which contributed to the formation of those habits. This "moral inventory," the elaborate confession that constitutes one of the most feared steps in the AA program, is a psychological exercise that takes one beyond antecedent causes and into the heart of AA pragmatism.

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