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How It Works (Not Why)

How It Works (Not Why)

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A Recovery Parable

An addict is driving along, all alone in his car, one night on an empty highway. He is depressed beyond words, thinking how miserable he is and how he would do anything to get sober and have a normal life. Suddenly, as he’s zooming down the highway and thinking, he hears the voice of God.

“I hear you’re looking for sobriety,” says God.

“Yes,” he says, in awe.

“Well, you’re in luck today,” says God, “because I happen to have sobriety, and it can be yours for a reasonable price.”

“How much?”

“How much have you got?”

“I’ve got twenty dollars in my pocket.”

“You’re in luck,” says God. “The price of sobriety today happens to be exactly twenty dollars.”

“But that’s everything I’ve got,” the man protests. “If I give you all of my money, how will I buy gas for the car?”

“A car?” says God, “Oh, I see. The price of sobriety is twenty bucks and your car.”

“But if I give you my car, how will I get to work tomorrow?”

“Work?” says God, “You have a job? The price of sobriety is twenty bucks, your car and your job.”

“But if I give you my job, then I won’t get paid. I need to pay the mortgage this week.”

“A mortgage? You mean you have a house? I hate to tell you this, but the price of sobriety just went up. It’s twenty bucks, your car, your job and your house.”

“But where will my family live?”

“Family? You’ve got a wife and kids? The price of sobriety is twenty bucks, your car, your job, your house, and your wife and kids.”

At this point the man decides to shut up.

“Are you willing to take it?” asks God.

The man nods. God takes everything, and He is about to give the man his sobriety.

“But one thing,” says God. “Before I give you your sobriety, there’s something else I want you to do for me.”

The man nods again.

“See this twenty dollars?” says God, “It’s not your twenty dollars. It’s My twenty dollars. You know that. But I want you to take it from Me, and I want you to be My emissary to spend it as I would. And you see this car? It’s not your car. It’s My car. But I want you to use it as I would. And this job: I want you to go to work and earn a paycheck. But it’s not your job. It’s My job. And I want you to behave there as I would. And this family—this wife and these kids. They’re not your family. They’re My family. But I want you to take care of them for me the way that I would. Can you do all of that?”

The man nods again.

“Then here is it all. And here is your sobriety.”

Recovery in a Nutshell

So, that’s basically recovery in a nutshell: addict gets tired of trying to make everything work; addict gives up and lets Higher Power take over; addict experiences unusual freedom, happiness and usefulness as long as, and to the extent that, addict does not renege on previous decision.

I am sure that people who suffer from other conditions that are also incurable, progressive and fatal would be thrilled if their diseases could be treated just as easily. It almost seems too good to be true, and it would be . . . if everybody who needed the solution knew about it, and everyone who knew about it actually used it. But the irony of addiction is, as many people in recovery are apt to point out, that it is the disease that tells you don’t have a disease.

Another way of putting it is that when you are full of yourself, it’s very hard to see that you are the problem.

Or, conversely, when you need God the most, God is the last thing you want.

There’s not much more to recovery than that the addict just follows some basic rules of living and is relieved from the obsession to use. It sounds like a neat trick. But as the old slogan goes, “There is no magic in recovery, just miracles.”

This is a crucial point, one that we need to clarify right here and now if we are to understand how this program works.

People don’t make miracles.

God does.

The addict’s role in recovery is thus really no more than to just get out of the way so that God can make recovery happen.

If that sounds like some kind of voodoo or imaginary magic bullet, just remember how much incredibly hard work it actually takes to get out of the way.

If it were really so easy to let God do His business, then addicts wouldn’t need to resort to numbing themselves into oblivion in a desperate attempt to replicate this effect. Would they? If we could all just snap our fingers and become selfless, we wouldn’t need to follow a program that trains us how to live in harmony with God; we’d already just be doing it. So do not be mistaken: recovery is hard work—just not in the sense that we often think of it.

Not Self-Help, God-Help

To wit, a major misconception about the Twelve Steps is that they are a “self-help program.” I’ve actually heard mental health professionals, albeit not ones who specialize in addiction, refer to the Twelve Steps as such. This description is completely inaccurate. The Twelve Steps are the very opposite of self-help.

