Recently I was speaking with a student about the Six and Seventh steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:
We became ready to have God remove our defects of character. (6)
We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. (7)
(If you aren’t familiar with the 12 Steps – they provide an outstanding path of self-recreation and transformation and healing. They’re not just for addicts. If you want to learn more, consider taking my 12 week online course based on the steps.)
We were talking about the idea of “shortcomings” and “character defects”, because those two different terms are used.
My student, who is in AA, pointed out how the AA “old timers” will say that every word is significant in that literature. He wanted to discuss if there was a significant difference between these words. His other question about these steps was about “Self Will vs God’s Will?”, i.e. how does your self will factor into this? Because the classical orthodoxy of AA will say, “self will is of nothing and that it’s all only up to God to remove our shortcomings”, that kind of thing.
So let’s look at both of these questions. But first let me say something about “old timers”, orthodox God-people, and fundamentalists. If you go to almost any AA group around the country, around the world, you’ll see that AA really helps to get people sober and keep them sober. But, it’s not like the rooms are filled with enlightened beings. It’s not like the rooms are filled with highly successful individuals. If there are “old timers” – people who have remained sober for some time in the program – there will be lots of experts on the steps and AA doctrine. Same goes for any spiritual or religious scene. You can follow the letter of the Bible and become a scholar, but that’s not going to give you the Spirit of the path.
Often times, the kinds of people that like to spout orthodox of ideas in the AA club (or any orthodox ideas) are the people who are kind of stuck in their life, or they’re basically depressed. They may be sober but they’re not happy. They may have “manageable lives” but they don’t have great lives. I’m not judging – but I am making an important distinction. I am an “old timer”, I’ve been sober for 30 years. And I am super opinionated too. So I have the right to comment here. I can be an orthodox jerk like anyone else. Here I am talking about AA, but it could be any church or spiritual system or yoga scene. I’m kind of a fundamentalist yogi too – and it’s not pretty if I get to spouting my ideas about “real yoga” etc. And AA, like any other system can very easily turn into a religion where there are orthodox ideas and fundamentalist beliefs.
The thing is, it’s easier to grasp something that is gross than something that is subtle. An orthodoxy, a fundamentalism is something gross. So we can feel like we’re really righteous if we’re following every letter of a law, or every letter of a religious teaching, even if it’s an AA teaching or yoga practice. Then we feel like we’re successful, because we haven’t deviated from that letter.
But, what we know from empirical experience is, (most) orthodox religious people are fucking assholes. Or let’s say that some of the biggest assholes in the world are fundamentalist religious people. They’re not closer to God. If anything, they often times become the obstacles to God and the obstacles to people staying on a sacred path. I just had to get that out of the way. It’s sometimes useful to look at subtle distinctions between teachings that fundamentalists bring up – but don’t ever let orthodox stuck people make you doubt your own unique relationship with the God of your understanding.
So, “shortcomings” and “defects of character”: they might be different, or it might just have been a literary choice. The authors of the 12 Steps maybe have those two steps refer to the same thing in different terms, so that it wasn’t linguistically repetitive. Because if you look at the way the steps were written, just from a grammar and English point of view, they seem to have done that consciously. It could just be as simple as that.
But there is something here that is useful and this where “geeking out” on teachings can be helpful to seekers. While I feel like those orthodox teachings and approaches are mostly useless, I think that there is something that’s really useful from the point of view of a student who would have that kind of a question. What is the difference between these two terms? Maybe there not a difference, or not much of a difference maybe. Journal about it – geek out on it. Ask those crusty old timers – they may have something interesting to say.
On one hand if someone is saying, “Ye must respect the the different terms because that’s how they’re written!” This is the stupid way of being orthodox. But from a student’s point of view, when you’re looking at it that way, it shows a certain keenness of interest. That could be an exploration of something that could be useful.
Let’s look at “Self Will vs God’s Will”. There are these ideas in the AA literature about “getting beyond self-will and finding God’s will”, “following God’s will”, etc. There’s that term in AA literature: “Self-will run riot”, to express when an alcoholic is really off track and acting out of our old ways of being. It really demonizes self-will. But again, if you look at all those crusty old timers, often times healthy self-will the thing that they seem to be lacking, actually.
In the beginning, we come in, we’re getting sober, our self-will is crazy, we are crazy. We really need to not think. “Your best thinking got you here!” – that other trope. But then, if we stay sober, at a certain point we need to start thinking. Once we’re sober, if we want to have a good life, then it’s important to find our self-will once again. And, be able to have self-will along with God’s will. Or, self-will along with prayerfullness. Or, self-will and your own vision along with a sense of surrender.
Like in the Bible it says,
A man’s heart plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
I believe God wants us to participate, that’s why we were created with such a powerful self-will. That’s why we have the ability to fantasize. That’s why we have the ability to have vision. When an alcoholic first gets into a program, or any kind of a raw, unchiseled seeker first gets into a spiritual discipline, they don’t know anything but self-will. They don’t have any relationship with God yet. They don’t have that ability to make their subjective experience the object of their reflection and refinement. In other words, they don’t have the ability to say, “I am thinking this. Is this the right way to think or not?” In the beginning they’ll just think, “This is the truth!” – whatever they’re thinking. They will think “My boss is an asshole,” period. Later, they’ll have the ability to think, “I feel like my boss is an asshole. I see my boss as an asshole. Is this correct? Or is this something in me? Is my boss an asshole, or am I an asshole?” That kind of questioning.
