Step Two

Came to believe that a Power
greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.


Reading this step makes me want to say four or five things all at once. Three notions stand out: Believe, Power greater than ourselves, and Sanity. When I came to the program I was so beaten down that I wanted to argue about a fourth concept, Restore. Restore to WHAT? I'd begun to believe that I'd never been sane. But while I was wanting to insist on my insanity, there was the incontrovertible fact that months were passing by without my returning to drinking. I am in the same condition with regards to food today -- I do not have the power of choice over getting started again, nor over the well, how did Verna put it last week, "My powerlessness begins from the first bite but the thinking that precedes that first bite is also where I have no power." And yet I do not return to overeating. So a few words about the notion of Sanity are in order.


What the early AA's meant by sanity was simple - they meant that the insanity of the first drink had been removed.

Good examples of AA's early thinking along this line can be found in Chapters 2 and 3 of the AA Big Book - especially the story about Roland H. (not named there) and Dr. Jung in Ch. 2, and in Ch. 3 several stories - a man who abstained on will power alone for twenty-five years, a car salesman who convinced himself he could drink scotch with milk, a funny metaphor about a jaywalker, and Fred's story. Where the heartbreaking obsession gets to be parallel both in alcoholism and in overeating is their repeated observation that we may possess lots of will power (have a choice) and self-knowledge and may succeed with it for a longer or shorter time, but there comes a time when it fails to work, and back into the darkness we fall.

I used the metaphor earlier, of me being a vehicle and my conscious mind being only one of the drivers. When returning at some point to overeating, or drinking, without a thought of the consequences no matter how much I know consciously, well it's as if somebody else down there got hold of the wheel and determined to drive us off the cliff. To continue the metaphor, sanity would mean something like making peace among all those characters down there and getting all of us on the same page, all of us heading in the same direction. We have tried to accomplish that - and failed - by putting the conscious mind in charge and making all the other internal forces subservient to it. I think that's called will power or self-mastery. The rational world encourages us to manage our lives that way. If we'd succeeded at that, there would be no OA or AA. And those who DO succeed at it are wound pretty tight if you know any of them. God save us from too much self-control. So making peace among all the forces that make us up, integrating them, the sort of thing Dr. Jung repeatedly said he was trying to bring about, means every part has to give a little. Intellectual pride has to relax its hold on the True Nature of Things, the True Nature of God or the Nonexistence of God, whatever it is insisting on, the ego has to let go of the Need to be Right resign from the debating society as they say. And needs for sex, status/power among our fellows, and money have got to take a back seat to the good of the whole. How do we get there?

A power greater than ourselves, is the answer. What do they MEAN by that? I'm going to get into the stories now.


Tyler, Texas was a rich little oil town, pretty town, just waiting to boom into a medical and commercial center after WWII. We moved there when I was seven and my dad and three other physicians acquired a clinic/hospital and began to expand it. It's huge now. Many of the young professional families joined the First Baptist Church in those years and chafed under the old preacher's Hellfire and Brimstone sermons about the evils of dance etc, all justice and no mercy. They were to break off and start a new church, as I told you earlier, but it took some years for that to happen. So from age seven to about twelve, I was in Sunday School, church, Training Union and church again on Sunday and sometimes prayer meetings on Wednesday nights, at the First Church (as we called it - everybody was Baptist). As I told you, Hellfire and Brimstone and intolerance were not features of my home life. But in those years, in that church, I developed some views of God and the world that got buried in there very deep.

There was a fiction in the church that a child had to come to his/her own experience with God and "confess" that experience and be baptized. I believed them, until they pushed me down the aisle at about age seven because it was "time." I got it in my mind that they had cheated me and kept me from having my own experience, and besides, it offended me to act as if something had happened that had not.

There were maybe two or three conversations with my mom during those times which saved me big time. I'll tell you in passing that my born-again sisters have gotten to her since then and she now denies these conversations took place. But they did.

