Monthly Archives: June 2015

Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest

aaI recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time. I’m not an alcoholic myself, but a friend of mine who is let me sit in as a guest. It was a fascinating experience.

The meeting was held in a church basement in a room dedicated to AA. A large AA banner hung on the wall next to a list of the famous 12 steps that guide the program’s philosophy. As people filed into the room, I was immediately struck by the diversity of participants. There were people who looked legitimately homeless alongside people dressed in nice button downs who could have fit right in at any law office. Black, white, hispanic, Asian. Fresh faces out of college next to people who seemed to be pushing 80. About an even male-female split. Truly, all walks of life.

After opening remarks from the volunteer coordinator, one participant got up and delivered a brief speech about his life. He was to be the main speaker for the day; everyone else who spoke at the meeting did so in reaction to the main speaker’s comments. The main speaker shared his story, abiding to what I gather is the suggested format: what it was like before, what happened, what it’s like now. Or: what life was like as an alcoholic, what catalyzed you to change, and what life’s like now. What it was like for him before was pretty brutal: constant drinking, constant fighting, constant arrests. What happened was that he hit rock bottom, one or two arrests away from heading to the slammer for good. What it’s like now is that he’s a successful business owner, property owner, and faithful husband.

He finished his remarks by saying: “Thank you for helping me stay sober today.” Today was a common theme. Day by day. To not drink for the rest of your life feels overwhelming; to not drink for the rest of the day feels within reach. Focus on today.

As people spoke in reaction, they introduced themselves with the famous utterance, “My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” Everyone else said, “Hi Joe.” Joe then proceeded with his comment.

One person who spoke in response had been sober for just two days. He was struggling. Another had been sober for 11 years, and yet still attending daily meetings. Another had been sober for six months, and yet was nervous he was going to fall off the wagon. His doctor had prescribed pain killers after a surgical procedure and he felt tempted. (Prescribed pain killers by doctors came up three times in this meeting.)

At the end, everyone held hands and repeated the Serenity Prayer aloud.

As I walked out, I envied the community and fellowship to which I had just been witness. A lot of people seemed emotionally close to others in the room who they’ve seen multiple times a week for years. One person said they had met their spouse at AA. I imagine for some AA is as much about a social network that functions in everyday life as it is a place where one focuses on sobriety. I could feel social connection in the room.

As the most popular addiction treatment philosophy by far, AA ought to be subject to scrutiny. And there are many critiques of AA. One is that it was designed to help the most severe alcoholics — those truly powerless over alcohol — but it’s routinely adopted by a broad section of the population. Indeed, an estimated 12% of people at AA meetings are there by court order after a DUI or such. It’s not clear that getting a DUI means that you’re powerless over alcohol and cannot ever take another sip — and that you must attend a meeting every day. Another critique is that the 12 step program should not be expected to work for everyone and yet many people in addiction-recovery believe just that. Those evangelists believe that if you fail in AA — as countless people have, the exact numbers being hard to measure given the decentralized nature of the org — it’s your fault, not the fault of AA’s unique approach. In fact, AA is just one of many, many approaches to dealing with addiction. Finally, there’s a view that says that if alcoholism is truly an illness it ought to be treated with real medicine, not treated with therapy as practiced by volunteers and peers.

What I do know from my one in-person experience at a meeting and from my friends who attend daily is that some number of people are being greatly helped in AA; that the social bonding and social accountability is real and critical to the recovery process; that the words shared in the room, at least in the one I attended, are wise and eloquent and useful. Those who find success in AA find it to be a real blessing.

Update: I edited the second to last paragraph to clarify that the official organization doesn’t blame people who do not succeed with AA’s approach–it’s rather a stance that critics attribute to AA evangelists. Also, see this comment in the comments section of this post for a response by one person who attends AA.

