I love a good pissing match. Gore or Bush? Life or Choice? Smoking or Nonsmoking? Cash or Charge?
To channel-surf through a season of debates between world-leader wannabees, shouting pundits, finger-wagging consultants, big-time wrestlers, and football games suits my pathologies all too well. We love--let me say, I
love--the smell of contention in the morning, diverting us as it does from our own, internal fights.
Well down the food chain of such imbroglios, but no less compelling to the likes of me, is the nicely packaged question that turns up every now and then on late-night TV or talk-radio or the op-ed pages, to wit: Alcoholics Anonymous--Cult or Cure?
I love the crisp, monosyllabic alliteration of the question, its either-or-ness, its dark portent. There's a biblical or at least a Pauline quality to it, like Sex--Better to Marry Than to Burn?
Or Salvation--Faith or Works?
Or maybe Male Members--To Circumcise or Not?
Now, just like St. Paul, I like the sound of my own voice in my own mouth and better still in the ears of others. And, like Paul, I'm not always clear on whether I'm a Jew or a Roman or a Christian or Whatever, but who really cares, because, bottoms up, as long as I keep up my side of the argument, you know, as long as I sound like I'm searching for the truth, in vino veritas,
I can keep from noticing, and I can keep anyone else from noticing, that I'm beginning to slur my words a little, and I'm making eyes at the waitress, and I'm spending much more than I can afford, and I'm getting louder and more certain than I was before, because, you know, we have to grab what little gusto we can, and we only go around once in this life and this one's on me and what's a guy gotta do to get a drink around here? And who the hell are you to tell me when I've had enough? Because what I am really after is another drink and you can shove all the hypotheticals where the moon don't shine because I need a drink and after that I'll need another because that is the only real issue for me because. because.
Because what I am is alcoholic. Whenever I drink, I drink like a drunk. And when I'm drinking like one, there's no room in my life for any other considerations--not love or grief or family or work and certainly not these sappy damn rhetorical questions, except insofar as they provide a little cover for the one overwhelming fact of my life, which is that I'm alcoholic and I need a drink because I'm alcoholic and I need a drink because I'm alcoholic and did I mention that I need a drink? Do you see how it works? A logic that circles back on itself, like a snake eating its own tail, like a maelstrom turning towards your disappearance, like a quicksand against which the more you fight, the faster you sink. Like a black hole, a sadness, a sickness, an end.
But today I'm not drinking like one. Nor was I yesterday, nor the day before, nor any other day for going on 12 years now. I'd have to say I owe this sobriety to Alcoholics Anonymous. Because as long as I've been going to A.A., I haven't had to take a drink. So today I can consider the question at hand.
Is A.A. some kind of religious cult?
Here's the first thing they told me when I first showed up at an A.A. meeting: "The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety."
My church, my Rotary club, and my bowling league are each more cultish than A.A. is, requiring as they do more money, more time, more attendance, more participation, and a closer scrutiny of my performance than A.A. ever has. The same would be true if I belonged to a political party, a weekly poker club, the Knights of Columbus, or the AARP. A.A. has no poohbahs or bishops, colonels or captains, deacons or district governors. It has no uniform, passwords, special handshakes, or headgear. It takes no tithes, commissions, fines, or fees. There's no kool-aid to drink, communion to take, secret codes, or insignia. A.A. does not work by shame or guilt or fear or pride or power. It works by surrender, letting go, giving up, listening. It does not promise salvation, justice, fortune, or a better figure. You may come and go as you please. It claims no corner on the market of God. In fact, the only article of faith it requires is that if there's a God, it isn't me.
Nor is A.A. a cure. What I've got is alcohol-ISm, not alcohol-WASm. In fact, A.A. proclaims itself anything but a cure. It tells me I'll always be an alcoholic. But what I never have to be again is a drunk.
A.A. doesn't promise a cure. It promises a miracle: that while I'll never be cured of alcoholism, there's the hope that I mightn't die of it. What it offers is the full range of possibilities, one day at a time in which I can consider the important questions and the silly ones. So, whether cult or cure, grace or happenstance, whether all of these or none of the above, A.A. frees me from the past and future and gives me the moment, happy, joyous, and free--the present.
Maybe it's a gift.