There is something better to be found, but one has to give up to find it
Dr. Harry M. Tiebout, phychiatrist and friend of AA, said, “. . .The two essential ingredients to maintaining sobriety are . . . the preservation of a reduced ego and the continued presence of humility. ” In the following articles, three AAs offer their thinking on our struggle with the big “I”
ACCORDING to a popular idea, AA is an ego-deflating outfit. We’re supposed to have a knack for spotting and puncturing the big ego of the alcoholic newcomer, thus setting him up for true self-knowledge and acceptance of sobriety.
AAs themselves frequently perpetuate this idea by relating how somebody deftly needled them into self-realization. Or they tell about shooting a bold question at a prevaricating pigeon and shocking him into seeing himself in a new way for the first time.
Interesting stories, perhaps, but do they represent the whole truth? Others prove the opposite point: that AA often feeds the ego the most lavish diet it’s ever had. Where else can a down-and-out bum suddenly become a touring speaker, sometimes playing to audiences running into hundreds? Where but in AA can a born loser find himself sharing bottle-hiding experiences with country-club dropouts? Who else gives the battered outcast an opportunity to turn his sordid past into AA’s unique currency of exchange? AA not only pampers the individual’s ego, but lets it run all over the lot.
And maybe that’s okay. Despite our shortcomings, most of us come into AA needing deflation about as much as we need another hangover. We’ve already been cut down to size hundreds of times by judges, employers, policemen, bartenders, and our own sick faces looking back at us in bathroom mirrors. Putting people like us through an ego-deflating process would simply be overkill.
Ego is not always “bad.” We need to be delivered from our own egos when they become inflated and drive us to self-destructive actions. But it is also true that ego, properly tamed and positively directed, moves us to sound accomplishment and healthy growth.
In some cases, ego is defined as the self-asserting, self-preserving tendency in man. AA’s good friend the late Dr. Harry M. Tiebout called it the feeling of importance, of being “special.” It’s not altogether bad to have some self-assertive, self-preserving tendencies, or even to think that one is a little special. These tendencies, though obviously a liability while one is drinking, can be assets in other ways.
We certainly know enough about the liabilities of ego. Here’s an alcoholic, eaten up with ambition and frustrated over his lack of achievement to date. When he is off on a bender, his frustrations may cause him to impersonate J. Edgar Hoover, or pose as a neurosurgeon, or put in a long-distance call to Mao Tse Tung. All of this is pretty bad behavior, of course, to say nothing of possible adverse reactions from the FBI or the State Department.
Few people recognize, however, that the personal needs expressed in this kind of behavior aren’t really wrong. Put the same person on the sobriety track, and these same needs can come out in useful ways, as assets. The experiences even become useful material for AA discussions; every group has somebody who impersonated J. Edgar Hoover or did the equivalent of telephoning Mao in the middle of the night. Such stories make a big hit in AA, because most of us can locate the same kind of out-of-control ego within ourselves. Now we can laugh about it.
But it is a mistake to believe that the ego no longer causes trouble simply because the individual no longer drinks. For one thing, colliding egos often do get AA groups into serious troubles, in spite of the fact that the Fellowship is deliberately structured to play down this kind of thing. There’s also the chance that an individual will become overconfident after a measure of sobriety, and this sometimes takes him back to the bottle.
Self-centeredness, practically a synonym for egotism, also causes trouble in a more subtle way. While seemingly useful in giving a person the drive and motivation to accomplish many worthwhile things, it has built-in limitations. After a certain level of performance has been reached, the self-centered person grows unevenly, often progressing splendidly in some areas and standing still in others. Eventually, he is overtaken by his shortcomings.
We see that process working all the time: in the brilliant businessman who neglects the need to develop personal kindness and finally loses all his friends; in the towering intellectual who has never learned to control his temper; in the marvelous athlete who becomes consumed by jealousy. In all these cases, ego seems to be producing both good and bad results.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? Or are we condemned to go on living with a self that is at some times positive and constructive, at others hateful and downright treacherous? If God is good, why were we created with such a dangerous duality, a duality over which we apparently have little control?
Here’s a possible theory, one that seems to fit what we’ve already learned in AA. It goes like this: The ego is a necessary part of man’s being at this stage of his development. It is part of being a self-conscious, self-knowing, self-improving creature. If man didn’t have ego, he would be hardly more than an animal. He wouldn’t have made the painful trek out of savagery and gone to all the trouble of discovering important things like the wheel, the lever, and alcohol. Men in general are rather self-centered, and some of the most remarkable accomplishments have come from the most self-centered people. So far, so good.
At a certain point, however, the self-centered man reaches the limits of the growth he can make in his present state. He has gone as far in this state as he can, but now he is ready to outgrow it. The process is somewhat like outgrowing an experience that was useful for a time, but would have become a liability later on. It is like the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly: The change is probably somewhat painful and requires giving up desirable things, but it’s necessary, as well as rewarding. Man, like the caterpillar, needs to give up self-centeredness so that he can figuratively grow wings and begin to fly.
What replaces the ego? Something so remarkable that few of us, so far at least, have ever become aware of it. The idea is expressed in a couple of ways in a book of ancient writings. One of them goes: “He who humbles himself shall be exalted, and he who exalts himself shall be humbled.” Another way to put it is: “He who seeks to save his life shall lose it, and he who seeks to lose his life shall find it.”
Get the self out of the picture, these ancient words say, if you want the wonderful, joyous life. The self was a helpful friend, as well as an occasional enemy, but now he’s outmoded. There’s something finer and better beyond the self, if you can find it–or, rather, if you let it find you. But the price of this finer life is to give up utterly on self-centeredness, to say absolutely and without reserve, “Of myself, I am nothing.”
This remarkable something-beyond is hard to name; we AAs would call it spiritual awakening or conscious contact with God as we understand Him. If we could but receive it, some of our major problems would quickly solve themselves, often in ways that we would find thrilling and startling. We would easily give up the painful struggle to be somebody, to get things, to prove we are right, to protect what we have, or to plan for the future. We would stop struggling, not because these things aren’t important, but because we would have a new view of them. We would be able to forgive injuries, instead of wasting time brooding over the hurts of twenty years ago. We would be able to accept a threat without fearing or hating the person making the threat. We would have all the confidence we needed, but at the same time we would learn that we need far less than we had previously supposed. There would also he less worry about the future, because there would be the intuitive feeling of having an endless future, of living forever. We would be conscious of great personal worth without having any pride over it. And there would be no sense of guilt, because there wouldn’t be any sense of doing wrong or of wanting to “sin.”
Does this sound like the impossible dream? It isn’t; it’s really somewhat like the state of mind AA’s Bill W. found himself in during the events of his sudden spiritual awakening thirty-five years ago. It was of short duration; as Bill tells us, he soon found himself again trapped by self-pity and resentment, mostly problems of the ego. The important thing, though, was that a better world had been glimpsed, and some day all of us can have it. But the price to pay is the complete destruction of self-centeredness, absolutely and thoroughly relinquishing self and letting spirit take over.
For most of us, this great day of the spiritual awakening is in the future, not now. Today we pick up such spiritual moments as we are able to find, successively winning and losing struggles involving the ego. Some day we may be able to put the ego aside altogether, as a caterpillar puts aside the once-nourishing leaf when it begins to fly. Like many things in life, the ego is good as far as it goes. But it just doesn’t go far enough for what we really want to be.
And even that great aspiration may be the ego talking!