What God Looks Like To A 12-Step Recovery Atheist
“I’m an Atheist, and I’m addicted to _____. I’m desperate for recovery. I hear 12-step works for a lot of people… but what the hell do I do when I get to all that god stuff?”
This is a question I hear in one form or another in 12-step meetings. It’s a question I had when I started this recovery thing. The answer I got was essentially to put it on the back burner and keep an open mind; to do what I could do today and let tomorrow take care of itself tomorrow. Really, it was a good answer. I was all kinds of screwed up coming in, as are most people with long-standing substance-abuse problems. Shut up and start walking the path was an excellent suggestion, and I took it. I really needed to start working first rather than trying to answer all of the potential future questions.
But of course, sooner or later that god thing came back to be dealt with. That’s fine, by the time I really had to sit down and do some thinking my head was screwed on a little tighter by virtue of the simple fact that my brains were no longer soaking in an alcohol solution and I had learned to listen to others a little more closely than before. The G word crops up often in 12-step literature, you hear it constantly in meetings, people talk about it before and after, and if you get in there and start working the steps, it shows up in step 2 (came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity) and names itself in step 3 (made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him).
So, here’s how I made sense of it. This is my experience, and I do not represent any recovery group, 12-step or otherwise.
Despite not believing in any gods of any sort, I realized that I had been behaving like the god-figures of most (all?) mythologies.
I was egotistical. I was demanding. I expected my needs and wants to take a higher priority than those of others. I expected people to know what I wanted with0ut me telling them. I expected people to ask me for what they needed or wanted and to be grateful if I gave it to them. I expected them to express that gratitude. I expected that others would understand when I was grateful to them without my having to be bothered telling them. I expected to be given things, and I expected that I would give nothing back unless it was convenient and it was something I didn’t want anyway. Or, of course, if what you were giving me in return was of more value.
When events and even natural processes didn’t go my way, I was angry. Deep down, I expected the world to bend itself around my desires. I expected my environment to adapt to me rather than me adapting to my environment.
An atheist acting like a petty godlet. It’s pretty funny, when you think about it.
So, believing a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. That’s easy. The whole damn world is greater than me. You’re greater than me in a very key way: I cannot alter your thoughts or behaviors. You can do something I have absolutely no power over. I can present an idea to you; what you then do with it is absolutely yours. To lend a crude metaphor to this idea, I am a child playing a boardgame. The rules of the boardgame govern the boardgame. If I accept this, I can have a good time playing. If I don’t accept this, I will have an unhappy tantrum and be sent to bed where I will cry and sniffle… but the rules of the game will remain unchanged. Understanding this idea indeed brought some sanity back into my life. I continue to ponder it from time to time. This is a basic principle of life, not an item on a scavenger hunt list to be ticked off and forgotten. As I continue to ponder it, my understanding deepens and my sanity grows. Like many simple things, the ramifications are greater than you can follow in their entirety, so spend your life with it.
But, you might ask, if there’s nothing there, no sentient god, how do you get restored to sanity? Again, simple. A tide lifts a boat without being asked and without being sentient. Meet the conditions: place a boat on a tidal body of water. Wait. Then it happens. Be open to understanding the principles that govern your world and do your best to act in harmony with them, do your best not to waste your energy in trying to change the things you cannot change, turn your efforts to identifying and changing the things that can be changed, and the tide will lift your boat. Simple, no?
Once you get that, step 3 is nothing. I didn’t even really care that the word ‘god’ was in it. Other than my mild irritation at mythological references, but then that’s natural for an atheist. All step 3 really is, is a statement of willingness to integrate the understanding I gained from step 2 into my life, every day, all day. Not because I’m some spiritually athletic special forces badass, not because I’m all awesome all of a sudden, but because it’s practical. It’s understanding that the tide will lift my boat when it will lift it tomorrow as well as today, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the tide tables.
I made a decision to play the boardgame by the rules, and to understand that the rules do not alter themselves for me no matter how pissed off I get. You can call that ‘god’ if you want.
I call it good sense.