“A man cannot learn what he thinks he already knows”
Some Old Greek Guy
Sometimes we’re so sure we know what is right that it blinds us to other folks’ ideas. Confirmation bias — the tendency to seek out opinions and people that confirm our beliefs, instead of viewing issues with open minds — is a powerful instinct. Most likely it evolved because it helped to strengthen the solidarity of clan and tribe. It supports the “us versus them” attitude that tends to guide most human societies, whether a hunter-gatherer clan in the Kalahari, an ethnic neighborhood in Kansas City, or entire nations.
I like to describe this as the desire to get everything in our lives just right and have it welded. Change is scary; The idea that our basic beliefs might be wrong is even scarier. The familiar is comfortable; it’s The Way Things Ought To Be.
Those attitudes work, up to a point, for small groups in a static world, but they stifle change and understanding, making people who are “different” suspect. They are recipes for strife and potential disaster when extended to a world with millions of different groups and billions of different people, for in these times we are confronted with problems that affect everyone. They will require nearly unanimous consensus in order that they may be resolved, and the odds for that aren’t looking all that good.
This “tribal” outlook applies in international, Federal, State and local communities, and even in our 12 and 12 fellowships. We notice it most often in the spats and resentments among members, but also in our group conscience and our attitudes toward “outside issues” that trigger our discomfort and fear of change.
We need to be careful about that. The past one hundred years — especially the last 50 — have marked an exponential increase in human knowledge and our ability to apply it to our world. Agreement on how to do that may vary, as hinted at above, but the potential is there, nonetheless. We humans, however, have evolved nowhere nearly as fast in our ability to recognize and accept the changes that they imply — and sometimes demand — that we make in the way we view and deal with a world that often seems out of our control.
So we hunker down and hang onto the things that we find comfortable.
For example: depression kills thousands of people every year, in and out of recovery programs. It is a frequent component of the first couple of years, and is the cause of innumerable cases of relapse in addition to its more obviously fatal consequences. Beyond that, it prevents its victims from appreciating the wonder and joy of recovery: “If this is all there is, I might as well get high!”
We know far more about addiction, its effects and causes, and recovery than we did in 1935 when all this business started, and yet there are people in the rooms who seem stuck in a time warp when it comes to anything that isn’t mentioned in the official literature of the fellowships. I’ve heard sponsors tell sponsees that they wouldn’t sponsor them if they took psych meds, even though many of them, including the entire class of drugs used as antidepressants have no discernable effect on recovery except to make it easier.
That’s just one issue. It’s only an example of what I’m saying, and I don’t want to turn this into an argument about psych meds. However, it illustrates beautifully how things that make us uncomfortable, combined with a lack of accurate information, can affect other people in the program. And my point is that when we make program suggestions or decisions that may affect others, we need to be certain that our decisions are based on accurate analysis, not simply on the basis of whether something makes us personally uncomfortable. Group conscience is a powerful tool, but its decisions need to arise out of humility, not hubris. As the Tao reads: “If you handle the Master Carpenter’s tools, you are liable to cut your hand.”