Book Short: From Beirut to Jerusalem

I finally got around to the book many have recommended over the years: Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

This is the book that put Tom Friedman on the map. At the time of publication, 1989, he wasn’t super well known. This book, which won the National Book Award, really raised his profile and justifiably so. It’s wonderfully written. He integrates extensive on the ground reporting over years of living in the region with historical vignettes and research. For those who primarily know Friedman today as a D.C.-based commentator/columnist, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a throwback to him as journalist not pundit.

As a novice to the complex issue of Israel-Palestinian relations, I learned a ton. It’s fantastic background for those looking to understand some of the core issues at work in the Middle East. Sadly, not much has changed since 1989 at a macro level, so the book doesn’t feel dated.

Among other lessons and insights, I was amazed to learn about how arbitrary many of the national boundaries are in the Middle East. E.g., Britain carving out land and calling it Jordan, France (effectively) creating Lebanon. And how, historically, men did not identify themselves with countries so much as with religious affiliation or with tribe, clan, village. “Many of the states today — Egypt being the most notable exception — were not willed into existence by their own people or developed organically out of a common historical memory or ethnic or linguistic bond; they also did not emerge out of a social contract between rulers and ruled. Rather, their shapes and structure were imposed from above by the imperial powers…boundaries were drawn almost entirely on the basis of foreign policy, communications, and oil needs of the Western colonial powers…”

Many other lessons that I’ll type up in the months ahead.

Is Tyler Cowen the New Charlie Rose?

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Tyler’s begun a new interview series at GMU and his conversations with the first two guests, Peter Thiel and Jeffrey Sachs, are amazing. Available as transcripts, videos, or podcast episodes.

In each conversation, you feel like you’re in the presence of two first rate thinkers in honest exchange with each other about what’s happening in the world. There are lots of insights to take away from each, but the meta lesson for me — especially in the Sachs dialogue — is the level of expertise one develops after years of thinking about the same question. Sachs has been thinking about developmental economics for a long, long time, and the depth of his experiences and views — right or wrong — really comes through.

Some specific quotes. At one point, Sachs says the following, and there’s an interesting back-and-forth about different ways to solve global problems:

I believe that knowledge matters and that the more clarity, the more evidence, the more appropriate an analysis, the more likely we can find a good outcome to things. Many people are cynical. I tend not to be. I’m sometimes accused of being gullible as a result, or being too soft in the face of whatever. But I believe that there’s a way to reach an agreement, typically, among pretty conflictual and often pretty antagonistic actors.

Sachs also is bullish on China:

[China’s rise] is happening. That’s the story of our time. It’s happening.

One and a half billion, two billion people including other parts of Southeast Asia — they’re on an upswing. That’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s the most significant scaled improvement of material conditions in the history of the world in a short period of time. It’s deep. It’s great civilizations, great cultures, great capacity.

In the Thiel conversation, there’s the following:

TYLER COWEN: Let’s say you’re trying to select people for your Thiel fellowships, or maybe to work for one of your companies, or to start a new company with. Just you, Peter Thiel, as a judge of talent, what trait do you look for in that person that is being undervalued by others? The rest of the world out there is way too conformist, so there must then be unexploited profit opportunities in finding people. If you’re less conformist, which I’m very willing to believe, indeed would insist on that being the case, what is it you look for?

PETER THIEL: It’s very difficult to reduce it to any single traits, because a lot of what you’re looking for, are these almost Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. That’s a little bit contradictory. You want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but then who can work well together in teams. And so, this is again, maybe not 180 degrees opposite, but like 175 degrees.

Later, Tyler reads a question someone sent him that could be summarized, essentially, as what should a person do today to be successful in the modern economy? Peter says:

I’m always super hesitant to answer questions that are so abstract. If there was some general answer to the question, it would almost certainly be wrong. If I give you some general answer, and everybody could follow it, then if everybody followed that answer, it would be the wrong thing to do.

It resonated with me because the “What’s the one thing I need to do to achieve XYZ?” is such a common question I hear asked of speakers and authors.