Active addiction is self-help (“I take care of myself the only way I know how, because no one else can or will”). Recovery is God-help (“I can’t continue trying to do for myself what only God can really do for me”). If one is a true addict, in the sense described in the preceding chapters, then one will not recover by trying to get his or her own addiction under control. By the time one is an addict, there is no human power that can make the addiction go away. Addiction must be treated by a miracle. And as we said, miracles are God’s business.

Now, here is an insightful question that a person of faith might ask at this point. From a Jewish perspective, how are the Twelve Steps any different from all other forms of healing? As the Torah explains, medical treatment is just a way of opening a natural pathway for God’s healing powers to reach us in a non-miraculous way. Thus, in essence, isn’t it always God who does the work and we who just make room for Him, as the old saying goes, “God heals the patient and the doctor collects the fee”?

True. In that sense, recovery really is no different from any other kind of healing.

On the other hand, recovery is unique in that it cuts out the middleman, so to speak. There are no pills and no therapies. Recovery is faith healing in the truest sense. Recovery is about opening yourself to God, so that God can do whatever He needs to do with you, so that you can best live your life.

Nevertheless, we must be clear about one thing. The reason we can treat addiction with straight spirituality, whereas we cannot use the same treatment for, say, a broken leg, is due to the very nature of the disease in the first place. As explained in the preceding chapters, addiction itself is an essentially spiritual malady, and thus is treatable by the application of overtly spiritual practices.

It Works If You Work It

To sum up what we’ve said so far in this chapter:

• The addict’s work in recovery is simply to apply some basic rules of living.

• The addict is not really treating the condition so much as allowing treatment to ensue.

• The way this works is by following a program that is deceptively easy to describe.

Now . . . why this works is another story altogether. I don’t know why it works. Thus, the title of this part of the book, “The Solution,” may actually be a bit misleading.

When we speak about the solution, all we mean is to identify:

• The precise means by which this solution is implemented (i.e., how do you do it); and

• The general goal the solution is meant to achieve (i.e., what happens when you do).

This doesn’t mean that we know why it works. If you were to ask me to tell you why the Steps work, I would have to admit that I have no idea. I mean, to be honest, I think I have some general notion as to why they are effective. They train a person to get away from ego and become available for a conscious relationship with God, thereby alleviating the obsession with self-destruction as a means for relieving existential discomfort.

But I do not know why precisely it has to be these Steps, or why they are in this order. I don’t know why people who stick to the program succeed, and those who don’t take it seriously seem to have a much harder go of it. I don’t know why the Steps don’t seem to work as well when they are substituted, skipped or modified.

I also don’t know why the Steps are so completely life-transforming. But I don’t believe that anybody really knows any of this. All we know is that those who honestly commit themselves to the program find themselves utterly changed, and that this change is far more profound than mere chemical sobriety. Indeed, as we have already explained, in order to work, it would have to be.

Recovery folks often tell one another, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it.” In other words, the people whose lives have already been transformed by the program can’t really give fellow sufferers any better advice than “do what I did and you’ll get the same results I got.” They can’t tell you why it works. All they know is that their lives today are testimony to the fact that it does.

Those who are familiar with recovery know that there is a chapter in the Big Book entitled “How It Works.” In that chapter, the Twelve Steps are first enumerated and explained. It took me a while to consciously appreciate that the chapter is called “How It Works,” not “Why It Works.” The original architects of the Twelve Steps didn’t pretend that they understood why these principles were so effective. All they knew, and all we know today, is that the program works.

Natural Law

It is my personal belief—and this is the theologian in me talking now—that the Steps work because they conform to certain basic, immutable laws of the universe. “You do this, you get that.” In other words, the Steps are not arbitrary, any more than that which constitutes a healthy diet is arbitrary. Certain lifestyles promote health, and certain lifestyles do not.

Just as there are laws of biology that determine what is healthy eating for the body, there are laws of spirituality that determine what is healthy living for the soul. One need not understand either of these types of laws to live in accordance with them.

For instance, you don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that if for some crazy reason you go off and eat nothing but waffles for every meal, you are going to ruin your health. You can believe others when they tell you this, or you can try it on your own, but one way or another, you will come to the same conclusion as all other normal people. And you don’t have to know why it is that way; you just know that it is.

If we look at recovery as a set of instructions for living according to the rules of life, I think it helps us also to understand the challenge facing the addict. The addict is a person in desperate need of learning how to live.

