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The Bergand Group – July 2015 Newsletter

The Higher Power Conundrum

By John Steinberg, MD – Medical Director, The Bergand Group

DrSBergandAt the Bergand Group, we encourage participation in Twelve Step programs. Upon occasion, patients present us with their difficulties in establishing a concept of a Higher Power- or, if you prefer, lower case higher power. Let’s start this discussion by referencing something from the AA Big Book. On page 93, advice is given to potential sponsors as to how to approach their “prospects” on this very subject. The top half of the page advises that if the newcomer is agnostic or atheistic, simply encourage him or her to be secure in the ability to chose any higher power that makes sense. The bottom half of the page advises that some prospects may be even more conversant with religion than the person making the twelve step call. In this instance, the advice given is to simply point out that whatever scheme of faith the person has been using, it hasn’t gotten him sober. Quite clearly, Alcoholics Anonymous, the original twelve step program founded eighty years ago, in its earliest days, considered this question in detail and offered unfettered flexibility to its members in establishing any higher power that worked for those selfsame individual members.

I have found that it helps to start with an even more basic approach in helping patients to have a comfort zone in which debating the nature of the higher power need cause no stress whatsoever. This starts by simply examining the two simple words: “higher power.” The first word clearly implies that there is a hierarchical superiority. Even if the recovering addict or alcoholic chooses the higher power, he or she is, by definition, subordinate to it. The second word, “power,” means that whatever this thing is, it can compel the person to do that which he or she would otherwise not do. Now, let’s put some examples to these words.

Higher powers are simply those things or persons that compel us to act in a manner that we would otherwise not do. Higher powers can thereby be organized into any of six possible choices. They may be personal or impersonal. The may be destructive, neutral, or helpful in their effects on our lives.

Here are our six choices, with examples:

Destructive/Personal: a mugger- After all, when the gun is placed to one’s head and a demand to surrender a wallet is made, this is clearly not the victim’s intended behavior, but, most of us would yield to this harmful higher power and hand over the wallet.

Neutral/Personal: another driver who asks us to yield right of way- Again, we yield, but, the surrender is of no consequence to us emotionally or otherwise.

Positive/Personal: a sponsor- A sponsor may suggest behaving in a new way that we would not otherwise choose, but, because we believe the sponsor has our best interests at heart, we yield and change our actions to conform with our sponsor’s directions.

Destructive/Impersonal: drugs and alcohol- This one is easy. Indeed, for many of us, our first inkling of a higher power is when we find ourselves in the grip of an addiction, doing things we know to be harmful to ourselves, even as we do them. Drugs and alcohol get us to do things we would never otherwise even consider, much to our detriment.

Neutral/Impersonal: gravity- It compels us to sit in our seats, but, unless we are falling from a height, gravity is essentially neither harmful or helpful in our lives.

Positive/Impersonal: God, as we understand Him OR, for those agnostic/secular/atheistic patients, the principles found in the steps of AA, NA, etc.- The Twelve Steps embody a set of five principles (perhaps a good topic for a future newsletter) that serve as a perfectly adequate higher power for those who wish to recover from a non theologically oriented approach.

In AA, no belief system is compelled and none is forbidden. NA actually explicitly states “religion or lack of religion” in its opening readings at meetings. Therefore, I ask our patients who are having problems benefiting from participation in twelve step programs because they feel unable to establish a suitable, acceptable higher power, to simply recognize two things:

  1. They have already surrendered to a destructive higher power- their drug of choice.
  2. If they are going to recover, they now have to find something greater than drugs and alcohol to which they can surrender instead.

If they object to the word “surrender” as there has been such controversy regarding the “powerlessness” concept in some secular and professional circles, I encourage them to simply use the word “yield.” The patients may choose to trust in any higher power that fits. The presence of so many people who have successfully recovered from substance abuse dependencies speaks eloquently to the fact that even those of us who have been thoroughly defeated by drugs or alcohol can clearly find a power greater than the substances that brought us low. And that is sufficient for us to know there are indeed higher powers that enable successful recovery.

John R. Steinberg, MD
Medical Director, Co-Founder
The Bergand Group

We can help you find your way. Contact our offices and start today.

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