Because the hour spent in a meeting provided the only hour of relief from that feeling of dis-ease, I kept going, still thinking myself a visitor but a grateful one nonetheless. For those of you unfamiliar with AA or the other Twelve Step programs, spirituality is a big piece. That first meeting, a big blue felt banner hung on the podium that read “But for the Grace of God.” I recall thinking, well that’s just fine for these people but what are the rest of us to do?
People in meetings kept mentioning a higher power. Everyone needed one, no matter what it was: Nature, God, the Goddess or G.O.D —good orderly direction or group of drunks. Something beyond the self to turn to, or turn it over to and let go. For me, the phrase conjured some sort of elevated sovereign being which just wasn’t a resonant metaphor so I would sit in meetings held in church basements and peer out a window usually at the street level, thinking there’s a world going on out there that gives no thought to those of us inside this room at ten on a Monday morning or eight on a Wednesday night; but here we are, all searching for something larger. And that’s when it hit me: the idea of a larger power, not a higher one. I realized each morning we wake unto a world already in action. We re-enter consciousness from the sleepy world of our dreams and there it is in all its glory: the universe humming along. As odd as it sounds, it might have been the first time I recognized, or more accurately, felt, for it was more sensation than cognition—that I belong, that we all belong to something larger than ourselves.
When I was a kid I used to terrify myself worrying that I had dreamed up the entire world: that it was just a figment of my imagination and when I woke up I would be all alone in the blackness of space. Finally, I told my best friend who said she had thought the same thing—which somehow instantly reassured me I was not in fact alone, unless of course I had dreamed her up, too. I suspect whether or not we have a childish moment of solipicism where we fear we might have thought up everything from string theory to the entire canon of Mozart, deep down many of us have experienced at least a flash of feeling terribly alone: not solitary in a contented way: but truly unstrung like the moment the obstetrician severs the umbilical cord. Suddenly the world is awash in unfamiliar sounds and smells, lights, temperatures, textures. Gone is the familiar slosh of amniotic fluid, the safe confines of a womb inside a larger being that notices and hopefully cares.
My students often presume humans created religion solely as a way to explain otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena. The new field of neurotheology examines where in our brains the religious impulse comes from and how the brain apprehends religious experience. But it occurs to me on some pre-conscious level, or perhaps simply a pre-natal one, we literally enter the world as we come to know it, with the initial experience of being part of something larger; and once we slip through the birth canal into the delivery room: be it home or hospital or the back of a cab, we sense the sudden shift and seek to recreate the experience of belonging we’ve already had.
When we study religion: eastern, western, animist, monotheist, polytheist, earth-based or otherwise, we encounter story. Great and often overlapping narratives that at the core offer us belonging. Creation stories may attempt to explain how we got here or how life first formed; but more essentially, they contextualize our individual beginning within a meta-origin that continues to hold us. We think of story as a human invention or impulse indicative of how our brain works: how memory, imagination and consciousness coalesce: all of which may be true. But a bit like my child-self thinking I had dreamed up the world, we believe we have conjured story when in actuality we don’t create story so much as inhabit it.
As one of my students wrote in his research essay on what comprises reality, except for astronauts who have viewed the earth from space, humans don’t typically perceive the ground we live on as spherical. We know cognitively that the planet is round but our senses don’t relay that information; we encounter it as an idea. We experience our lives unfolding on a horizontal plane when in reality gravity affixes us to a point on an arc. In the same way, we appear to fabricate stories from memory and imagination, the gravitational pull of narrative connects us to the greater story of life unfolding.
We speak of our legacy, how we live on in the memory of others through the stories they tell that attest to our influence; but even after the last person who knows us dies, our story still exists. Whether or not it resides in human consciousness, our story remains in the narrative fabric of earth where we have trod and in the molecules of air we exhaled, in the long forgotten cells sloughed off our bodies and the heat that once emanated from us. Our very being belongs to a world that contains us regardless of corporeal form.
Such a perspective is what I call mosaic: enough distance to see the complete picture. Views from the Hubble telescope can depict Earth from multiple angles though not all at once; but even a telescope so powerful cannot capture the entirety of our galaxy, much less all the other solar systems out there. It’s not a readily available perspective so we create stories to stitch us into place, to mark the dot in the swirling galaxy that indicates: we are here. The distinctly tribal narratives of Genesis and Exodus reflect the need to know our place in the scheme of things. To identify with a particular clan or collective recreates a sense of prenatal belonging. Once again we know we are part of something larger.
We rely on stories, biblical or literary, scientific, even musical to instruct and assure us we belong.
That’s the power of AA and other Twelve-Step programs: creating a safe space for individual stories others identify with so that no one feels unique or more importantly isolated, unreachable, alone. As much as an insistence on having a higher or larger power may appear dictatorial, it isn’t. It’s just wise. The isolation of addiction is not unique. It is an intense and potentially deadly form, but as prosaic that the isolation of anyone else. Most if not all of us know the feeling of floating like a dust mote disconnected. The concept of a larger power is but a metaphor for the source of our being; be it a long-dead star, an accumulation of atoms, or the breath of the universe mysteriously and miraculously coalesced into human form.
Dust motes don’t exist in a vacuum. Well, they may end up in one, but dust though it seems disconnected gives evidence of what exists and has existed. Dust may be the original storyteller.
Macro- and microscopic worlds include us even when we don’t consciously perceive our inclusion. Many years ago on the Isle of Mull off the west coast of