Being a philosopher in recovery

As a philosopher, I’m accustomed to being misunderstood. When I’ve discussed or written in this space about “outside issues” or prayer in traditional AA meetings, a lot of responses have frankly missed my point. I am not seeking advice on how to deal with my life. I know that I can leave an AA meeting during a prayer, and I know I can leave an AA fellowship if members are obnoxious (or worse) about pushing God or steps or whatever else. I write in order to question and critique.

This comes to mind today because last night I dreamt that I was in a verbal spat about reciting the Serenity Prayer in meetings. My personal policy on the Serenity Prayer is that I don’t recite it myself; and when I chair traditional meetings, I let someone else start the thing, if that’s what they want to do. To me, the Serenity Prayer is different from the Lord’s Prayer because it is not sectarian, not even specifically Christian, names no attributes of God and does not give God a sex or gender, and is extremely similar to advice Epictetus gave in the Discourses.

I would be unlikely to get into an altercation over the Serenity Prayer, but in the dream, there I was, arguing that it is, in fact, a prayer; and that the imposition of any prayer of any kind, as a standard part of a meeting, is an instance of the tyranny of the majority, i.e., oppression. “Soft” or systemic oppression of this kind is almost never noticed by those who are benefitted by the oppression. They might say, “just don’t recite it, you’re still free to follow your own beliefs.” But this leaves me with only the option of not taking part in an activity that the rest of the group engages in, presumably for their own benefit. Let me lay it out this way: If they believe that prayer does them some good (and they do), then their praying together is a group activity that benefits those who participate. The person that prayer does not benefit, the non-believer, is denied the opportunity to participate, and denied the benefits of that participation. The benefits are not limited to the divine, in this case, or else there would be no point in reciting the prayer aloud and together. The benefits are social or cultural (“spiritual” in a German, Geist kinda way).

What my fellowship sometimes does to accommodate my non-belief in God is to close meetings by reciting the Responsibility Statement, instead of the Lord’s Prayer. (When someone chairing the meeting uses the Lord’s Prayer, I walk out.) The benefit of reciting this together, and being able to join in, is thus opened to everyone, regardless of belief. The only people who experience oppression during this recitation are those who do not believe in AA at all, which is likely to include people who have been required to go to recovery meetings by a judge. I would argue that in that case, it’s the judge, not the fellowship, doing the oppressing.

But my main point in raising this issue at all is to question how the practices and ideology of AA result in treatment of its members. This is an open-ended inquiry. I’m not out to fix anything, which is good because philosophy never fixes things. If it has any effect at all, philosophy breaks things—ideas, mostly. The AA ideas that I’m interested in breaking include the ideology of individualism, the notion that members recover through adherence to group behavior and belief, including “working the steps” and sponsorship, each of those steps, and the notorious fallacies in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Those aren’t “problems” I am looking to “fix.” I’m asking and critiquing: What is behind this? Why do we do that? What makes us think this is a good idea? How does doing that affect how we do this? How do people believe that, and how does it help them? Questioning and critique are what I do.

When I say they’re what I do, I mean all the time: watching a movie or TV program, driving down the freeway, talking to friends, listening to music, waking up from a dream, taking a shower, grocery shopping. ALL. THE. TIME. To me, that’s just what a philosopher does. And if that makes me sometimes annoying to hang around with, at least it makes my life more interesting. So far, nobody has tried to force me to drink hemlock, so I’d say overall philosophy has been a positive influence in my life.

This is how I’m moving forward in recovery. I can’t separate the questioning and critique from my own experience of recovery or of AA. Questioning and critique are what I do, so of course, my own recovery is going to involve questioning and critique. They are a permanent revolutionary orientation to experience.

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