“I’m Turned Off by the Higher Power Language in A.A.”
“The brightness of an incandescent bulb is determined by how many twists are in its filament. Each twist increases the resistance of the wire, which in turn makes the filament heat up more and glow brighter. Likewise, each twisted, broken aspect of our lives can add to our capacity to be a light.”
Q: I’ve been through rehab for my alcohol problem three times. Every program seems to be big on Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m turned off by the Higher Power language in A.A. I have never stayed with meetings after rehab because of that. Can you can help me get over that hurdle?
I have heard your concern from many patients throughout my career. I believe there is a way to think about “Higher Power” that might work for you. On my website (thewingedlife.com) I have a video of me doing therapy with a lightbulb. When I ask the bulb on the couch what it wants help with, it says, “I’m in constant darkness and I have absolutely no energy! Can you prescribe drugs for that?”
I try to tell the bulb that it was made to light up, that it is meant to flow with a power bigger than itself. I ask it if it’s ever heard of electricity or a light socket. Unfortunately, the bulb says it doesn’t believe in those kinds of things. Then I tell it that it only takes one therapist to change a lightbulb, but the lightbulb has to want to change!
As silly as the thought of doing therapy with a lightbulb is, we can be a bit like that skeptical bulb. When we imagine a Higher Power as something outside ourselves to pray to instead of something we can flow with, we have trouble experiencing our capacity to heal and become a light to ourselves and others.
We’re all connected to some power source on any given day, but not all power sources are equally energizing. The socket labeled “substance abuse” is on a dimmer switch and turned down to about 2 watts—just a trickle. The socket labeled “Higher Power” (or “God” or “Compassion” or “Large Self”) flows with abundant peace, purpose, acceptance, and joy. When you find a stable sobriety you will more often experience your capacity to light up with these energies. You will also become a source of them for others. Your life, including all of your struggles, can show others what a life connected to a Higher Power looks like.
Incandescent lightbulbs are on the way out, but I like to use the filament they contain as an image for how our brokenness can become crucial to our experience of a Higher Power. The brightness of an incandescent bulb is determined by how many twists are in its filament. Each twist increases the resistance of the wire, which in turn makes the filament heat up more and glow brighter. Likewise, each twisted, broken aspect of our lives can add to our capacity to be a light. Why? Because we cannot become deeply compassionate without knowing deep suffering. Compassion is the light, suffering is what creates the twisted filament that produces the light.
Often patients say to me, “I’m not into A.A. I don’t see what hanging out with a bunch of losers is supposed to do for me.” One of the first movements toward experiencing yourself as a light connected to a Higher Power is to start asking how you can be a light to someone else at an A.A. meeting, a part of someone’s healing, instead of focusing only on what A.A. can or can’t do for you.
I hope you will come to your own understanding of Higher Power and give A.A. another try. I consider A.A. to be one of the most authentic spiritual communities in the world. People go to meetings to support one another and to share about real life, real brokenness. If that doesn’t have something to do with “Higher Power” I’m not sure what does.
Kevin Anderson, PhD, is a psychologist, poet, and writer. His latest book Now is Where God Lives: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul can be purchased at Amazon or his website: thewingedlife.com.
Send your questions to [email protected] Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.