What Bill Wilson can teach us about the coronavirus
by: Tom Adams 3/30/20
Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, has a lot to teach us about navigating our lives through the coronavirus pandemic. The failed Wall Street stock analyst whose compulsion to drink took him to the edge of insanity and death developed a pragmatic approach that is just as relevant to quelling our coronavirus anxieties as it has been to saving millions of lives from alcoholism.
Here are two of many lessons from Wilson’s Twelve Step way of life that you might find of interest:
“Our common welfare comes first; personal recovery depends on (AA) unity.” (Learn more about Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A) and the Big Book at https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/alcoholics-anonymous)
Bill did not come to this conclusion through the study of great philosophers. The early A.A. members were mostly big-ego’d men who were used to doing things their own way. No one dared tell them what to do. This resulted in crazy schemes to start hospitals, expel members because of personality or isms, stockpile money to buy property, and more. Bill as a visionary knew A.A. would self-destruct without some rudder. Encouraged by an early member in Chicago, Bill wrote what became the Twelve Traditions. These are the guiding principles for all A.A. groups, the first of which is that we need each other – “our common welfare comes first. “
Isn’t that the same principle that encourages us all not to second-guess the disease experts and to continue to stay home or be cautious. Our world community depends on it! But we have struggled in recent years to see ourselves as “united states”. Our differences seem bigger than our shared values and beliefs. Wilson reminded members of A.A. that if we destroy the community that is our lifeline through disagreements or selfish behavior, we put everyone in peril. The willingness of most people to embrace social distancing offers hope that we will get past the coronavirus. If individual needs take over, and we act like we aren’t at risk, we put our unity and survival at risk.
“Lack of power – that is our dilemma.”
Wilson penned these words in what A.A. calls the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. For the person who can’t’ stop drinking, gambling, smoking, or overeating, lack of power is clear with the loss of choice. Wilson wrote pledges not to drink to his wife Lois in the family Bible dozens of times and repeatedly assured her and his employers his drinking was done. And he kept on drinking. He couldn’t stop. The A.A. first step asks for an admission of powerlessness – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; our lives had become unmanageable. “ The short-hand for this admission is surrender. Aren’t we all surrendering to something we don’t understand and can’t control?
Surrender does not come easily for the alcoholic or for anyone. Our minds repeatedly present compelling arguments against surrender, why total abstinence for the addict isn’t necessary. In this pandemic, as we make our decisions about how often to go to the store or to stay home or not, our mind tells us I am different. I am not a health risk. I am young. I never get sick. Or this is a government conspiracy or a greatly exaggerated small problem.
Wilson penned a simple sentence that helps with the rationalizations: “Half steps avail us nothing.” What he meant is if you are at risk, you cannot just have one drink. All of us face this challenge – can I fully surrender to the reality of a life-threatening pandemic? And like the unbelieving alcoholic who doesn’t want to quit but endures negative consequences every time he drinks – we learn to “act as if”. We don’t have to be disease experts or know all the facts. What we know is people are dying all around the world and there is a lot of evidence of how this disease is transmitted. We can act as if we believe we are all better off to stay isolated to reduce the spread and destruction.
There are simple actions we can each take to make this crisis less painful: a caring phone call, an email of encouragement, support for our health care professionals, and those out of work or whose income is interrupted.
As he was near death, Dr. Bob Smith, Bill Wilson’s co-founder, reminded all those involved with A.A. of two things. Let’s not louse this up – let’s keep it simple. And remember that love and service are our code.
Tom Adams writes on leadership, spirituality, Twelve Step recovery, and racial justice topics. He worked as a nonprofit executive and consultant and was a national leader and writer on the topic of leadership transitions. In retirement, his writing focuses on the intersections of personal growth and community well-being. You can contact Tom at the number and email below: