The admission of powerlessness is a distinctly AA way of practicing certain spiritual principles that are key to recovery. Chief among these are the discipline of surrender and the virtue of humility. We have characterized these two principles as being foundational to the entire program, underlying all the Steps and extending through all stages of recovery. In Step 1, surrender and humility interact with four other virtues that help pave the way to the admission of powerlessness. These are the virtues of honesty, acceptance, willingness, and open-mindedness.
Of course, when we first “take” Step 1 and admit we are powerless to control our drinking or our lives, we can hardly be said to be practicing any disciplines or virtues. Discipline and virtue involve choice, and our very first surrender over alcohol is not exactly a product of choice. At the point of this surrender we are generally in a physical, emotional, and spiritual state that precludes the ability to choose. Indeed, it can be said that we surrender precisely because we have no choice. We have truly run out of options.
Few of us will surrender unless our backs are up against the wall. We do because we are in trouble, very serious trouble in many cases. We have made a mess of our lives and we can’t cope anymore. We have tried everything and nothing has worked. We have played our last card and we have lost. We are desperate and exhausted, and we have no fight left in us. Our willpower, in which we took so much pride, is useless. We can’t stop drinking and we can’t fix ourselves. Alcohol has beaten and humiliated us.
Defeat and humiliation drive us to the rooms and there we learn the true nature of our condition. For us alcoholics, willful in the extreme, defeat is a necessary condition for surrender, humiliation the way to humility. Our admission of powerlessness is forced on us by the consequences of what we have done as active alcoholics. We surrender only because we have been defeated in our attempt to live by our own power. Through “calamity and collapse,” we actually experience powerlessness. Admitting and accepting it is the next step. If we can scrape up enough honesty and humility to do so, it is because pain and suffering have rendered us “as open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be.”2
Admitting powerlessness is the first and fundamental step in surrender. This is so because the whole issue of power is central to the alcoholic problem, and to its solution. The acquisition and accumulation of power in all its forms is a natural part of our development as human beings. The problem arises when we disconnect from the source of that power, misuse that power, and reach for powers that are not ours to have. We try to center power on ourselves, on our own will, and we overreach. Power becomes self-serving and corrupting.
In this we alcoholics are no different from anyone else. But alcohol plays a peculiar role. “First I took a drink, then the drink took me,” we say in AA. At first, the bottle is a source of power. It fuels our imagination and our will. Under its influence, we think there is nothing we cannot achieve. And so we push, and often we push too hard and too far. With time, the bottle becomes a power unto itself. It controls us, and pushes us even further afar. It dissolves all natural restraints and silences our conscience. It brooks no limits. All is permissible. We cross lines we never even imagined we could possibly cross.
Warping our natural instincts and driving us to excess, alcohol eventually brings about our downfall. We sometimes say we drank to medicate our pain, but for many of us that came later. We first fell in love with the bottle for the sense of power it gave us. In the early stages this power was benign: we felt more sociable, less inhibited, less self-conscious. With time the power became destructive. We acted in ways that caused serious harm to ourselves and to others. We then medicated the resulting pain with more alcohol, which drove us to still more excess and more pain, and so on in an endless cycle of self-defeat. The bottle was in control, and we became powerless.
Lack of power is the alcoholic’s “dilemma.” We don’t have the power to break alcohol’s power over us. We need another Power. We are loath to admit to this. In our eyes, powerlessness is tantamount to helplessness. Paradoxically, the opposite is true. The alcoholic who cannot admit to her own powerlessness remains closed to the Power that can deliver her. Insisting on self-reliance when self-reliance is of no use, she will neither ask for nor accept help. She can’t help herself, nor can anyone help her. Clinging to the illusion of power and unable to admit her weakness, she remains in a state of total helplessness.”
A Humble Admission
“We can now fully understand the nature of the admission that we make in Step 1: Every newcomer is told, and soon realizes for himself, that his humble admission of powerlessness over alcohol is his first step toward liberation from its paralyzing grip.” Our admission may be forced by circumstance, and it may begin as a reluctant concession, but sooner or later the external process of being humbled or humiliated has to turn into an internal process of surrendering and humbling ourselves willingly and even gladly, for that is our path to freedom. . . .
Step 1 is the first step in the surrender of power. Indeed, our admission of powerlessness constitutes the foundational act of surrender. This admission is at first over our inability to stop drinking and restore order to our lives. But, as we work the Steps and grow spiritually, it progressively becomes an admission that, ultimately, we are powerlessness over life itself. Even the ability to surrender, we finally come to recognize, is a gift of grace. The desire to surrender is not natural to us, nor is the power to do so our own. What power we have is derivative. When we accept that all power resides in God, our surrender becomes total: if not always in practice, because we are still this side of heaven, at least in spirit.
This is the journey that we begin with Step 1. As we try to practice the principles of this Step in all our affairs, we will become more willing to admit that we are powerless not only over alcohol but over “people, places, and things.” We will accept defeat more quickly in our attempt to control what is beyond our power to control. We will be more ready to acknowledge our need for help, and less reticent to seek and accept such help, whether at meetings, from our sponsor, or in situations beyond the Fellowship of AA. We will become more open-minded as others share their experience with us, more willing to listen and learn, particularly as it relates to spiritual matters. We will become willing and eager participants in the process of deflating our own ego and taking an honest measure of who we really are.
Admitting powerlessness in later recovery may still come through pain and suffering, but it doesn’t have to. If we humble ourselves willingly, we may not have to be humbled forcibly through circumstance. We can admit powerlessness without having to go through defeat, despair and still another bottom. “We saw we needn’t always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering.”11
At first we “reach for a little humility, knowing that we shall perish of alcoholism if we do not. After a time, though we may still rebel somewhat, we commence to practice humility because this is the right thing to do. Then comes the day when, finally freed in large degree from rebellion, we practice humility because we deeply want it as a way of life.”12 No longer a response to the force of circumstance, or merely to duty and obligation, humility then becomes a stable disposition, a trait engraved in our character. What we call a virtue.
So can the other virtues embedded in the 1st Step become embedded in our character. As they take root in our heart and we begin to desire them deeply as a spiritual way of life, they will also give form to our emotions. We will be invited to practice them in distinct ways again and again, in Step after Step, situation after situation, through a variety of disciplines and in conjunction with other virtues that further their growth. As we do, one weakness after another will turn to strength.”
Quotes from 12&12 pages 84-86