Whenever the question of solving drinking problems by means of willpower arises, I think of the well-known Oriental finger puzzle. This finger puzzle, a dime-store item with a centuries-old history, is a plaited fiber sheath that fits the fingers snugly and has a diabolical way of gripping with increasing pressure the more one struggles to pull himself free. The irony in this entrapment is that a person’s own exertion of strength is used to hold him fast.
The alcoholic’s plight is a lot like that of the person caught in the finger puzzle. In his panicky struggles to set himself free, he applies his willpower wrongly, thus making it another factor in his bondage. The more he consciously wills to quit drinking, it seems, the more often he fails and the harder he falls when he does fail.
We AA members have long known that willpower works this way in the alcoholic’s life, but few of us really understand why it works this way. We have had to argue against the idea of using willpower without knowing the fundamental reasons that willpower doesn’t work. What is willpower, anyway, and why has it become a negative element in the alcoholic’s life? Can it become a positive element in the alcoholic’s life? Can it become an asset again when it is understood and properly directed?
The will is the individual’s faculty of initiating choice and desire. The power of the will, obviously, is the personal factor in the ability to bring one’s choices and desires into realization. When a determined individual arrives at a certain goal in spite of overwhelming odds, we recognize that his willpower is high. When a person fails even with everything going in his favor, we usually say it’s because his will to succeed was weak.
But “willpower” is a somewhat misleading term, for the will is an executive or decision-making faculty and has no power of itself. The will must set other powers into action in order to achieve; unaided, it fails. It must also work intelligently. As one of our friends says, “A strong-willed person might want to pick up a house, but willpower alone won’t do the job. He has to get help.”
A strong will becomes a distinct liability when it is used unintelligently, and this misuse of the will seems to be at the heart of the alcoholic’s personal problem. At some point in his life, he chose to drink under the delusion that it would bring him pleasure, poise, and friendship. The choice of alcohol was probably rather casual and innocent at first; but in time, it became a dominant, willful thing that demanded its way even when warning signals of every kind were beginning to flash. The alcoholic cannot use willpower to stop drinking, because it is the will itself that is out of control; it is his own secret and swollen desire that is pulling him on toward disaster. As the hapless victim of the Oriental finger puzzle discovers, frantic efforts to yank himself free only bind him more tightly to his problem. “Self-will run riot,” this terrible condition has been called.
It is harsh and unfair to say that an alcoholic’s will is entirely given over to drinking even at this point. As a matter of fact, he most likely seems to be “double willed” at this stage, with at least one part of his nature protesting against the outrage of his compulsive drinking. Unfortunately, this warfare in his own will only makes the alcoholic more vacillating and erratic than ever, the “double-minded man who is unstable in all his ways.”
Let us never forget that alcoholism is an illness. It is practically impossible to arrest an illness by means of a strong-willed frontal attack. An individual who attempted to use willpower to cure cancer or tuberculosis in himself would soon pay for this delusion with his life. The alcoholic is similarly helpless and ill.
Since it is the will that is out of control, how can an individual choose to regain mastery of his life and his affairs? The alcoholic’s own dominant desires are destroying him, so how can the will be counted on to originate choices and desires that will lead to recovery?
The answer, I believe, lies in Thomas Aquinas’ explanation of the nature of the will. As Aquinas explained it, the will always chooses the individual’s good. When it makes bad choices (as when the alcoholic first willed to drink), it does so through ignorance and error. Since the tendency of the will is to choose the individual’s good, it follows that the will starts to initiate new choices and new desires once the folly of the former choices has been revealed.
In this self-healing process, the will goes to work and builds up an intense desire to stop drinking. Though the alcoholic has lost the power of choice where drink is concerned, he can at least choose to contact sources of help. He wills to pick up the telephone to call for help; he wills to go to the AA meeting; and he wills to expose himself to the AA Fellowship and its ideas. Powers beyond those of the will then come to the alcoholic’s aid and do their redemptive work.
