The Meeting

Big BookWe parked next to a lone car in the lot, and, once inside, wound our way through the seemingly empty church to find the door to the basement. I hung close to my friend, my guide to the world of Alcoholics Anonymous. I wanted to know what AA was like, what his new life was like, so I had asked if I could go with him to a meeting.

I regretted the outing as soon as we found the room. I had pictured rows of folding chairs, half filled with reluctant people clutching coffee cups and coats. I had pictured myself in the back row, at a friendly, supportive remove. But we were the fourth and fifth people there, and we draped our coats around chairs set in an intimate circle. I smiled nervously at the other three people, wondering what I would say when it was my time to address them. “Hi, I’m Kate, and I’m ———–”? Oh, good: two more arrived; now we were seven. Nine. Ten. At the last minute, the circle filled, and there were twelve of us.

AA, as you probably know, uses a twelve-step program of recovery. The first thing we did, after the opening welcome, was to read these steps out loud, one by one, from a photocopied sheet in a plastic sleeve, passing them from person to person. When my friend handed them to me, I handed them right along to the fellow on my right. As a visitor, I didn’t feel like it was my place to say them. As an atheist, I didn’t think I could.

I had known before I came that AA asks its members to give over control of their lives to a Higher Power, and I figured there’d be a God-related step or two. But I was wrong: six of the twelve steps center on or at least refer to God. He doesn’t get that much ink in the Ten Commandments.

Then it became less about God and more like church. We passed out copies of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous, the AA “bible”), fat hardbacks with black covers, fetched from a little cabinet under the coffee maker. After some discussion about where the group had left off, we settled in to read “Stars Don’t Fall,” a testimonial by Felicia G., who drank her way through the 1940s before eventually grasping sobriety.

As we read her story aloud, turn by turn, paragraph by paragraph, we were, implicitly at least, tasked with finding commonality between her story and ours. It wasn’t easy. Felicia wasn’t just from a different era (in which one went to “gin mills” to get “tight”); she was from a different life entirely. She was born in a castle, had a chalet in Switzerland, and kept a house in Virginia “during fox hunting season.” She knew how to hold a terrapin fork. I wasn’t sure what a terrapin was.

But when she describes her preoccupation with drink, even I, a “normal,” possessed of what AA refers to as the “power of choice in drink,” could relate:

Other girls whom I had known all my life asked for one weak scotch after dinner. Sometimes they’d put it on the mantel, and forget it. My eye would be glued to that glass. How could anybody forget a drink?

Felicia tries to stop drinking on her own—“I must use self-will, self-control. I must go on the wagon for a while”—and fails. She cannot do it alone. Eventually her analyst sends her to Bill (AA’s founder), who sends her to Marty, who takes her to a meeting, and soon she meets Priscilla, who asks her to help Anne, who is in real trouble. One night with Anne, in need of help, Felicia calls the AA central office, which dispatches John and Bud to meet them. “They did not seem ashamed to be with us, these strangers. They were taking the trouble to try and help. Why? I was astonished and deeply moved.”

“I think now,” writes Felicia, “that a God, in whom I did not believe, was looking after me.”

Ah, God. And yet she describes very clearly who was looking after her: Bill and Marty and Priscilla and John and Bud and so on. Looking around the room at these people patiently listening to each other, serving each other coffee and cookies, passing information from hand to hand, and ultimately—in the few minutes left after the reading was over—sharing their stories with each other, it struck me once again that the “Higher Power” is really just human power in disguise. It makes sense: the idea that Something is in control takes the sting out of the realization and admission that you are not. But focus on a Higher Power is really a benign and brilliant feat of misdirection: Look—over there—that will save you, that will hold you steady—and, while you’re looking, here, take my hand . . .

My point is not that Bill didn’t believe or that these people don’t, in one way or another. Even my friend, an atheist like me, was trying to figure out whether he could at least make the switch to agnostic. My point is that Higher Power, whatever it may be, is not the source of their salvation.

It’s crucial to note that Felicia was saved not just by the people helping her, but also by her helping them. Serving others gave her a sense of purpose and worth, not to mention a distraction from self-pity. “I completely forgot about myself,” she writes, “in trying vainly to help Anne, whose misery I understood.”