First, I asked my mom, "Why is it that I didn't get to have an experience with God?" She said, "Most people don't have one. People believe what they're taught to believe, and they keep whatever religion they grow up with."

I chewed on that one for a while. "So why is it that it's right for Christians to be Christians, but it's wrong for Jews and Muslims to be Jews and Muslims?" She said, "There's nothing wrong with it. God loves good Jews and good Muslims just like he loves good Christians."

Well I chewed on that one, you know what I was hearing in Sunday School and church. So I asked her, "Well then, why is it that God is going to send the Jews and Muslims to Hell if they just believe what their parents taught them?" "There's no such thing as Hell," she said. "God is love." And she was a Sunday School teacher at that conservative church.

That last statement was such a relief to me that I can still feel the rush. And it was a comfort eight or ten years later when I was deciding to leave religion behind me.

On the OTHER hand, here are some of the ideas that lodged inside me, WAY inside me at about age ten. I don't want to tell you that anybody TOLD me these things, I just came to think them:

God loves successful, popular, conventional people. He loves people who own their own houses, doesn't like rent trash. He loves white people and not black ones, and Catholics are sorta like white people but not quite (in the 1940's it was said that black people sat with white people in the Catholic Church downtown). He loves pianos and organs but not guitars. He loves slacks and sport coats but not jeans. He loves for you to get up early, not sleep late. He loves nice talk and doesn't like cussin'. He loves work and hates sex, even THINKING about sex. (I suspect that Bill Wilson grew up with many of the same ideas, and indeed they show their colors in Step Six in the AA 12&12)

God loves you and he wants you to be good, but he's not going to help and he'll be very disappointed in you if you fail. It's all on YOU. (I hear people in AA meetings in Tyler TX saying today, "God's not gonna do it for you." And I know where it came from.)

*******************Fast Forward*****************************************

In my late teens, twenties, early thirties, I thought I had gotten away from the God problem. The only thing I knew about God was that if you admitted you believed in God, somebody was going to jump in there between you and God and start translating for him and telling you what he wants you to do. I did not make a distinction between a higher power and human political/religious organizations, a curse on the whole game I thought. In the civil rights days I saw religion taking the wrong side of some important questions.

At age thirty-five, I was married to a black woman, had spent the sixties in Berkeley and experienced more sex than work, played guitar and not pianos and organs, wore jeans and slept till noon. And was rent trash right down to countless evictions for lifestyle, housekeeping and more. It rather pleased me to be so opposite to those pious folks back in Tyler Texas. I was using another name because the sheriff back there was looking for me, civil rights work. Those beliefs I'd picked up at age ten were nowhere near the surface.

I had been sleeping under a house up in Manoa Valley for a month or so - constantly drunk - left my wife and stepson back in Baton Rouge saying I'd send for them, and the first of January I moved into a bedroom in a garage apartment down near the Honolulu Zoo with Kaki, an old friend who convinced his landlord that it would really not be a problem to have a haole (white) living in the neighborhood. My drinking had accelerated to the point where I could not even do carpenter work, could not get out of the house sober in the morning. I could not make it through the night without getting up to drink - my legs would cramp. I had to have two tall cans of Oly beer to get up in the morning, and if I drank a third one I was home for the day, drunk again. Two weeks before, I had seen in a flash of insight that all my problems were caused by my drinking and that I was drinking against my will. I was drinking to die, but didn't die.

On January 19, 1975, I came to, drank down two tall cans of Oly and half the third one, and turned back to my bedroom, heading for the loaded 20-gauge shotgun I kept just inside the closet door. No thought of leaving a note, just wanted OUT of the world I lived in. It would be quick.

Within a couple of feet of the closet, I fell on my knees and called out "God help me." I was surrounded by a yellow-white light and an energy field like electricity and a voice without sound said "It's over."

And it was over. I did not even suffer from withdrawals. I went (back) to AA and knew it would work. The kid who was denied his God experience at age seven now stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Moses, Paul, Bill W and all those other hardheads whom God had to hit with a lightning bolt to get their attention.