The character Raylan Givens on the show Justified once said:
If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.
On the path, we gain the ability to look at our subjective experience as an object. “This is how I’m seeing. What’s up with that?” Once we have the ability to do that I think that’s the requirement for the “13th Step”. The 12th step says:
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.
There needs to be another step that says,
Assuming we’re doing all of this (meaning all of the 12 step work), we create a dynamic vision for our life of love and service and human magnificence, and unrelentingly follow that vision everyday until we die.
I’m going to declare that as the new 13th step. Instead of just hitting on newcomers – that’s what AA people call the 13th step.
So, I think that’s the thing with self-will. When it comes to our character defects and shortcomings, it’s kind of the same thing. We have to use our self-will, we use our self-effort to examine them. Ultimately, we have to ask God to remove them. But then even in the step work, step 10 brings us back to:
Continue to take personal inventory when we’re wrong and promptly admit it.
That’s self-will, that’s self-effort. The 11th step also, is a step of self effort and self will, of prayer and meditation.
We improved our conscious contact with God, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
I think that self-will is a really important part of the work, as far as that goes. Because we have to be watchful. We also have to decisive. Sometimes then we have to make the decision, “Hey, I need to go to therapy.” Like, “Hey, I need something a little bit more full-on, than just self reflection and prayer and meditation.” Or, “Hey, I just need to chill out and love myself. Because I’ve been focusing on my character defects and shortcomings so much. I really need to back off and just really love myself, and learn to love those goofy parts of myself.”
All of that is self will, and a really important applications of that. In terms of a difference between a shortcoming and a character defect, I think they can just totally be synonyms, actually. I think that the connotations of both of them, I think they’re both really good terms. Because, what we have, this notion in self help is, that we can have these things that we can correct.
We have a shortcoming and we just correct it. We have a character defect and we might have to compensate for it. If we are honest, I think what we find out there are some things about us that are not going to go away. The belief in AA is that people are not cured of alcoholism. They just are able to get a daily reprieve because of the work that they’re doing. I think that’s really useful because, it’s like that with some of these character defects and shortcomings too, where we’re just goofy people, everyone is. We can look at some bad habits of being, and some unhelpful ways of being, and the way that we express our shortcomings. Or, we can look at the ways that we are too prone to our shortcomings, and correct that and find better ways of being. Don’t get me wrong – it’s very important. But then, at the end of the day, often times we need simply to love ourself better. In those very things are often times the things that we have to love ourselves about.
We love ourselves and love our faults provided my my new 13th step is there. Provided that we’re in a process, we’re in a complete process. Say, we’ve done a fair amount of work to get free from our bullshit. We’ve gotten sober, we’ve learned the basic stuff and cleared the basic hurdles. Then we have this vision that we’re living out in an unrelenting way. Provided that we’re doing that, and provided that those character defects and shortcomings are not inhibiting us from doing that, then we can decide what are the really important things to combat and what are the things that we just need to love.
In some cases those character defects and shortcomings are the very things that are our gifts, we just haven’t recognized them as gifts yet. We haven’t allowed them to be gifts yet. For instance, someone who can’t take directions from their superiors, and are always coming up with all these other ideas, and not wanting to follow their superior’s idea. Well maybe that’s a character defect, but maybe that’s actually their destiny poking through their present reality. In truth, they are a leader, and they’re just in the wrong position.
There are ways in which we express those shortcomings and character defects/individual, God given qualities when they’re unconscious that create problems. Example: sex drive that is God -given. When it’s conscious, it creates love and families and pleasure and is one of the sweetest flavors of life. And when it’s unconscious it either goes into a deadness, a dormancy, which then deadens so many other areas of our life, or goes into an active shadow expression, which then harms other people or can harm us, like when people who get into porn addiction, or prostitute addiction, stuff like that.
What’s the alternative to it? I don’t think is, “Keeping it in the hole”, but rather going back to that 13th step idea of vision. It’s like not just having a vision for a life where our sex drive doesn’t cause us problems. It’s like having a vision for a life where we have an amazing healthy sex life, having a vision for our life where we have love and we have sex, t the way that we want to have it. Human magnificence means everyone benefits. There’s no way in which our human magnificence includes the slavery of others, or human trafficking, something that is wasting our time and our energy, like jacking-off to porn when we’re supposed to be at work, or putting all of our sexual energy into porn when we’re neglecting our actual sex life with our partner.
That’s just one example, but it can also be so many things. When we add consciousness, there is an improvement. If we take it to the next level and have a vision, we step into a new life.
The visioning thing is so important, because that vision is what drives all those other decision. Our vision is also what gives vent, or gives outlet to those deeper desires. So then, once you have permission to vision about relationships, then you’re not just hung up in being desperate. Once you have permission to have a vision about your expression in a career way, then you’re not just, “Do I like my job, do I not like my job? What job can I get that’s better than this one?” But, actually gives an ability for that energy to be used in a beneficial way.
What do you think about all this?