My friend had been sober about a hundred days; his phone was filled with new numbers: other AA members he called to check up on, and those who called to check on him. His calendar was filled, too, with meetings and assignments from his sponsor. AA puts you right to work: someone has to make the coffee, run the meetings, give literature to new members, “qualify”(or speak at length about one’s experience), and eventually sponsor others. “Do you think that you are one of us?” Bill asks Felicia when they first meet. Saying “yes” included her instantly in a network of people who help one another.

I would venture that vibrant places of worship operate somewhat on the same principle. Although the worship service may talk about God, what really uplifts the soul is . . . service itself. Doing for one another. Seeing the suffering human inside the mom in the cereal aisle or the socialite with the chauffeur and “taking the trouble to try and help.”

That’s it, I thought: that is what is saving my friend.

As we read, the man to the left of my friend seemed repeatedly confused and unable to find his place in the text. Fearing he was drunk, I tried not to stare. No, that’s not right: I tried not to look. But my friend leaned over to help and discovered the man had a different edition of the Big Book than the rest of us had. So my friend gave him his book and then the two of us shared mine: I put my hand on his shoulder so I could lean in to follow the reading. And I found that, weirdly, once my hand rested on my friend’s shoulder, I could not remove it. Not for the rest of the meeting. Maybe I was offering him comfort and strength, or maybe it was the other way around.

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Human Power vs. a Higher Power

Nadia 3Principal Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn is the better person we all wish we were. She spends her days not just running a school in a high-poverty area but also personally attempting to empower every “scholar” in her school. This is what she says about the school color being purple, the color of royalty:

I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.

I know about Ms. Lopez thanks to Vidal Chastanet, one of her students, who was featured last month in photographer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog. (Stanton asked Vidal, “Who has influenced you the most in your life?” and Vidal answered, “My principal.” And then Stanton went in search of her.)

Thanks to Humans of New York, in fact, everybody knows about Ms. Lopez—you (I’m guessing) and I and Ellen DeGeneres and President Obama. And thanks to Lopez’s own inspirational work and the human need to be inspired and then (once inspired) to act, Vidal has sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, and Mott Hall Bridges has received more than a million dollars in donations.

For all of this, Lopez gives thanks to . . . God.

I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it . . . I did pray about it Monday, and God showed me how much of a significance I was, not only to Vidal but to people around the world who could identify what it was like to know someone who was their champion and pushed them through.

I don’t want to minimize the range and intelligence of her statements on education and community and poverty, or reduce her to a football player who believes God kicked in the extra point. She has much more to say than this. But I do think it’s striking that here, in a situation where cause and effect are transparent, God gets credit. It’s not like $1 million showed up on the doorstep, or that people started sending in checks for no evident reason.

To conclude that what happened to Lopez and her school was God’s work is to minimize not just what Lopez herself did but also what Stanton did, what people moved by the story did. I’m sure no one involved, least of all Lopez herself, feels the need to get credit. But minimizing the human role minimizes human responsibility. We may not want to admit it, but we have the power to save not just Vidal and Mott Hall Bridges but all the schools that struggle to keep kids afloat in impoverished areas. We have the power to end poverty. We have the money; we have the will; all we lack is the certainty that it’s our job. That what controls the circumstances of one human’s life is other humans—not just personally (that part we understand), but in the systems that we create together. If we as a culture believe a Higher Power is in charge, we’re simply not going to use our human power to its fullest. We’re going to think that poverty is His doing, not ours.

* * *

Other things that happened last month: Islamist terrorists shot twelve people at the headquarters of a Parisian newspaper. In covering the march that followed, an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped Angela Merkel from the picture because, according to the editor,“including a picture of a woman into something so sacred . . . can desecrate the memory of the martyrs.” Meanwhile, here at home, Senator James Inhofe became Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has said, among many other remarkable things, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

I could write about these events to demonstrate the dangers of religious belief. Many people have. But the problem with using such extreme examples is that we can all be horrified, appalled, and disgusted by them without fundamentally questioning anything we—or non-murderous, non-sexist, non-stupid people like us—believe.