My first thought upon entering an AA meeting full of mainland white people was, They're not going to like my black wife and stepson very much. I expected them to jump in and start telling me what God wanted me to do, re-shape my lifestyle and tell me what I had to call God and when his birthday was and his mama's name

As you guys all know, all my expectations about religious/spiritual life in the program were ass-backwards. Some little incidents:

A pretty woman with five years' apparently happy sobriety was the speaker at a large meeting. She said "The closest I've been able to come to a concept of a higher power is Don't Push the River. And it's been good enough for me."

Al, a longshoreman, was starting the meeting with the Serenity Prayer. He said, "God grant me the courage. Oh shit!. God grant me the serenity." And somebody objected that he shouldn't talk to God like that, and Al just said "He understands."

We were saying the Lord's Prayer at the end of a meeting and Debbie K (who was to be my OA sponsor later on) got the giggles and couldn't keep from breaking out with little laughs all through the prayer. I watched for lightning to strike - you damn sure didn't giggle during the prayer at the First Baptist Church - and nothing happened.

I began to run around with Flobird Johnson's flock, and they had the God thing. Light in their eyes, talked Christian ideas, Hindu ideas, Sufi ideas Old Flobird would say things like "God's will is your heart's desire," and my heart would melt. I wanted to see it that way.

They also said ominous things: "There'll come a time in program when you'll have to find God or put a gun in your mouth." I believed them.

I told you last week that I got into OA, really into OA, a little over two years after I got to AA. Many of the same people were in both programs, and to me it's all one program. So all this six or seven years I'm talking about now is just in the context of early days in Program.

The several crowds I ran around with, Harry Lake and the Hawaiian group, Flobird and her group, the AA/OA people and some closest friends / role models I can't characterize except to say that they're spiritual lunatic fringe like the Flobird folks, all of them operated around this idea that there was a loving God who was on their side and didn't judge people.

I spoke of the same loving God my friends believed in and tried to make it true for myself. But my real beliefs would show themselves in the way I reacted to things. My sponsor Johnnie would say, "If I had a God like yours, I'd fire the son of a bitch." Yeah, but HOW? I was sober and abstinent, years went by, but there was still fear of life and a sense that I would never succeed at it and that I was to be held responsible for my success or failure. Changing my concept of God - while it was perfectly mainstream in the program - was something I inwardly thought was not possible. Why not?

************This is the last story I promise*****************************

Six years in AA, three years in OA, I was married to Merri, a lovely woman who was in both programs with me. Playboy-centerfold-gorgeous, she danced in a Greek nightclub in Waikiki. I was a construction boss, number two man in a small company and loved my work and made good money, was skinny and fortyish. We lived on the eighteenth floor in a very nice complex in Hawaii Kai and were unexpectedly expecting a baby. Lots of love, laughter and fights. Life was fantastic, and it was going to keep getting better. This was the payoff, I thought, for being in the program.

Seth was born and Merri declared that she wanted out of the marriage before she even got home from the hospital. I told her it was postpartum depression and talked her into giving it some time. Three months later Seth was diagnosed as blind - completely blind we thought at that time, with no hope of improvement. Merri continued to want out of the marriage. In the middle of that year, 1981, the construction business went behind the moon and I lost the good job. I got a job managing a shopping center that would barely pay the rent. The month of Seth's first birthday, October, I told Merri it would be okay for us to divide our things up at the end of the month. I saw only relief on her face and I was devastated.

The next month, I was still taking home $880 a month and living in a $200 apartment up on the side of Punchbowl, not great digs in Honolulu but at least I came home to a peaceful house. And the view was great, and the police running up the stairs at two am to arrest my neighbors. Seth was with me half the time, I paid child support as Merri had custody during that period, and I bought diapers and food for him on top of that. It was very austere and life became pretty daily as it will sometimes. And little Seth was a joy.