Let’s go back to the universal law that says that if you eat waffles all day, you’ll get sick. A little kid who has a chance to eat nothing but waffles all day might actually try to do it. But that’s normal. A little kid still needs to test things out. A normal adult, on the other hand, won’t try it, because a normal adult already knows—whether from personal experience, from watching others, or from logical deduction—that the all-waffle diet won’t work.

Now, let’s apply this same concept to other areas of life besides eating. Certain emotional habits are unhealthy. Little kids need to experiment with unhealthy behaviors—like pouting, throwing tantrums, lying, and so forth—and try them on for size. As they grow up, however, they form conclusions and gradually cross certain behaviors off the list. By the time a person is mature, there are just certain routines that are no longer part of the repertoire. You don’t fall on the ground and cry anymore when someone else gets the last piece of cake.

For whatever reason, addicts usually have not learned these lessons. It’s not that addicts are unintelligent. To the contrary, they can be very smart, indeed prone to being unusually philosophical, even if they are of average intelligence. If an addict had just two brain cells left, one would be trying to figure out how to kill the other one by getting wasted, while the other would be contemplating the meaning of life.

At any rate, addicts as a group are not at all stupid. Yet, when it comes to living, they are inexplicably inept. There are certain life lessons that they have never grasped—the emotional equivalents of “don’t eat waffles all day unless you want to get sick.” As time goes by, rather than learning how to do what everyone else does, the addict increasingly overcompensates by developing an entire alternative set of life skills of dubious distinction, such as a masterly knack for self-deception or an instinctive ability to manipulate others.

What the Twelve Steps seem to do is take grownups who are bad at life and train them to live as if they had learned the lessons we are all supposed to have learned from our early experiences. The Steps do not teach what the laws of the universe are. (As I said, I don’t think the authors of the program necessarily even knew what they were.) The Steps do train a person, however, to live in a way that is in harmony with these laws.

The Science of Spirituality

I suppose one could ask how a bunch of ne’er-do-wells were able to devise a program that teaches people how to live in harmony with immutable laws of the universe.

My personal take on this is that the Twelve Steps were not invented so much as they were discovered. The Steps were the sum total of real experience gained through a process of much painful trial and error, where the stakes were, quite literally, life and death. By seeing what worked—that is, by what principles an addict could actually live—the original members of the fellowship came to understand some basic rules for living. Thereby, they were able to arrive at certain irreducible needs of human spirituality.

In other words, those who developed the program did not set out to create a new religion or a new sect of a pre-existing one. They were searching for the most basic and universal spiritual truths—not through philosophical investigation, but by actual experimentation. That is a very important distinction. In this sense, the Steps are actually closer to science than religion. Religion is based on revelation, while science is based on empirical findings. Yes, the Steps are spiritual. But they are spiritual principles determined by seeing what actually works. The Steps are, if you will, a scientific study and application of spirituality.

This, by the way, answers a question that troubles many of my fellow Jews who ask how I can attribute such validity to a spiritual program that does not come from Torah.

The Midrash says, “If a person should tell you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it . . . But if he tells you there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.” We must distinguish between wisdom and Torah. Wisdom refers to human insight, while Torah is Godly revelation. The Jews hold no monopoly on human insight. But it is foundational to our belief that we uniquely received the Torah from God at Sinai.

The Twelve Steps are not Torah. But they most certainly are wisdom. The fact that they are the product of human experience and experimentation does not lessen their validity as a tried-and-true way of life, but to the contrary, only strengthens it.

I have heard Jews in recovery say that they believe the Steps were written under “divine inspiration.” I am not part of this camp. First, I am not qualified to determine what is or is not divine inspiration—a term which our tradition uses quite rarely to describe only a very particular state of consciousness. Second, I find such a proclamation wholly unnecessary, when we can just as easily rely upon the definitive ruling of the great 12th-century philosopher and legalist Maimonides, who said: “Accept the truth regardless of its source.”

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Again, I feel compelled to remark that this is just my personal take on things, but I view the process of discovering the Steps as being very much like the way that miners of old would use a canary to test the air in the coal mine. In the days before mineshafts had proper ventilation, miners would bring a canary in a cage down with them whenever forging into a new area of the mine. Canaries are more sensitive to poisonous gases than human beings, so as long as the canary was alive, the miners knew the air in the new area was safe to breathe. If the canary stopped singing, the miners knew it was time to get out of that part of the mine.