Today, on Darwin Day, it’s worth asking whether the good kind of religion can have negative consequences too. Whether religion that clearly means no harm and even inspires admirable people like Ms. Lopez to do good might ultimately still be holding us back as a society.

When we talk prayer rather than politics, we perpetuate the belief that humans are powerless to address deep-seated societal problems; that the future of kids like Vidal is in God’s hands. But it’s not. It’s in Lopez’s—and in ours.

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The End of Will Power

Superman lifts carWhen my adult piano class disbanded for the summer last June, we promised to return in the fall with a new piece to play for each other. Still giddy from not embarrassing myself at the end-of-year recital, I carried home from that final class a heap of optimism and a bundle of new sheet music.

As it turned out, our class did not reconvene until January—seven months after we had last met. Which translates to approximately 200 practice days.

By which point, I had practiced maybe five times. Maybe.

As you may know, I love practicing the piano. I love the concentration, the sense of being alone and at peace amidst domestic chaos, the infinitesimal but inexorable improvement that comes from doing something over and over. It thrills me that given enough time, even my slow-witted fingers can learn.

But it does not, apparently, thrill me enough. No matter how much I love to practice when I’m doing it, no matter how amazing I feel when I master a piece, what actually makes me sit down at the bench and dig my book out from under everyone else’s music is the threat of playing for my classmates and my teacher.

I knew that about myself, which is why I signed up for an actual class with an actual teacher, rather than relying on teach-yourself-to-play books, YouTube, and my kids. And yet, every year, on the cusp of a class break, I am convinced I can go it alone.

And then, again and again my will power fails me. My will power! The stuff I have proudly used for years to finish books I didn’t love, eschew food that I did, and engage in activities that require a jog bra (including putting on a jog bra). Realizing that my will power isn’t powerful enough has been a terrible, horrible . . .

Relief.

It began in September, when (not practicing), I was on Facebook (not practicing), and I came across an article reprinted in the Washington Post under the headline, “Why a Leading Professor of New Media Just Banned Technology Use in Class.” In it, Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, explains that for years he let his students use whatever laptops, tablets, or phones they wanted whenever they wanted, reasoning that

It’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones. Time management is their job, not mine.

But this year, he finally decided not to. He had concluded that the technology was not just more powerful than he was, it was also more powerful than they were.

Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework . . .

Add to that truth the fact that, scientifically speaking, “Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field,” and students can’t help themselves.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist.

Eureka! In other words, it wasn’t my fault that Facebook and email constantly pulled me from my work. I wasn’t bad or lazy; I was just weak, and it was impossible for me to be strong enough. I wouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty about being too weak to lift a car, would I? I wouldn’t waste time trying to find a good handhold, or build up my shoulder muscles. I would go find a damned jack.

I thanked the friend who had shared the article and told him I was closing my Facebook page for the rest of the work day. It was that simple. I gave up the idea that I could check it once in a while, as a break from thinking, and accepted that as long as Facebook was there, it would break my thinking.

And something else happened: The next time I made a reluctant child practice the piano, I felt different about it. I’ve always been strict about my children’s piano practice. But I have sometimes felt secretly sheepish about my own hypocrisy, since, when my class wasn’t meeting, I couldn’t make myself practice. If it’s so good for them, isn’t it good for me, too?

Now I feel like my children are lucky to have someone make them do things. Someone whose power is greater than the power of the various distractions in their lives—or at least someone who has power over those distractions. Lena would rather watch YouTube clips about dorm decorating than practice the piano; I sympathize, and I help her by not giving her a choice.

This perspective makes me feel better about my parenting, and it also makes me feel better about my children. Noah can’t resist looking at his phone when he hears the ping of a text; I don’t blame him. Why should he be stronger than most humans? So without thinking less of him and without getting angry, I simply help him, when he needs it, by taking his phone away.

Isn’t Noah lucky? He still lives with a power greater than himself—someone who can figuratively lift a car for him. As an adult, I, on the other hand, have to find a jack. You see, acknowledging my own limits relieves me of guilt, but not of responsibility; it doesn’t let me off the hook in any way other than emotionally. I should still practice the piano every day. And when I don’t, I should forgive myself—right before signing up for the next class.

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