Alcoholism and the Canary

In the late 80s, Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel wrote a book called The Addictive Organization. While I have a very different experience and theory than what they were proposing, I think their metaphor was perfect. For me, the idea that an organization or society can become ‘addicted’ is not a metaphor. I believe, like Charles Horton Cooley, that “Individuals and organizations are not separate phenomenon; they are the collective and distributive aspects of the same thing”. The way I express this idea is that “the ego is to the individual what the culture is to the organization (or society”).

What I am saying is that, from a phenomenological perspective, the ego and culture are both self-referential structures of interpretation. They are closed systems that are inherently ‘blind’ to any perspective or point of view external to themselves, except in the context of their own assumptions. Moreover, they are ‘blind’ to their inherent blindness. They are in effect, mechanisms that have only one purpose—the persistence of whatever they interpret as the source of their power and capacity for survival. This blindness is another way of saying the ego and culture produce denial of any possibility outside their own view of ‘reality’.

Before the technology to automatically monitor air quality had been invented, miners would take a canary into the tunnels with them to warn them (the theory being that if the air got too bad, the canary would die first and they could escape). Over the past 50 years or so, various observers have used the canary metaphor to raise the alarm about all sorts of environmental and social problems. Today, most of us readily agree that civilization is, at the very least, in trouble and that we are in some sort of ‘defining moment’ in human history. How severe the problems are and what to do about them continues to be debatable. That something important is going on and that the future is at stake are no longer questions.

I want to point to a parallel between alcoholism and something I’ve been observing and reading about. Perhaps this may be another ‘canary’ in our planetary mineshaft. As any recovering alcoholic knows, alcoholism is related to self-centeredness and mistaken notions of control. Nothing really changes until we ‘hit bottom’—have a breakdown bigger than we can rationalize away which threatens our survival to the point we surrender or we die. Similarly, breakdowns can occur at the level of societies and even entire civilizations.

When I was in Buenos Aires last week, I heard a startling fact. Automobile accidents, many very serious, have increased astronomically in the past six months. There are many dozens each day, and the number seems to be increasing. A friend who lives in Sao Paulo told me that he was shocked to see a kind of ‘madness’ on the highways at Christmas, with people driving with frantic disregard for even their own safety. Even the most strident defensive driving seemed inadequate. There was almost a ‘Wild West’ feeling to the public space, with one’s safety being at risk almost constantly and ‘every man/woman for themselves’.

We all read every day of alarming breakdowns in distant places in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Even countries we expect to be stable like Kenya can suddenly erupt into genocidal insanity almost overnight. I read in the Financial Times that youth gangs in Britain have been terrorizing many, especially older people, to retreat into their homes, creating increasingly insular communities. The situation in the UK is reminiscent of  “Clockwork Orange” in many respects. Even in the USA and Canada, fear seems to be on the rise and ‘irrational’ occurrences such as school shootings and teen suicides don’t surprise us any longer.

These kinds of phenomena suggest to me that societies are starting to behave in strange and even bizarre ways—the way other animals behave when their habitats are threatened or populations become unmanageable. I think we are witnessing a lot of ‘canaries’ that are suggesting we are ‘hitting bottom’ and need to wake up before it is too late.

For an alcoholic, the only choice is how far down the bottom will be. The disease is progressive and irreversible. I think each of us has the same choice—how bad does it have to get before we realize we are personally in trouble—how bad must it get before we wake up and take personal responsibility for our collective condition.

Faith is being committed to something before there is evidence of its being a fact or even a possibility. I think that what is happening is that we are losing faith in the future—any future. As an alcoholic, I know the despair and loneliness of living in a system and vicious cycle in which we know we have a problem and why, but cannot change our behavior. It is a condition wherein we lose faith in ourselves and the possibility of anything changing—a state of profound resignation. If we accept this diagnosis and the notion that the personal and the cultural manifestations of our condition are isomorphic, then we must consider that the only real choice we have is to surrender, acknowledge we are ‘out of control’, and that more attempts to recover control are accelerating our insanity and exacerbating the problems we are facing.

According to AA and other 12 Step programs, the second step in recovery is “Came to believe that a higher power could restore us to sanity”. The ‘old timers’ in AA are almost unanimous in their wisdom that the key to recovery can only be found through our relationship with and trust of others and some idea of a Higher Power. It doesn’t matter what one’s notions of a Higher Power are. Without something bigger than our self-referential structures of understanding, we have no point of reference from which to recover our ability to choose—to become masters of our lives and our circumstances.

Today, there are a lot of people and corporations, churches, NGOs and governments working on lots of problems. We are beginning to confront a universal problem in the form of climate change, although this is by no means the only problem we have in common. As we unite in our realization of our common plight, I am heartened that we might also find or create a shared possibility for trusting and having faith in something beyond politics, science and economics.

I hope we will learn that only through our relationship with who we are not will we be able to transcend human arrogance and ego to discover and create who we can be.