The canary was not a toxicologist, or whatever expert you would consult in order to determine whether or not air is safe to breathe. A canary is just a bird—a bird that, when it breathes poison, happens to die quicker than a human.

The early pioneers of recovery were the subjects of their own experimentation, because they had to be. Those who survived saw what did and did not work. If a certain idea or practice is spiritually harmful to human beings, the addict would be the first to show symptoms. If a certain idea or practice promotes spiritual wellness in human beings, it would be evident in the addict by his or her relief from the compulsion to use.

The Steps are just about as simple as that. Let’s take a closer look now at what they actually say.


Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.

Rabbi Shais Taub is Creative Director at Jewish.TV. He is the author of G-d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction. He and his family make their home in Pittsburgh, PA.
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Discussion (11)
May 25, 2013
Thank G-d we have you! Brilliantly written.
Chaya Phillips
January 9, 2013
Thank you!
Wow - Rabbi Taub! Thanks for the response. I don't want to trouble you to listen through all those recordings, but if you ever happen upon it again I'd be happy to know the source. Thanks!
KV
January 8, 2013
Source of the Parable
I heard it from an AA speaker. I don't know if it has another source. The talk is recorded. If I look through my CDs of AA talks I may be able to find it and tell you which speaker said it.
Shais Taub
January 8, 2013
Source of the parable
I've actually read this over many times and it's so powerful. It's like a mantra I always return to. Does anyone know the primary source of this parable? Did Rabbi Taub come up with it on his own?

Thanks,
KV
March 4, 2012
A reed basket
That is beautiful Anonymous. To bed in a basket. Sweet baby. Important destiny. JocheBed. I think this story has wings with G-d as you write, so totally in the wings.

We deliver for you.. the words on our mail trucks and yes, too, meaning within meaning
bringing us to Exodus and the next Chapter being in wilderness.

"in wilderness is the preservation of the world" Thoreau. He was so thoroughly correct. And eau to for water in French. Our Hebrew Mayim. Sweet Moses in his basket of reeds as reeds too are for flutes this story
is about Love. Keep following the music.

This symphony has a Divine conductor.
ruth housman
marshfield, ma
March 3, 2012
Jochebed
Jochebed put her baby in a reed basket floating in the Nile...and G_d gave the baby back to her via Pharoah's daughter and Miriam...to nurse.

Everything we have is His, and He gives them back to us to take care of.
Anonymous
Prescott, AR/US
February 29, 2012
Heel and Step. How we Heal.
As soles too for feet, it's a solitary and soul journey. Addictions take hold of body and soul. Take their toll. I honor the dignity of all engaged in their 'respect' ive jouneys. Anguish too, a deep emotional part. And seeking relief from life. Hope is a thing with feathers. Fetters.

There are many control issues in life and this is one. it seems intuitive that abstinence is the answer but achieving this can be gargantuan. i know from my work in the Clinics and with exceptional people. It's an ongoing struggle, and journey that is of sole and soul, and mentors in AA are very crucial.

It seems to me that the notion of surrendering to G_d, as part of the success of AA was a stroke of genius, that came directly from the Source. I see we're all on a journey, each in our own way, hitting the rocks, bleeding, learning from each other, and yes, I see that G_d wrote this story, for each unique being,

For those who "pick up". G_d's in the wings.
AA. ASCENT. STEPS. A CLIMB.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
February 28, 2012
Dear Rabbi Taub; Please !!
Would you please let us left coast recovery people know when and where you are speaking out here in California, preferably in Orange County, Ca.????
I want to bring my Catholic Father friend, he loves you too !!!
christopher beeker
Costa Mesa, Ca.
February 27, 2012
Addiction
Oh, if only it could have been so for my son. He wanted so hard to stop drinking but his body would not allow him to quit. He went to so many recovery programs, even the Jewish one in California, but he just couldn't quit. His physician tried so hard to help him, but sadly, my only son, my firstborn, died from complications of alcohol abuse last year. His doctor said it is rare but there are some people with the type of body make up that will not allow recovery. He was one. Baruch Hashem he never gave up on
G-d and was faithful to the end. Today he is in a better place.
Cheryl
Steilacoom, WA
February 26, 2012
Brillantly Expressed
Wow! This explained so much in a way I am able to easily understand and have compassion and insight. Thank you!
Anonymous
Scripps Ranch, CA
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