God’s Place: Is A Higher Power in Recovery Necessary?

image of saturn and earth symbolizing awe and recovery

Is a Higher Power in Recovery Necessary?

By Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

Most approaches to addiction treatment tout a relationship with a higher power as essential to success. Peddling salvation and threatening damnation are age-old endeavors for humans, rehabs doing so may just be a modern incarnation of indulgences. But what if they’re right? What if a strong connection to a higher power is essential to recovery? This article explores the incorporeal topic of a higher power from the perspective of awe and wonder, and proposes that an attitude of awe is made up of many of the most vital aspects to sustaining success in recovery and to improving wellbeing in general.

Awe: The Cornerstone of Religious Experience

Awe has been at the heart of religious experience since the dawn of the concept of a higher power. The good news is that even if a higher power is 100% necessary to recover from addiction, no middleman is needed to experience awe. Opportunities for awe abound in our day-to-day lives. One opportunity for awe that is continuously impressing us is space exploration.

Our space explorations yield results that guide us into realms of deeper contemplations like awe, meaning, existence, and God. Taken on December 7, 1972, five hours and six minutes after the launch of the Apollo 17 mission, the famous Blue Marble photo was the first photograph of the earth in full view. Today, we likely give it only a passing glance, but when taken the Blue Marble photo provided a revolutionary perspective that forced humans to pause in awe at the sheer scale and magnificence of existence. For some, the photograph was spiritual, for others religious, but for most it was difficult to argue that we are not all part of something bigger than ourselves – earth.

Akin to a flea that flies far enough away from an elephant to see the whole elephant, the Blue Marble photograph dealt a crippling blow to humanity’s tendency towards egocentric grandiosity. The photo showed in unequivocal, humbling beauty that we are but a small, undetectable aspect of earth. The photo provided a powerful reminder that earth is merely a pinprick in our galaxy, our galaxy a speck in the universe, the universe one of many in a multiverse, and onward far past the reaches of the human mind. Space exploration continues to offer us a humbling perspective on our existence, while simultaneously sending us a clear message that we are all in this, or should I say on this marble together. Today, space exploration offers us another opportunity to pause and appreciate the wonders of our existence.

Cassini: Effort, Sacrifice, Awe, and Appreciation

At 7:55:46 am eastern time on September 15, 2017, NASA’s 20-year mission to explore the legendary ringed planet of our solar system concluded in a fiery finale. The final descent of the Cassini Spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere reminded us, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt that, “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” There was a time, not long ago, that our next meal meant effort, pain, and difficult work. Now, we often have the luxury of choosing our work, choosing where to focus our efforts, and many problems arise from choosing to focus our efforts towards the avoidance of effort. A pause to look a little closer at Cassini reminds us that effort and sacrifice often afford us the most powerful experiences of awe, wonder, and appreciation.

Before Cassini’s launch in 1997, nearly 15 years of planning and development took place involving incredible minds from around the world. Billions of dollars and decades of time were invested to utilize the most advanced mathematics and science available. Plasma, infrared, ion, and neutral mass spectrometers, a cosmic dust analyzer, a dual technique magnetometer, an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph, and many other sublimely complex instruments were powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators to harness gravitational slingshot maneuvers and transmit data back to earth in several different telemetry formats. Or, put in a way that I can actually understand, ridiculously advanced machines were utilized to communicate to geniuses on earth in a language of math that is so advanced I’ve never even heard of it.

Cassini discovered two new Saturnian moons and provided some of the best images ever captured of Saturn. Cassini carried the Huygens probe for seven years before it successfully detached in 2004 and began its three-week journey to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The Huygens probe landed on Titan on January 14, 2005 and survived for 72 minutes, the first and only successful landing on any world in the outer solar system. The multitude of amazing discoveries garnered by the Cassini mission is far too great to cover in detail here, but the two-decade mission is hopefully an easy opportunity for us to indulge in a moment of awe and wonder.