Now, the will is becoming an asset instead of a liability, and it has freely chosen a new way which it construes to be for the individual’s good. The way begins with the admission of defeat: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.”
To return to the analogy of the Oriental finger puzzle: The individual recognizes that he cannot pull himself free, so he gives up the struggle. At this point, though he may not realize it, he is already on his way out of the trap, for he is no longer contributing his own energies to the instrument that has been binding him. Alcohol has no power other than what we give it, and we unwittingly reinforced the desire to drink during those times when we fought savage mental battles to “stay on the wagon.” We were really thinking about drinking when we were scheming to stave off the desire to drink, and may have even rehearsed future drinking bouts without realizing it!
The next step on the way describes a brief period of transition, during which the wrong application of the will is supplanted by one that works: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
What is restoration to sanity? For most alcoholics, it is simply being restored to a condition in which we are able to use our natural endowments and energies creatively instead of destructively. We are no longer forced to preside over our own debasement.
And what is a Power greater than ourselves? This Power is God, of course, but not a God who is a distant and unapproachable potentate of the universe. Our Higher Power, at least for us, is perceived as an indwelling Presence whose activity is here and now. The individual selves undergoing restoration to sanity are the former selves, the selves who made ignorant and shortsighted choices that led to alcoholic ruin. In each of us, a new and higher self is found through the grace of a Higher Power. Did this higher self come from outside the alcoholic’s own being or was it with him all the time, waiting only to be discovered? Perhaps it was a little of both, as when an electric light bulb is connected to a circuit–the illumination comes both from the bulb’s own structure and from the power flowing through the circuit.
With the Third Step on the way, the self-healing process of the will is well on the road to completion: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
We are back to the will again, and in this Step, we seem to be abandoning it altogether, giving up all personal freedom as well as personal choice. We are turning our will and our lives back to the Source, who is said to have given us free will and life in the first place.
Why should it be necessary to do this? Why was man given free will in the first place if he was so prone to misuse it? If God’s concern for man is as absolute as it’s supposed to be, why did he ever let man have the power of choice and decision? Why did he give man free will if he wanted man to resubmit his will at some future time?
I can only speculate that it was necessary for us to have free will in order to have individuality. Free will is a good thing, though it became a temporary liability when it was used wrongly. But the will itself, after choosing the road to disaster, reversed its own choices and elected to follow a new way. So we were given a free will that could make mistakes, but could also correct its own mistakes. Surely, this natural self-healing tendency of the will must have been God-given.
When we choose to accept the Third Step and to let the Supreme Power of the universe operate as will in us, we do not really give up our personal will and personal freedom. In truth, we only put our will and our lives on a spiritual basis. We grow into a conscious contact with divine will instead of the self-will that ran riot. To the extent that we are able to maintain this contact and let divine will work in us and through us, our choices and desires result in lasting happiness and success.
Some of us have had to work against a belief that God’s will for us meant groveling self-abasement and perpetual suffering. But it was the old self-will that brought abasement and suffering; in God’s realm, the will and its actions are consistently good. If he makes his will known to us and gives us the power to carry that will out, the result can only be good for all concerned. As Ernest Holmes wrote, “. . .we should interpret the will of God to be everything that expresses life without hurt. This seems to be a fair, logical, sane, and intelligent criterion. Anything that will enable us to express greater life, greater happiness, greater power–so long as it does not harm anyone–must be the will of God for us.”
Once the human will has made the choice to reunite with the divine will, the will is restored to its role as a permanent asset instead of a temporary liability. There is no loss of freedom in this decision, for we are always free to do anything that expresses life without hurt. I understand God as love, and this love, for all I know, is reaching out from every point in the universe with no other purpose than to live through you and through me. This love gives us perfect freedom to do any good thing. It is always good. It is always intelligence. It is always God. I hope I never desire another way than that of love.
Meanwhile over in the twilight world of the self-will, John Barleycorn is playing the Oriental finger trick on a lot of strong-willed but basically good people. I pray that we members of Alcoholics Anonymous keep the way to freedom well lighted for the day when they find the will to seek it.