Individual In Relation To AA as a Group – Grapevine July 1946 and essay in Language of the Heart by Bill W

It may be that Alcoholics Anonymous is a new form of human society . The first of our Twelve Points of AA Tradition states : “ Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole . AA must continue to live or most of us will surely die . Hence our common welfare comes first . But individual welfare follows close afterward . ” This is a recognition , common in all forms of society , that the individual must sometimes place the welfare of his fellows ahead of his own uncontrolled desires . Were the individual to yield nothing to the common welfare there could be no society at all — only self-will run riot ; anarchy in the worst sense of that word .

Yet point three in our AA Tradition looks like a wide – open invitation to anarchy . Seemingly , it contradicts point one . It reads , “ Our membership ought to include all who suffer alcoholism . Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover . Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity . Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group. ” This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so ; that we can’t deny him membership ; that we can’t demand from him a cent ; that we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him ; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member . In fact , our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that , so long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety , the most unmoral , the most antisocial , the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous group has been formed . Anti-God , anti-medicine , anti-our recovery program , even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA group if they think so !

Our nonalcoholic friends sometimes exclaim , “ Did we hear you say that AA has a sound social structure ? You must be joking . To us , your Tradition Three looks about as firmly grounded as the Tower of Babel . In your point one you plainly say that group welfare comes first . Then you evidently proceed , in point three , to tell every AA that nobody can stop him if he thinks and does exactly what he pleases! True enough , your second point speaks vaguely about an ultimate authority , ‘ A loving God as he may express himself in our group conscience. ’ With all deference to your views , that point does look just a little impractical to outsiders . After all , the whole world today is but the sad story of how most men have lost their conscience and so cannot find their way . Now come you alcoholics ( unstable people , too , you’ll admit ) and you blandly tell us : 1 ) That AA is a beautiful socialism — most democratic . 2 ) That AA is also a dictatorship , its members subject to the benign rule of God . And finally , 3 ) That AA is so very individualistic that the organization cannot discipline its own members for misbehavior or unbelief . “

So , ” continue our friends , “ within the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous it appears to us that you have a democracy , a dictatorship , and an anarchy , all functioning at once . Do these sleep quietly in the same bed — these same concepts whose conflict is tearing apart our world of today ? Yet we know that AA works . So you people must have somehow become reconciled to these great forces . Tell us , if you can , what holds AA together ? Why doesn’t AA tear apart , too ? If each AA has personal liberty which can amount to license , why doesn’t your AA Society blow up ? It ought to , yet it doesn’t . ”

Our friends of the world outside , so puzzled over this paradox , are apt to miss a most significant statement as they read our point one . It is this : “ AA must continue to live or most of us will surely die . ”

That stark assertion carries a world of meaning for every member of Alcoholics Anonymous. While it is perfectly true that no AA group can possibly coerce an alcoholic to contribute money , to conform to the Twelve Steps of our recovery program or to the Twelve Points of AA Tradition , each AA member is , nevertheless , most powerfully compelled , in the long run , to do these very things. The truth is , that in the life of each AA member , there still lurks a tyrant . His name is alcohol . He is cunning , ruthless . And his weapons are misery , insanity , and death . No matter how long we may be sober , he always stands at each man’s elbow , ever watchful of an opportunity to resume his destruction. Like an agent of the Gestapo he ever threatens each AA citizen with torture or extinction . Unless , of course , the AA citizen is willing to live unselfishly , often placing the welfare of AA as a whole ahead of his own personal plans and ambitions . Apparently no human being can force alcoholics to live happily and usefully together. But Mr . John Barleycorn can — and he often does !

A story will illustrate : Some time ago we made a long list of our seeming failures in the first years of AA . Every alcoholic on the list had been given a good exposure . Most of them had attended AA meetings for several months . After slipping and sliding around they had all disappeared . Some said they were not alcoholic . Others couldn’t stand for our belief in God. Many had developed intense resentments toward their fellows . Anarchists at heart , they could not conform to our Society . And because our Society did not conform to them , they quit. But only temporarily . Over the years , most of these so – called failures have returned , often becoming magnificent members . We never ran after them ; they returned of their own accord . Each time I spot one newly back , I ask him why he has rejoined our fold . Invariably his answer runs like this : “ When I first contacted AA I learned that alcoholism is a disease : an obsession of the mind that compels us to drink , and a sensitivity of the body that condemns us to go mad or die if we keep on. I also learned that AA worked , at least for some alcoholics . But I then disliked AA methods , hated some of the alcoholics I met there , and I still toyed with the idea that I could do the job of quitting all by myself. After several more years of terrible drinking , which I found I was powerless to control , I gave up. I returned to AA because it was the only place left to go ; I’d tried everything else. Arrived at this point , I knew that I must act quickly : that I must adopt the Twelve Steps of the AA recovery program ; that I must cease hating my fellow alcoholics ; that I must now take my place among them as a very small part of that great whole , the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous. It all boiled down to a simple question of ‘ do or die . ’ I had to conform to AA principles — or else . No more anarchy for me .

