I remember the meeting I first experienced hope in AA. I remember the night, the street, the church. I have no memory of what anybody said. But I remember the sensation that came over me. That’s all it was, a sensation. But it was the beginning of my recovery. My condition was grim. Alone, broke, homeless, unemployable, scared, and terribly depressed, I was enveloped in darkness. I needed to see some light at the end of the tunnel I was traversing. I saw it in a bunch of drunks.
I didn’t know it then, but AA experience was coming alive in me. AA’s story is that of hope being born out of despair. That’s the story of Rowland H. after being told by Jung there was no hope for him (Big Book, p. 26). It’s Bill W.’s story after being told the same by Dr. Silkworth (Big Book, p. xxv). In AA, hopelessness is defining of the type of alcoholism from which we suffer. We are hopeless alcoholics. As he later wrote the Swiss doctor (The Language of the Heart, p. 279), the idea that the alcoholic was hopeless from a scientific point of view and that his only hope lay in a spiritual experience was what inspired Bill W. to start the movement that eventually became AA.
If hopelessness is inherent in our condition, so is hope intrinsic to our recovery: “Each day, somewhere in the world, recovery begins when one alcoholic talks with another alcoholic, sharing experience, strength, and hope” (Big Book, p. xxii). That sharing is at the very heart of our meetings, as the AA Preamble suggests: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism.”
Hope, then, is an essential spiritual principle in AA. This is so as regards both the fellowship and the program. It is not surprising, therefore, that references to hope and its opposite in hopelessness should be so frequent in our two basic texts, where we find 59 occurrences of the former and 27 of the latter.
As a careful reading of these passages will reveal, however, not every experience of hope reveals the practice of a spiritual principle. Hope is not always spiritually grounded. Indeed, most of the time it isn’t. Rowland H. at first found hope in Jung’s words that a spiritual experience could deliver him from his alcoholism, since he was a devout church member, only to have his hope dashed by Jung’s caveat that church would not necessarily bring about such an experience. His initial hope was unfounded. What then is hope, and how is it practiced in AA?
The term hope stands for three things. The first is a natural human capability. We all have an innate capacity to experience hope. That we have it implies that we need it, that it serves a necessary function. At some point in our development, we become conscious of the fact that things are not, or may not be, as we would wish them to be. At that point, our ability to hope that they will is instantiated. It comes online, to use a contemporary expression from the world of technology. Our experience of it may help us to survive a difficult situation—a serious illness, for instance—or to persevere in a challenging course of action—getting a college degree, learning a trade, or working the Steps, let us say. Our hope imparts us with a sense that its object is attainable, even when appearances might seem to indicate otherwise.
The second thing that hope stands for, then, is a feeling, an emotion the potential for which is also inherent in us. Hope arises as a feeling when we construe, perceive, or see the future as holding favorable prospects for the attainment of a good we desire but whose attainment is in question. In this, hope is the direct opposite of certain kinds of fear and related emotions like anxiety, which see the future in terms of unfavorable prospects. It is also opposed to despair, when those prospects appear inevitable or seem to have already materialized.
The third thing hope stands for is a virtue, a trait the potential for which is also innate but which can only be developed and take root in our character through long and consistent practice. As a virtue, that is, as an excellent human quality, hope enables us to hope for the right things in the right situations and in the right ways, thus making the experience of the emotion properly fit its object.
As with all virtues and emotions, in AA “right” signifies that which is God’s will for us. That’s what makes it a spiritual principle. Because it looks forward in positive anticipation of what is to be but which is not entirely (or at all) within our power to bring about, hope is closely connected with faith, especially that aspect of faith which trusts in God’s providence and grace. This makes it a pivotal virtue in Step 2, where we come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
The hope inherent in this belief is an antidote to the despair we might otherwise fall into after Step 1, where we have admitted that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable. We have admitted what AA has been telling us is true: that there is no hope for us in medicine, science or in any other human power. We have to place our hope in a greater power. The faith we gradually develop in Step 2 enables us to do that.
In Step 9, our hope is grounded in the Promises (Big Book, pp. 84-85), whose source is that greater power. It is the power we now come to understand as the God who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Those promises will materialize, we are assured—and thus our hopes realized—if we work for them.
As a virtue, then, hope is not a matter of wishful thinking or indulgent expectation. It is a principle we need to practice. The object of our hope requires faith and work, or as we are repeatedly told, a faith that works.
[Image: Dr. William D. Silkworth (“Silky"), director of Towns Hospital for alcoholics in NYC, who introduced Bill W. to the idea that alcoholism was a disease but, after repeated failures to cure him, told him that medicine held no hope for an alcoholic of his kind. Bill finally found hope in the spiritual experience he later had in the hospital after Ebby had carried the message to him. Dr. Silkworth wrote “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book. To hear it read, please click on link.]