Around December, Merri told me she was going to be seeing one of the Flobird people, and I learned from others that he'd been hitting on her through that last unhappy period of our marriage. He was younger than me, better looking I thought, had a real car and a real house and a real job. I would run into them together, they were ALWAYS together, from time to time. I had never felt such pain.

In addition to my ops manager job at Koko Marina - a large shopping center - I would take on electrical jobs since there was not an electrician on our staff. I tell you this because when I decided to kill myself, that was the way I was going to do it - go down into the high voltage room, spread some tools around, take off one of the panel covers, ground myself and grab a high-voltage lead. And the pain would be over.

And see how well the program works? I was going to do away with myself and never thought of breaking my abstinence or taking a drink. Great.

Now if I'd gone to a preacher with my situation and thinking, we'd have talked of sin and Jesus. If I'd gone to a psychiatrist, we'd have put me in a locked ward for a couple of weeks and sent me home with four jugs of pills and I'd probably still be on them today, and the God stuff unresolved. I didn't go to anybody. They'd all try to talk you out of it, I was sure of that.

My sponsor and best friend Johnnie - I need to tell you we're mystics - called me at work one morning and said "I had a dream that you killed yourself." I said, "Yes, I'm going to do that." When you have a good idea, it sounds like a good idea right? I explained how Prudential owned the shopping center and how much money would come to Seth if it looked like an accident.

Johnnie, and this is typical Johnnie, said a couple of things. "Hmmm, you weren't in so much distress when Merri was living alone across town. Now that she's with Doug, you're losing face. And maybe Seth needs a father more than he needs money." Well, killing myself over losing face put a whole new twist on it. That's tacky. I don't do tacky. And maybe he DOES need a father. Sure he does. I won't do it then. Okay. So what DO I do?

Johnnie said, "You're a bundle of fear. Let's make a quick run through the steps and concentrate on fear."

I took a legal pad and wrote madly, not looking back even at the end, till I knew it was done. I did not know what was in it. Johnnie came over and I started to read the inventory to him. I came to a passage I did not know was in there, and I could hardly read it for sobbing. My real God was there, the one who "ain't gonna do it for you." I had failed at two families, now was losing the third one, my folks had made great sacrifices for me to get my PhD at Berkeley and I'd walked away from it unfinished, my kids by my first marriage had grown up without me. I had failed and didn't have any chances left. I did not deserve a loving relationship, a car that started every time, a decent place to live, a job I liked and a decent income. It was going to be this loneliness and poverty and guilt for the rest of my life. And God is not going to help me, isn't on my side, doesn't like my style.

I was empty after Johnnie left - and at peace. The next time I stepped out onto the porch - you could see the whole Pacific Ocean from there - I looked up into the sky and said "Okay, if you're up there, YOU are going to have to show ME what the deal is cause I don't know any more." After seven years of SAYING I was there, I was finally ready to find a higher power concept that worked for me.

Coming up on thirty years soon since that bolt of lightning in Kaki's garage apartment, I look back and think, the first seven years were hard, looking back in fear at the places I'd come from and wanting not to go back there. And the last twenty-three have been good stuff pulling me forward, the joy of life. That 1982 afternoon with Johnnie in my little Punchbowl apartment was one of the big turning points in my life.


Some Thoughts on the Higher Power Notion

Since that day in Honolulu, I have not had an uncomfortable moment around the God or Higher Power business. I have gone in all sorts of directions, some pretty deep meditations, some contact with the other side through automatic writing, a lot of that in fact I don't want to go into detail about any of it, just to say that it has felt safe all along and even playful.

What I do want to tell you about, and I need to tell you this is my own take on it (but it is my turn after all), is how I think it works. For starters, the whole universe is held together by energy, light, power, whatever you want to call it. And for me, the energy is loving, playful, very much available to interact with humans who want to play with it. But how to interact with it?

