The Tao of H. O. W.

Hunting for a solution to the addiction problem often exemplifies the comical but frustrating human tendency known to psychologists as the streetlight effect. The streetlight effect gets its name from a joke about a drunk vainly looking for his car keys under a streetlight because that was where the light was. The take-home point of the streetlight effect is that doing what it takes to solve a problem might entail having to go outside what is familiar, comfortable, and easily accessible. That is especially pertinent when the problem is addiction.

The vicious cycle of addiction is typically sustained and bolstered by an affinity for glomming on to half-cocked strategies whose only merit is that they don’t require us to question assumptions or to let go of expectations. Thus, AA’s warnings about “half measures”, holding on to “old ideas”, and looking for “an easier, softer way” (BB 58-59) are apt. The first thing we need to do is perhaps the hardest step we will ever take: let go of our fondest ideas about what the solution is.

We laugh at the drunk in the joke because it is obvious that, if he wants to find his lost keys, the question is not where the most light is but is instead where the keys are most likely to be. But even more, we laugh because we recognize ourselves in the story. The problem is not the inaccessibility of sensible ideas but is instead the prevalence of laughable but seductive bad ideas that crowd out the good. The gravitational pull is toward meaningless charades that are more about constructing a wall of plausible deniability with the excuse that at least we are doing something than they are about wanting earnest, viable problem-solving strategies.

We should expect that getting to a solution is going to require effort, but by the same token, the effort that is required might not be what we expect. While we need to “be fearless and thorough from the very start” and be “willing to go to any length” (BB 58), we are more likely to be sacked by a failure of imagination than by a lack of motivation. A bumbling drunk doesn’t end up under a streetlight looking for his keys because getting a flashlight and using it to penetrate the darkness are too much trouble; the possibility of seeking additional illumination wouldn’t even occur to him.

Obviously, overcoming addiction involves more than having a V8 moment in which we slap ourselves on the forehead as we say: “We could look for the keys where we lost them. Why didn’t we think of that before?” Even if we shift our focus, shed light into the dark spaces, and avail ourselves of useful resources by which we can improve our understanding, even if we come around to accepting painful truths made visible by the cold objectivity of the day after, we still might find ourselves stumped.

Conventional wisdom tells us to focus on “the solution”, which is usually good advice. Unfortunately, though, the singular nature of the solution implied by the definite article sets up an insidious trap. All too commonly, the solution that we allegedly need to focus on is a universal panacea like “Jesus is the answer”, and if we are expecting to find one-size-fits-all magical remedy, endeavoring to locate a solution can lead to more hopelessness than that of a drunk looking for his keys somewhere besides where they are.

That alcoholics and other addicts would at times be vulnerable to an overwhelming temptation to latch on to a neat and tidy cure-all is not surprising given that addiction is so often characterized by an inclination to grasp for easy answers. The susceptibility to minimizing the challenge of addiction is easy to spot from the outside looking in, as exemplified in the Big Book’s mocking portrayal of a clueless unfortunate who is overconfident about being able to quit drinking: “. . . we smile at such sally. We know our friend is like a boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits.” (BB 152)

The smiling is perhaps more benevolent than condescending if it is grounded in empathy, but it is easy to withdraw into a smug space ostensibly insulated from the front lines and to overlook how our own patterns of avoidance follow us well into sobriety. Like a boy whistling in the dark, we sally forth, pull everything through the knot hole of whatever we need to believe to keep the painful reminders of what we don’t want to look at from penetrating our complacency, and in a desperate attempt to preserve our precarious perch on the proverbial pink cloud, fiercely chase away our doubts with false bravado.

The most fundamentalist among us mask their insecurity with aggressive proselytizing and weaponized code language like “stay in the solution,” “back to the basics,” or “keep it simple.” Critical thinking goes out the window. Confused ideas are inadequately challenged. How is it that wanting to pursue evidence-based solutions is an easier softer way, but turning responsibility for our decisions and our lives over to an invisible entity is not? How is it that listening to science is holding on to an old idea, but insisting that everyone needs to find God is not? How is it that believing that the palpable human power intrinsic in the AA fellowship has the power to solve the problem of alcoholism is a half measure, but adopting a strategy that counts on a game-winning supernatural slam dunk is not?

However, the problem is deeper than that the readily proffered solution is often a religious placebo. Even the irreligious are not immune from tendency to gravitate toward black-and-white distinctions rather than struggle with impenetrable ambiguity. Those who are adverse to religious language often miss the uncanny wisdom underlying Step 2, perhaps the most crucial plank in the substructure upon which many have built successful recovery, the calm assurance that enables them to take necessary action or refrain from taking unadvisable action when imperfect information requires a leap of faith.

It’s not difficult to understand why a bewildered alcoholic would want to be able to turn to a higher power for help. “Remember that we deal with alcohol‒cunning, baffling, powerful!” (BB 58-59) And addiction is but the tip of the iceberg of an even greater challenge known as the human condition which addicts are not alone in having to face. If addicts are different, it is only in our inordinate drive to banish existential discomfort from the equation.