It is a strange irony that the rise of science coincided with a decline in the sensibility of awe when our contemporary age continues to bring accomplishments and leaps in understanding of the multiverse once thought impossible. Awe is perhaps best understood as an attitude that embraces excitement and apprehension, an attitude rooted in a sense of humility in the face of the grandeur of existence. Awe has long been considered a fundamental aspect of religious experience, and it may be a bridge between the two in the modern age. With the marvelous technological advancements of science it is easy to fall into the trap of believing nonsense like, “it’s all been done before,” and “we’ve got it all figured out.” Awe is a welcomed reminder that we still have a lot to learn.

Conditions for Awe Parallel A Higher Power in Recovery

Many people continue to connect awe with religiosity or spirituality, and in the sense of experiencing our relatedness to all that is, they would not be wrong in doing so. Many of the conditions that favor an attitude of awe are conditions that favor recovery from addiction as well as general wellbeing. Regardless of the label I choose – religious, God, spiritual, atheist, agnostic – an attitude of appreciation, even reverence, toward the wonder of existence is foundational to health.

Conditions said to favor an attitude of awe include (but are not limited to) the capacity to slow down and savor the moment, to take a broad perspective, to focus on what one loves, an openness to mystery, time alone, time in nature, and an acceptance of uncertainty. It is easy to dismiss the value of slowing down, of pausing to appreciate what is right now. However, ultimately, right now is all we have and it is the only place that happiness is ever available to us. If we do not cultivate an attitude of appreciation, an attitude in touch with how truly incredible, bizarre, amazing – dare I say, miraculous – it is to be alive and breathing at this very moment, our entire lives can pass us by in preparation for some future that never comes or in regret for a past that is unchangeable.

It would be easy to, and indeed most of us will, give little thought to Cassini making its final incinerating descent into Saturn’s atmosphere. But much like our lives, if we pause to appreciate the decades of work, the sacrifices, the countless events that both happened and did not happen in just the right way to both bring Cassini into existence and that led her to her ultimate fate, we may glimpse even for just a moment the true wonder of all that is. So many variables led us to this exact moment in time it is unfathomable, ineffable. So many calculations led Cassini to her final mission it is difficult (at least for people like me) to fully grasp.

Sadly, the ineffable mysteries of existence often lead to divisive actions rather than unifying appreciation. My God is the only God, my approach to recovery is the only way to recovery, my belief that God doesn’t exist is clearly the only rational conclusion to come to. Certainty in the face of mystery may be humankind’s most shameful hubris. What we know pales in comparison to what we do not know. Unwavering belief suffocates possibility.

A belief that one drink is too many and 1000 is never enough renders casual drinking impossible, even though few would argue that casual drinking falls within the realm of possibility – the real question is whether or not casual drinking is worth the effort. Effort, pain, and difficulty define those we admire most. The massive effort of the Cassini mission (a mission that would have been deemed impossible not long ago) afforded us an opportunity to tap into awe, feel a spiritual connection to all that is, and/or experience God. The accomplishment of Cassini combined belief in the impossible with the effort, pain, and difficulty necessary to achieve the impossible.  Recovery from addiction often demands many of the same qualities that made Cassini an overwhelming, inspirational, awe-inspiring success.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to a higher power the nomenclature varies but the essence is the same, such is the nature of describing the ineffable. As for the necessity of a higher power in recovery, perhaps the most important factor is choosing a nomenclature that captures the ineffable in a meaningful way to us. Maybe Cassini draws me into experiences of awe and contemplations of the divine, maybe the ocean, maybe sunlight through stained glass, maybe an orchestra, or a mountain, or a story of triumph over adversity.  Where we find awe matters little, but finding awe is critical. If we find ourselves at a loss for words, we’re probably close. Describing the indescribable was something Einstein could probably do better than most, and it was he who said:

“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of the devoutly religious.”