Outlook & Motivation

PTP123 Front Cover


"The basic ingredients of this change were twofold: a new outlook, and a different motivation. His desire to stop drinking began to color the way he saw things and with that his emotional reactions to them.

These two factors, outlook and motivation, are central to the understanding of the emotions that is at work in AA, an understanding that is implicit in the concept of a spiritual awakening at the heart of the AA message.

We may trace its earliest expression to the words of Carl Jung to Rowland H. Here was a man in the throes of desperation, unable to find relief for his alcoholism anywhere. Religion had failed him, and now so had psychiatry. Chronic alcoholics like him were hopeless, Jung told Rowland. But 'Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences . . . They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them  [our emphasis].'1

On Jung’s suggestion, Rowland looked for a favorable spiritual environment to situate himself in, found it in the Oxford Group in New York and, delivered from the alcoholic obsession at last, passed the message of his spiritual experience to Ebby T., who then passed the message of his own experience to Bill W. 

William James, who through extensive research had reached the same conclusion about the ability of a religious experience to totally transform the outlook and motivation—and with that the lives—of variously troubled individuals, gave Bill W. the idea that in most persons this process took place as a gradual awakening (which could still build up in some cases to a sudden and dramatic change). This opened the possibility that, through the practice of spiritual principles over time, the desired awakening, with its perceptual and motivational transformation, could take place.

The italics are crucial, for this radical reshaping or trans-formation of outlook and motivation, issuing from a spiritual awakening, constitutes the essential internal shift that eventually translates into a changed life. We tend to lose sight of this, with the result that we miss the connection between the goal of experiencing a spiritual awakening and the goal of attaining emotional sobriety, for outlook and motivation are the twin pillars upon which our emotions are built.

This transformation is central to the view of a spiritual awakening that we find throughout the Big Book and the 12&2.  “There’s a Solution” says of the spiritual experiences of early alcoholics that they have “revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe.”2 The Promises assure us that “Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.”3 The 12th Step in the 12&12 explains that “the most important meaning” of a spiritual awakening is that we have “now become able to do, feel and believe” that which we could not on our “unaided strength and resources alone.”[The emphasis is ours in all citations.]

A radical change in perception and orientation that God brings about in us, enabling us to see, to think, to feel, and to act in distinct spiritual ways that transform our lives and can significantly impact the lives of others is the essence of a spiritual awakening and what makes it an eminently practical proposition, playing itself out as it does in our ordinary, everyday affairs.

Robert C. Roberts, who writes on the psychology of the virtues and the spiritual emotions, helps to shed light on how motivation and outlook can give shape and expression to the emotions.  He uses the terms “concern” and “construal” to designate their two fundamental components, defining an emotion as a “concern-based construal.”5

A concern is something that matters to me, that I consider important or significant, something that I value, something that orients my heart and moves or motivates me. A construal is a way of construing, interpreting or perceiving things, how I see, take or understand them. That to which I attach significant value and motivates me is an emotion-disposition, a concern that inclines me to a range of emotional responses. Which particular emotions arise depends on how I see those situations that impinge on my concern, that affect or have a bearing on what I care about. My construal is the trigger that activates one or more of those emotions.

This view of the emotions reflects common sense and ordinary experience. We don’t get exercised over things we don’t care about, and we routinely speak of people we think shouldn’t have gotten upset with us in a given situation as having misconstrued what we said, or as having misunderstood or taken what we said the wrong way. A Yankees victory over the Red Sox is obviously a source of joy for ardent fans of the New York team and of despondency for those of the Boston, while a reversal of fortunes for the two teams would elicit a corresponding reversal of emotions for their respective fans. Meanwhile, people who are not “into” baseball couldn’t care less either way. Plainly, we respond emotionally to things only as they impact what we value. That is why it was said long ago that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”6

By his own account, our cabbie cared a great deal about achievement and success, to such an extent in fact that much of his identity was built around it. He construed driving a taxicab an inferior occupation, and himself a failure. The emotions he experienced were the natural outflow of this, his “concern-based construal.”

What a spiritual awakening does is to reconstruct my “concerns” and my “construals,” to give me a new perspective on what really matters and a new way of looking at the big picture of life and, within that larger context, at the little picture in the circumstances of my everyday experience. With this, my emotions are laid on a new, spiritual foundation.

Starting with a desire to stop drinking as a motivation that is first induced in me by the emotional debacle of my bottom, I become willing to listen to the experience of alcoholics in the rooms and open myself up to a different, spiritual view of life to which they credit their recovery. As the AA narrative begins to take hold in me, my desire to stay sober deepens and I begin to see myself and my immediate situation within that narrative. I come to view myself as an alcoholic, just like the others, and I identify myself as such when I share. I admit I am powerless.  Gradually anger, fear, depression, self-pity, and other hurtful emotions recede. I feel a little grateful here, a little hopeful there. Without realizing it, I have started on the path to recovery.

This is the basic paradigm. I bring the desire and the willingness and AA gives me the blueprint and the tools to build a whole new spiritual and emotional foundation to my life. How far I get in this project depends on the lengths to which I am willing to go to practice the principles that will result in a spiritual awakening that revolutionizes my whole outlook and attitude, that radically changes in a spiritual direction my concerns, the things that really matter to me, and the way that I look at 'God’s universe.'"

– From "New Outlook, Different Motivation," pp. 48–51

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