That life is unpredictable is a source of great consternation in a culture that values reliability and is impatient with uncertainty, but it is not a strictly modern concern. It is a timeless theme. One of the more creative philosophical engagements of life’s inexplicable complexity is the ancient Chinese concept of the Tao. The very nature of the Tao fittingly enigmatic. Vaguely translated as “the way,” the Tao “is called the Form of the Formless, and the Semblance of the Invisible . . . We meet it and do not see its Front; we follow it, and do not see its Back.” (Tao Te Ching 14.2)

Traditional Taoist teaching is not something to be swallowed whole. It is a product of its time. In the questioning spirit of the Tao, we can shake our heads at points, like for example, when we read: “The ancients who showed their skill in practicing the Tao did so, not to enlighten the people, but rather to keep them simple and ignorant. The difficulty in governing the people arises from their having much knowledge.” (TTC 65.1-2) Any student of history knows greatness walks on clay feet. 

Standing at “the turning point” (BB 59) is the quintessential Taoist moment, that fraction of a second during which we are open to new possibilities before we start desperately grasping for anything by which we can shut down the terrifying prospect of freedom. Unsurprisingly, the narrative in the Big Book, as at many other points in AA literature, sweeps discomfort under the carpet and quickly moves to offering a godly solution.  

Meanwhile, Lao Tzu’s prescient comparison of the Tao to “sweet dew, which, without the directions of men, reaches equally everywhere of its own accord” (TTC 32.3) was exemplified in the unexpected but indisputable experience of a defiantly stubborn few (among which was, most famously, Jim Burwell) who questioned the nascent AA dogma, persisted in their wayward ideas in spite of dire warnings, had the audacity to get sober (greatly disappointing those who had predicted their demise), and would not be silenced.

So, Appendix II was written and added to the Big Book to correct an “impression” that it claims was erroneously derived from the first printing, in other words, from what still constitutes the body of writing that is sanctimoniously referred to as “the first 164 pages”. On page 568 we read: “Most emphatically we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts.” Many secularists are duly skeptical about anything that is labeled “spiritual” and yet, by the same token, might agree with Appendix II that a softened mindset is warranted lest we “be defeated by an attitude of intolerance or belligerent denial”.

We can split hairs regarding what is necessary, but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath. We could do a lot worse than what the text next asserts: “Willingness, honesty, and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery.” These simple concepts have become familiar by way of the handy acronym H. O. W. There is much to be gained by fleshing them out:

  • Honesty ‒ Tell the truth. Face the facts at hand. Infer what can’t be known directly. Pay special attention to evidence that contradicts current beliefs. Begin recognizing patterns of systematic self-deception.
  • Open-mindedness ‒ Suspend judgment. Pause before engaging in knee-jerk reactions. Question assumptions. Consider other possible approaches. Actively seek out and listen to other points of view.
  • Willingness ‒ Embrace change. Move forward even though it is uncomfortable because of unfamiliarity, imperfect information, and uncertain outcomes, trusting that more will be revealed along the way.

If we heed these precepts, there is no guarantee we will always make sobriety-enhancing choices, but by seeing defense mechanisms for what they are and by finding the courage and the resolve to swim against the current, we can point ourselves in a direction that is different from making things worse with quick fixes. The most difficult yet most critical move is to become comfortable with the yawning void that begs to be filled. Resisting the desire to plug the insatiable hole in our middle makes room for serendipitous opportunities.

“Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on the empty hollowness that their use depends.” (TTC 11.1) The empty hollowness that opens us to the satisfactions of being valued contributors forms a sustainable basis upon which we can begin building a life of freedom and sanity wherein a reasonably contented state of being at peace produces solid ground under our feet.  

About the Author

JHG embarked upon sobriety desperately searching for answers. Unexpectedly, he was helped the most by those who resisted the temptation to take the bait, who bypassed the trap of smoothing over discomfort with empty platitudes, and who offered instead understanding and in-depth identification. Finding through them a connection with a solution that was more a way of living than any sort of fixed and final answer, he has sought to emulate their example. A veteran of traditional AA, he currently has the great joy of being a part of a secular AA group that, rather than endorsing pat answers, focuses on providing a place where alcoholics can experience the therapeutic power of relating to each other.

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2 years ago

I enjoyed your essay. Many thanks. Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. They have been foundational for growing and maturing in my recovery.

2 years ago

I love pointing out that no belief in a deity is required for the spiritual awakening and that a belief in a deity is not necessarily bestowed upon the recipient of the spiritual awakening as defined in appendix II. And that’s the AA definition of a spiritual awakening; it doesn’t matter if you define your higher power as Jesus Christ. We get the same spiritual awakening no matter what we believe about God, Mother Nature, & the Universe. Or another way I like to put it: different kinds of people in AA are going to need different kinds of miracles.… Read more »

Pamela Whitley
Pamela Whitley
2 years ago

My dear friend John… I have just read the most important, thoughtful, and inspiring peace on sobriety. You are a beautiful deep thinker and I so appreciate your mind. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with others as they are extremely helpful and illuminating.
Your article helped me by clarifying so much. Please turn this into the first chapter of your book. I love you as my sober brother and I’m proud to know you because you are exceptional.

John M.
John M.
2 years ago

Thank you so very much, JHG . This is one of the best, if not the best, essays I’ve read this year on our various secular AA sites. Of particular note: your insight that “we are more likely to be sacked by a failure of imagination than by a lack of motivation” is one aspect of recovery that is seldom talked about and very, very under appreciated in AA discussions.

A superb piece of writing!!

2 years ago

JHG, thanks, many good observations, most of all that the best thing we can do is accept the complexities of life and ought not fall into the trap of looking for easy answers, most of all to not search for a deity to fix us, but to take responsibility for our life.