To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
On May 12, 1935, William Griffith Wilson journeyed to Akron, Ohio, to try to close a business deal.
The deal flopped. A familiar feeling of dread began to engulf him. He was a failure, and everyone surely knew it.
Wilson needed an escape – a way to survive this sharp moment of disappointment. As he wandered through his hotel lobby, he heard the welcoming sounds of laughter and of ice tinkling in glasses. He headed toward the bar, thinking, “What I need right now is a drink.”
There was a lot at stake. Wilson was an alcoholic who had been drinking excessively since joining the military in 1916, shortly before America’s entry into World War I. After imbibing his first few drinks he thought, “I’ve found the elixir of life.” Here at last was the cure for his social awkwardness.
Following the war, he went to law school. He failed to graduate, however, because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. He became a stock speculator and traveled the country. Wilson was a sufficiently gifted businessman, but his drinking routinely sabotaged any real chance for success. He spiraled into depression – which only increased his dependence on the bottle.
Now, standing in that hotel lobby in Akron, he was at a crossroads.
Something incredible had happened the previous November. Lying in bed, despairing over the condition of his life, he had cried out, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let him show himself!” As Wilson later told the story, he was flooded with a feeling of ecstasy. He suddenly felt serenity. It was as if God had extended the offer of grace – and he simply said Yes.
Wilson had been sober for six months. Was he now going to throw it all away?
Suddenly he was struck by an entirely new thought. “I don’t need another drink,” he said to himself. “What I need is another alcoholic.”
Wilson found a church directory and began making calls until someone connected him with a fellow struggler. That’s how he met Bob Smith, a local surgeon who until that moment couldn’t stop drinking.
Within a few weeks they had established what they later called “a nameless squad of drunks” – a unique support system in which alcoholics help other alcoholics stay sober.
The group became known as Alcoholics Anonymous, and William Griffith Wilson became Bill W. He refused to use his full name for the rest of his life – he died in 1971 after 36 consecutive years of sobriety – and wouldn’t even let Time put his picture on their cover. The magazine later identified him as one of the 100 most important figures of the 20th century.
Today there are more than 120,000 AA groups worldwide, through which millions of alcoholics have experienced help and hope. Myriad other “twelve-step” communities have sprung up to support men and women addicted to drugs, sex, food, gambling, shopping, workaholism, and a host of self-destructive behaviors.
It’s not off the mark to say that human beings are inherently prone to seek alternative realities – something, anything, that will provide momentary surges of happiness or euphoria – and are willing to risk their families, their bank accounts, and even their lives to pursue them.
About the time Bill W. and Bob S. were establishing Alcoholics Anonymous, serious thinkers were proposing that the only way to save humanity was by offering some kind of mind-altering experience.
Two world wars and a pair of nuclear bombs had shattered global optimism. Devotees of “scientism” had begun to dismiss religious claims across the board, insisting that life must be based on facts, not faith. Existentialists dominated many universities, suggesting that the only question worth considering was how to get through life one day at a time. More and more people seemed to agree that humanity was heading into an unknown future without purpose or meaning.
In his book Brave New World, British philosopher Aldous Huxley pictured a tomorrow in which an autocratic World State compels people to be peaceful and content, like mindless sheep, by means of a soothing, happiness-inducing drug called Soma.
Harvard professor Timothy Leary became a hero of the 1960s counterculture by announcing that such a drug was readily available. It was LSD. His six-word credo was, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”
Huxley became a stark, raving fan of LSD – not only because of its well-known consciousness-altering effects, but because it made the world’s problems seem to disappear. He made arrangements for his wife to give him LSD as he lay dying, so he could leave this world on a trip. Huxley departed on November 22, 1963, the same day JFK was assassinated and C.S. Lewis died in Oxford.
Since the 1990s, psychedelic compounds have given way to opioids as the Escape Drug of choice. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s life expectancy for both men and women had declined for the first time in over a century because of overdoses.
Technology is providing yet another option to do an end run around the everyday miseries of life.
Virtual reality has become extraordinary. Some sociologists are proposing that chronically depressed and unhappy people should be given access to VR systems so they can live, hours or days at a time, in an alternate universe. Others fear that virtual reality, as it steadily improves, might become indistinguishable from the real world. It would then become the ultimate addiction – the optimal means of escape.
What can we say in the face of such developments?
We can listen anew to Bill Wilson.
Life is difficult. Life can be overwhelming. But as millions can testify, there is nothing so euphoric as sobriety.
Our souls will never be healed by pursuing forgetfulness, numbness, or escape. Our real need is the companionship of friends who are determined to face reality instead of running away from it.
What does sobriety provide? Freedom from addiction gives us the chance to face life’s problems and to solve them; to build our lives on a hope that transcends the next 24 hours; to live for something larger and longer lasting than our own happiness.
But what if we can barely endure reality?
Then we need to be introduced to reality as it’s defined in the New Testament. There we discover that if we have abandoned ourselves to Jesus, we’ve been adopted into God’s forever family. Each of us is now the beloved child of a God who will never leave us nor forsake us.
Yes, life at times may feel overwhelming.
But the Author of Life assures us that our pain isn’t the last word in the story of our lives.
One day we will be able to comprehend how even our worst days are being woven into God’s Good Story concerning the whole cosmos.
And that’s a reality from which, by God’s grace, we will never want to escape.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.