To get to Step Two, you have to get past Step One. That was what I was told when I first came into the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. It made sense to me. The Steps are in order; they build upon one another. It was logical. My drinking, my attempts to control it, and all of the damage done in the process made it clear enough to me that I had more than a little drinking problem. So taking Step One was easy.
But taking Step Two was a much different story. You see, I came to AA as a proud agnostic. In retrospect, taking pride in doubt was pretty boorish. But that’s how I arrived, and how I was when I started the transition from Step One to Step Two. Being an agnostic wasn’t enough. I had my ego wrapped around it! I was proud that I was willing to ask the tough questions about God’s existence. I had long before decided that if I was going to believe in a god, that belief would have to be well-grounded in logic.
For me, that meant to take Step Two, really take it, I would need a bit of time. Would you believe nine years! For nine long years, I clung to the phrases, “Fake it until you make it” and “Act as if you believe,” just to stay sober and to work the other Steps.
Over the span of those nine years of living one day at a time, I used AA as my Higher Power, and it worked. I stayed sober. While AA worked as a power greater than myself that could restore me to sanity, it did not fill the bill of being the God I wanted so much to understand. You might say I had only enough to take Step Two, but not quite enough to honestly take Step Three.
On many occasions I talked about it with my sponsor, Jack, only to receive the same knowing smile and admonition: “Douglas, as smart as I am, and as smart as you are, together we don’t have a brain big enough to get a hold of that one. Don’t worry about what God is, just do the next right thing. It’ll come to you. And, if you don’t know what to believe, just believe that I believe. Know that it has worked for me and it is working for you. It’s all the proof you really need.”
For nine years, I heard him sing the same tune. To his credit, as many times as I brought it up to him, he never got irritated with me, or judged me, or preached his or any other gospel to me. He always listened and continued to encourage me to behave as the God I dearly wanted to have might have me behave. That was an interesting twist on the AA ideas “Act as if you believe” and “Fake it until you make it.”
As it happened, I started sponsoring a man who made my agnosticism seem like it was in the peewee leagues. He was truly a major league agnostic, and even more disconcerting to me was the fact that he wasn’t even proud of it! His agnosticism was just sort of “out there” for him.
If you have ever heard the expression “still waters run deep,” you could see living proof of it in this guy. John was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. He was a very quiet, shy college professor, internationally published, and highly regarded for his teaching ability. John’s capacity to reason and comprehend vastly exceeded my own and that of most people. He told me he thought about “the God thing” from time to time but never dwelt on it. Nevertheless, he was able to take Steps Two and Three and has now put together seven years of continuous sobriety. Ironically, through AA, he has come to believe in miracles, because, as he says, “I am one.”
It hasn’t been what John thought or believed (or didn’t believe) that helped me through my agnosticism. John’s behavior is what turned out to be the key that opened the door to Step Two for me.
John’s life has never been easy. He has experienced the death of his twenty-three-year-old daughter, confronted the pain of caring for a wife dying from Alzheimer’s Disease, and experienced emotional abandonment from others who were dear to him. Yet through all of this, John has never been bitter toward the driver who killed his child; was faithful in providing the best care possible for his wife (now dead) and sought to understand, without malice, the side of those who had abandoned him. In other words, he behaved in a manner much like the God I would like to have might have me behave.
Recently, while in a deep meditation on a personal retreat, I was able to couple together John’s behavior with Jack’s admonition to behave as God would have me. When I say deep meditation, I’m not talking about the usual intellectual debate that goes on in my head. I’m talking about a meditation that reached into the deepest levels of my being to search for answers to such questions as, “Why am I alive? Is my life worth anything to anybody else but me? And if so, why?”
That was when I finally took Step Two–I mean really took it. I suddenly realized, at a level never before known to me, that working the Steps (that is, taking actions) was what had been leading me to sanity for the last nine years.
My vision of a Higher Power suddenly took on a very clear image of God being love, the verb. Until then, I had focused on God the noun. I became aware that my real purpose in life was not just to be a person capable of loving, but to be a loving person. My purpose is not to be centered around a concept of love, but instead around the action of love.
Another product of the meditation was the awareness that I focused on the wrong word in the familiar phrase, “act as if”. Until I experienced the epiphany on the retreat, I had focused on the word “if”. This is consistent with my agnosticism. But when I put the emphasis on the word “act,” I came to discover that it was how I behaved that showed people I loved them. Jack, for all those years had been saying, “act as if,” and I had been hearing, “act as if.”
Once I realized this, I could look back over the previous years to comprehend what John really meant when he told me he believed in miracles. By his actions, he had taken the leap of faith called for in the Second Step.
To me, the trapeze artist serves as the best metaphor for taking such a leap. It isn’t a leap of faith when you know the trapeze bar is behind you, waiting for you–it is a leap of faith when you let go of the one you are now holding to reach for the one you do not yet see. It is when you act on faith that you actually have it.
It is now clear to me that the miracles John believes in–his, mine, and countless others’–have come from something we cannot see, but nonetheless exists. Those miracles have come from something deep within us that is much larger than any of one us.
The miracle of my sobriety is real. It did not come from my will; I had exerted all the will I had before I got to AA. It did not come from hearing or reading the Twelve Steps; I had done that before I got to AA. My miracle occurred when I became willing to go to any lengths to take action. Like the trapeze artist, it wasn’t the knowledge of it being there–it was the action of letting go.