Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jim Houck of Baltimore is a 100 years old. A great achievement. But he is far prouder of another statistic – 71 years without a drink.

Jim Houck of Baltimore is a 100 years old. A great achievement. But he is far prouder of another statistic – 71 years without a drink.

Houck is the only man alive who participated in the early days with Bill W and Dr Bob, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and in recent years has used his energy to recall the association to its spiritual roots. His ‘Back to basics' work was featured in Time magazine in 2004. In contrast to the thinking of many in contemporary AA Jim describes himself as a ‘recovered' not a ‘recovering' alcoholic: ‘God took alcohol out of my life on December 12, 1934 and when God took alcohol out of my life, He took it out for ever.'

In that year Houck received a challenge from a Lutheran pastor, Frank Buchman, who started the Oxford Group, to live a different life. From Buchman he learned, he says, that if you listened to the deepest thing in your heart and mind God would tell you how to run your life.

One result was his commitment never to drink again. He also made some restitution. His local paper writes, ‘The first thing Houck did after becoming sober was to begin anew with a wife who many thought would leave him before they celebrated their first anniversary. But he and Betty had been married 57 years before she passed away.'

The change in his lifestyle and aims launched him on a life of caring for others whether it was in the docks of Baltimore , in churches and prisons around the country, or internationally with Initiatives of Change, the world-wide work for reconciliation which has grown out of the Oxford Group. In recent years he has been in demand to share his experiences with AA groups.

The story behind what happened to Houck reveals a fascinating chain reaction from person to person. In the early 1930s Rowland Hazard, from a well-to-do Vermont family, had become a hopeless drunk. He was put into the care of the world famous psychiatrist, Dr Carl Jung, in Zurich. But after a year Jung had to tell the American that he had frankly never seen a single case recover through psychiatry where the neurosis was so severe. ‘Is this really the end of the line for me?' asked Rowland. ‘Well,' replied the doctor, ‘there are some exceptions, a very few. Once in a while, alcoholics have what are called spiritual experiences.' ‘But,' protested the patient, ‘I'm a religious man, and I still have faith.' Jung replied, ‘Ordinary religious faith isn't enough. What I am talking about is a transforming experience. I can only recommend that you place yourself in the religious atmosphere of your own choice, that you recognize your personal hopelessness, and that you cast yourself upon whatever God you think there is. It is your only way out.'

Rowland found that transforming experience a short time afterwards in the Oxford Group and never took another drink. Anxious to spread the good news he reached his old drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher, who also found sobriety.

Thatcher made a thorough inventory of his life, made restitution to those harmed by his past ways and surrendered his life to God, principles at the heart of the Oxford Group and enshrined in AA's famous Twelve Steps. In turn he got in touch with another drinking partner, Bill Wilson, whom he found drunk at his table in Brooklyn .

‘My doctor had given me up,' Wilson wrote later. ‘He had been obliged to tell me that I was the victim of a neurotic compulsion to drink that no amount of willpower, education or treatment could check. I was ready for the message that was to come from my alcoholic friend Eddy.'

Wilson, too, began to try the ideas of the Oxford Group, frequently attending meetings with Houck's group in Maryland . He couldn't make the break immediately. But at the point of blackest depression he had ever known, he cried out, ‘Now I am ready to do anything to receive what my friend Ebby has.' He made a frantic appeal, ‘If there be a God, will He show himself. ‘The result,' in Wilsons own words, ‘was instant, electric, beyond description. The place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew only ecstasy, and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping and penetrating me. To me it was not of air, but of Spirit. Blazing, there came a tremendous thought, ''You're a free man.”' And Wilson, too, never touched another drop.

That was December 1934. Five months later he carried the message to Dr Bob Smith. They found at Oxford Group meetings a kind of enthusiasm and friendship which Bill described as ‘manna from Heaven'. On the platform and off men and women, young and old, told how their lives had been transformed. ‘Little was heard of theology,' wrote Bill in Pass It On , ‘but we heard plenty of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. They were talking about God-centeredness versus self-centeredness. The basic principles which the Oxford Groupers had taught were ancient and universal ones, the common property of mankind – the earlier AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups.'

M Scott Peck was to write later, ‘The greatest positive event of the 20th century occurred when Bill W and Dr Bob convened the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement.'

My friend Jim Houck was there at the start and has remained faithful to the principles he met in 1934. He told me recently that he can't travel far any more but is active locally. If you want to build a new world, he says, you have to build it with changed people: ‘You can't make a good omelette with bad eggs.'

Houck expects to outlive his aunt who passed away at the age of 102. As Houck tells it, in his irrepressible humor, ‘She never used glasses. She drank right out of the bottle the whole time.'

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