Lemme use a metaphor that will work for some and not for others, but don't worry, I'll say it another way afterwards too. Suppose the universe is a huge computer. You're in it. At places you can see the processes happening, but they're strings of 1's and 0's and they fly by so fast that there's no way for a human to make sense of them. And yet they keep the whole thing running. You need an interface that lets you deal with it on your level. A monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, stuff like that. Now you're in luck. This computer is so willing to meet you halfway that it'll deal with you on any interface you pick. "I want you to be a Macintosh. I know Macs." "Okay, I'm a Mac, let's talk." "I want you to be Windows." "Okay, I'm Windows, grab the mouse and let's go." "I want you to be a Sony Playstation 2." "Okay, .."

So the brilliance of Ebby's comment to Bill at the dining table, "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?" was that it hit on this readiness of the Spirit, the Energy, to respond in the form that's assigned to it. "I need my higher power to be my grandma who loved me more than anything in the world." "Okay, I'm Grandma, pour your heart out to me." "I need a stern God of Justice who's standing behind me waiting for me to drop the soap." "Okay, grab the soap and here we go." "I need you to be Jesus and forgive me for everything I've ever done." "Okay, you're forgiven and we think you're great"

There is a strong tendency in our society and many others to say that there is only one interface, only one God concept, and we must do our utmost to see that people use that concept and that one alone. It gets mixed in with money and power and politics. I believe that exclusiveness, and my willingness as a child to internalize it, worked against me in a way that was almost fatal. That must be why the AA literature says the atheist or agnostic may have an easier time of it than a person of a strong religious background. Too much to UN-learn.

I shift a lot in who I pray to - there are three main people, and then sometimes I talk to the old folks who have passed on. My guiding rule is that no prayer goes to the wrong place. It is the intention of the heart that matters, and those on the other side can read that as clear as day.

Some Thoughts on Belief

There is a story in the New Testament, or I think there is, about Jesus and Peter in a boat - if I get the story wrong, don't tell me, it's too late at night to look it up - what I remember is that Jesus walks on the water, and then Peter walks on the water. And then Peter can't really believe that he is walking on the water, and he falls in. At least I have it in my mind that this story is in there.

Okay, I told you I was a very curious serious kid, about this stuff. Now the lesson I got from that story was that belief is very important and that without it everything falls apart. That generated fear of course because at times I am not capable of belief.

Almost thirty years of working the AA/OA program has taught me that was a mistaken idea. If you do the right thing, it works whether you believe it at the moment or not. A woman said in a meeting on Step Two one night, "All I have to do is believe that if I flip that light switch, the light is going to come on." No, that's not quite right. What happens if you DON'T believe the light is going to come on but you flip the switch anyway? It works just the same.

Early Christianity and Islam both grew rapidly over languages and countries and cultures, and sometimes all the communities had in common was shared belief. It became an important part of how one "belonged" to those religions and some of the early people in program saw it that way too. That need not be a hindrance to us - if we believe one day, don't believe the next day, but if we keep doing the right thing, sometimes acting as if there were a higher power to turn things over to and praying to an empty hollow place, the good news is that like the light switch it still works.

An early AA sponsor said, "Hey, maybe it's a rip-off. Maybe there's no God. And all we get out of it is a happy sober life. I'll sign up for that."


1) Are you offended by the implication in this step that you need to be restored to sanity? Is insanity different from just having a bad habit?

2) Suppose we define sanity narrowly, as a state where we no longer have the compulsion to overeat. Do you have a higher power that you believe will take you there?

3) Are you in the stuck place I described? Where the religion of my childhood prepared me for strong character and will power but gave me a higher power who would not help me in my weakness? Resisting the food is MY responsibility?

4) Are you in the OTHER stuck place? Where it is clear that you need another higher power than the one you've got, but the one you've got is so real that you're afraid/unable to fire him/her/it and get another one?

5) Are you willing to experiment with creating your own concept of a higher power - like a Help Wanted ad in a newspaper - and trying it out for a while as if you'd found exactly the applicant you were looking for?

6) Do you have the idea that belief is necessary before you can begin to succeed? Does lack of "faith" scare you or discourage you, or look like an obstacle?

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