When the Big “I” Becomes Nobody – Grapevine Article Sept 1965 By Dr. Harry Tiebout, MD

“And there was Dr. Harry Tiebout, our first friend of psychiatry, who very early began to use AA concepts in his own practice…” Bill W. in AA Comes of Age

THE AA program of help is touched with elements of true inspiration, and in no place is that inspiration more evident than in the selection of its name, Alcoholics Anonymous. Anonymity is, of course, of great protective value, especially to the newcomer; but my present target is to focus on the even greater value anonymity has in contributing to the state of humility necessary for the maintenance of sobriety in the recovered alcoholic.

My thesis is that anonymity, thoughtfully preserved, supplies two essential ingredients to that maintenance. The two ingredients, actually two sides of the same coin, are: first, the preservation of a reduced ego; second, the continued presence of humility or humbleness. As stated in the Twelfth Tradition of AA, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions,” reminding each member to place “principles before personalities.”

Many of you will wonder what that word ego means. It has so many definitions that the first task is to clarify the nature of the ego needing reduction.

This ego is not an intellectual concept, but a state of feeling–a feeling of importance–of being “special.” Few people can recognize this need to be special in themselves. Most of us, however, can recognize offshoots of this attitude and put the proper name to it. Let me illustrate. Early in the AA days, I was consulted about a serious problem plaguing the local group. The practice of celebrating a year’s sobriety with a birthday cake had resulted in a certain number of the members getting drunk within a short period after the celebration. It seemed apparent that some could not stand prosperity. I was asked to settle between birthday cakes and no birthday cakes. Characteristically, I begged off, not from shyness, but from ignorance. Some three or four years later, AA furnished me the answer. The group no longer had such a problem, because, as one member said, “We celebrate still, but a year’s sobriety is now a dime a dozen. No one gets much of a kick out of that any more!”

A look at what happened shows us ego, as I see it, in action. Initially, the person who had been sober for a full year was a standout, someone to be looked up to. His ego naturally expanded; his pride flowered; any previous deflation vanished. With such a renewal of confidence, he took a drink. He had been made special and reacted accordingly. Later, the special element dropped out. No ego feeds off being in the dime-a-dozen category, and the problem of ego buildup vanished.

Today, AA in practice is well aware of the dangers of singling anyone out for honors and praise. The dangers of reinflation are recognized. The phrase “trusted servant” is a conscious effort to keep that ego down, although admittedly some servants have a problem in that regard.

Now let us take a closer look at this ego which causes trouble. The feelings associated with this state of mind are of basic importance in understanding the value of anonymity for the individual–the value of placing him in the rank and file of humanity.

Certain qualities typify this ego which views itself as special and therefore different. It is high on itself and prone to keep its goals and visions at the same high level. It disdains what it sees as grubs who plod along without the fire and inspiration of those sparked by ideals lifting people out of the commonplace and offering promise of better things to come.

Often the same ego operates in reverse. It despairs of man, with his faults and his failings, and develops a cynicism which sours the spirit and makes of its possessor a cranky realist who finds nothing good in this vale of tears. Life never quite meets his demands upon it, and he lives an embittered existence, grabbing what he can out of the moment, but never really part of what goes on around him. He seeks love and understanding and prates endlessly about his sense of alienation from those around him. Basically, he is a disappointed idealist–forever aiming high and landing low. Both of these egos confuse humbleness with humiliation.

To develop this further, the expression “You think you’re something” nicely catches the sense of being above the crowd. Children readily spot youngsters who think they are something, and do their best to puncture that illusion. For instance, they play a game called tag. In it, the one who is tagged is called “it.” You’ve heard them accuse each other saying, “You think you’re it,” thereby charging the other with acting as though he was better than his mates. In their own way, children make very good therapists or head-shrinkers. They are skillful puncturers of inflated egos, even though their purpose is not necessarily therapeutic.

AA had its start in just such a puncturing. Bill W. always refers to his experience at Towns Hospital as a “deflation in great depth” and on occasion has been heard to say that his ego took a “hell of a licking.” AA stems from that deflation and that licking.

Clearly, the sense of being special, of being “something,” has its dangers, its drawbacks for the alcoholic. Yet the opposite, namely, that one is to be a nothing, has little counter appeal. The individual seems faced with being a something and getting drunk, or being a nothing and getting drunk from boredom.

The apparent dilemma rests upon a false impression about the nature of nothingness as a state of mind. The ability to accept ourselves as nothing is not easily developed. It runs counter to all our desires for identity, for an apparently meaningful existence, one filled with hope and promise. To be nothing seems a form of psychological suicide. We cling to our somethingness with all the strength at our command. The thought of being a nothing is simply not acceptable. But the fact is that the person who does not learn to be as nothing cannot feel that he is but a plain, ordinary, everyday kind of person, who merges with the human race–and as such is humble, lost in the crowd, and essentially anonymous. When that can happen, the individual has a lot going for him.

People with “nothing” on their minds can relax and go about their business quietly and with a minimum of fuss and bother. They can even enjoy life as it comes along. In AA, this is called the 24-hour program, which really signifies that the individual does not have tomorrow on his mind. He can live in the present and find his pleasure in the here and now. He is hustling nowhere. With nothing on his mind, the individual is receptive and open-minded.

The great religions are conscious of the need for nothingness if one is to attain grace. In the New Testament, Matthew, 18:3, quotes Christ with these words: “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Zen teaches the release of nothingness. A famous series of pictures designed to show growth in man’s nature ends with a circle enclosed in a square. The circle depicts man in a state of nothingness; the square represents the framework of limitations man must learn to live within. In this blank state, “Nothing is easy, nothing hard,” and so Zen, too, has linked nothingness, humbleness, and grace.

Anonymity is a state of mind of great value to the individual in maintaining sobriety. While I recognize its protective function, I feel that any discussion of it would be one-sided if it failed to emphasize the fact that the maintenance of a feeling of anonymity–of a feeling “I am nothing special” –is a basic insurance of humility and so a basic safeguard against further trouble with alcohol. This kind of anonymity is truly a precious possession.

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