A trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

On Dec. 14, 1934, a failed stock­bro­ker named Bill Wil­son was strug­gling with al­co­holism at a New York City detox cen­ter. It was his fourth stay at the cen­ter and noth­ing had worked. This time, he tried a rem­edy called the bel­ladonna cure — in­fu­sions of a hal­lu­cino­genic drug made from a poi­sonous plant — and he con­sulted a friend named Ebby Thacher, who told him to give up drink­ing and give his life over to the ser­vice of God.

Wil­son was not a be­liever, but, later that night, at the end of his rope, he called out in his hos­pi­tal room: “If there is a God, let Him show Him­self ! I am ready to do any­thing. Any­thing!”

As Wil­son de­scribed it, a white light suf­fused his room and the pres­ence of God ap­peared. “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a moun­tain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blow­ing,” he tes­ti­fied later. “And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.”

Wil­son never touched al­co­hol again. He went on to help found Al­co­holics Anony­mous, which, 75 years later, has 11,000 pro­fes­sional treat­ment cen­ters, 55,000 meet­ing groups and some 1.2 mil­lion mem­bers.

The move­ment is the sub­ject of a smart and com­pre­hen­sive es­say by Bren­dan I. Ko­erner in the July 2010 is­sue of Wired mag­a­zine. The ar­ti­cle is note­wor­thy not only be­cause of the light it sheds on what we’ve learned about ad­dic­tion, but for what it says about chang­ing be­hav­ior more gen­er­ally. Much of what we do in pub­lic pol­icy is to try to get peo­ple to be­have in their own long-term in­ter­ests — to fin­ish school, get mar­ried, avoid gangs, lose weight, save money. Be­cause the soul is so com­pli­cated, much of what we do fails.

The first im­pli­ca­tion of Ko­erner’s es­say is that we should get used to the idea that we will fail most of the time. Al­co­holics Anony­mous has stood the test of time. There are mil­lions of peo­ple who fer­vently be­lieved that its 12step process saved their lives. Yet the ma­jor­ity, even a vast ma­jor­ity, of the peo­ple who en­roll in the pro­gram do not suc­ceed in it. Peo­ple are idio­syn­cratic. There is no sin­gle pro­gram that suc­cess­fully trans­forms most peo­ple most of the time.

The sec­ond im­pli­ca­tion is that we should get over the no­tion that we will some­day crack the be­hav­ior code — that we will some­day find a sci­en­tific method that will al­low us to pre­dict be­hav­ior and de­sign re­li­able so­cial pro­grams. As Ko­erner notes, AA has been the sub­ject of thou­sands of stud­ies. Yet “no one has yet sat­is­fac­to­rily ex­plained why some suc­ceed in AA while oth­ers don’t, or even what per­cent­age of al­co­holics who try the steps will even­tu­ally be­come sober as a re­sult.”

Each mem­ber of an AA group is dis­tinct. Each group is dis­tinct. Each moment is dis­tinct. There is sim­ply no way for so­cial sci­en­tists to re­duce this kind of com­plex­ity into equa­tions and for­mula that can be repli­cated one place af­ter an­other.

Nonethe­less, we don’t have to be fa­tal­is­tic about things. It is pos­si­ble to de­sign pro­grams that will help some peo­ple some of the time. AA em­bod­ies some shrewd in­sights into hu­man psy­chol­ogy.

In a cul­ture that gen­er­ally cel­e­brates em­pow­er­ment and self-es­teem, AA be­gins with dis­em­pow­er­ment. The goal is to get peo­ple to gain con­trol over their lives, but it all be­gins with an act of sur­ren­der and an ad­mis­sion of weak­ness.

In a cul­ture that thinks of it­self as in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, AA re­lies on fel­low­ship. The gen­eral idea is that peo­ple aren’t re­ally cap­tains of their own ship. Suc­cess­ful mem­bers be­come deeply in­ter­twined with one an­other — learn­ing, shar­ing, suf­fer­ing and men­tor­ing one an­other. In­di­vid­ual re­pair is a so­cial ef­fort.

In a world in which gu­rus try to care­fully de­sign and im­pose their ideas, Wil­son sur­ren­dered con­trol. He wrote down the fa­mous steps and foun­da­tions, but AA al­lows each lo­cal group to form, adapt and in­no­vate. There is less qual­ity con­trol. Some groups and lead­ers are great; some are ter­ri­ble. But it also means that AA is de­cen­tral­ized, in­no­va­tive and dy­namic.

Al­co­holics have a spe­cific prob­lem: They drink too much. But in­stead of ad­dress­ing that prob­lem with the psy­chic equiv­a­lent of a pre­ci­sion-guid­ance mis­sile, Wil­son set out to change peo­ple’s whole iden­ti­ties. He stud­ied Wil­liam James’ “The Va­ri­eties of Re­li­gious Ex­pe­ri­ence.” He sought to arouse peo­ple’s spir­i­tual as­pi­ra­tions rather than just ap­peal­ing to ra­tio­nal cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis. His group would help peo­ple achieve broad spir­i­tual awak­en­ings, and ab­sti­nence from al­co­hol would be a byprod­uct of that larger sal­va­tion.

In the busi­ness of chang­ing lives, the straight path is rarely the best one. AA il­lus­trates that even in an age of sci­en­tific ad­vance, it is still an­cient in­sights into hu­man na­ture that work best. Wil­son built a re­mark­able or­ga­ni­za­tion on a night­time spir­i­tual epiphany.

Charles Dhara­pak

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama spoke at a town-hall style event on the econ­omy on Wed­nes­day in Racine, Wis.

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