So I’m back . ” This illustration shows why we of AA must hang together “ or else hang separately. ” We are players at a stern drama where death is the prompter to those who falter. Could anyone imagine a more powerful restraint upon us than this?

Yet the history of uncontrolled drinking shows that fear alone has chastened but few alcoholics . Much more than fear is needed to bind us anarchists together. Several years ago , speaking at Baltimore , I ran on at a great rate about the terrible sufferings we alcoholics had endured . My talk must have had a strong flavor of self – pity and exhibitionism . I kept referring to our drinking experience as a great calamity , a terrible misfortune . After the meeting I was approached by a Catholic clergyman who genially remarked , “ I heard you say you thought your drinking a great misfortune . But it seems to me that in your case it was your great good fortune . Was not this terrible experience the very thing which humbled you so completely that you were able to find God ? Did not suffering open your eyes and your heart ? All the opportunity you have today , all this wonderful experience you call AA , once had its beginnings in deep personal suffering . In your case that was actually no misfortune . It was your great good fortune . You AAs are a privileged people . ”

That simple yet profound remark affected me deeply . It is a landmark in my life . It set me thinking as never before about my relationship to my fellow AAs . It caused me to question my own motives . Why had I come to Baltimore anyway ? Had I come only to enjoy the applause and approval of my fellows ? Was I there as a teacher or a preacher ? Did I fancy myself a great moral crusader ? On reflection , I shamefacedly admitted to myself that I had all these motives , that I had been taking a vicarious and rather self- centered enjoyment out of my visit . But was that all ? Had I no better motive than my natural craving for prestige and applause? Had I come to Baltimore in response to no better or deeper need than that ? Then followed a flash of realization . Underneath my shallow and childish vainglory , I saw Someone much greater than I at work! Someone who sought to transform me ; who would , if I permitted , sweep away my less worthy desires and replace them with truer aspirations . In these I might , were I humble enough , find peace .

At that moment I saw ever so clearly why I really should have come to Baltimore . I should have journeyed there with the happy conviction that I needed the Baltimoreans even more than they needed me ; that I needed to share with them both their burdens and their joys ; that I needed to feel at one with them , merging myself into their society ; that even if they did insist on thinking me their teacher , I should actually feel myself their pupil . I saw that I had been living too much alone , too much aloof from my fellows , and too deaf to that voice within . Instead of coming to Baltimore as a simple agent bearing the message of experience , I had come as a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. And , like a salesman at a convention , I had been wearing my identification badge so that all might well see it . How much better it would have been had I felt gratitude rather than self-satisfaction — gratitude that I had once suffered the pains of alcoholism , gratitude that a miracle of recovery had been worked upon me from above , gratitude for the privilege of serving my fellow alcoholics , and gratitude for those fraternal ties which bound me ever closer to them in a comradeship such as few societies of men have ever known . Truly did the clergyman say , “ Your misfortune has become your good fortune . You AAs are a privileged people . ”

My experience at Baltimore was not unique . Every AA has such spiritual landmarks in his life — moments of insight which draw him closer to his fellows and to his Maker . The cycle is ever the same . First , we turn to AA because we may die if we don’t . Next , we depend upon its fellowship and philosophy to stop our drinking . Then , for a time , we tend once more to depend upon ourselves , seeking happiness through power and acclaim . Finally , some incident , perhaps a sharp reverse , opens our eyes still wider . Then , as we learn our new lesson and really accept its teaching , we enter a new level of better feeling and doing . Life takes on a finer meaning . We glimpse realities new to us ; we apprehend the kind of love which assures us that it is more blessed to give than to receive . These are some of the reasons why we think that Alcoholics Anonymous may be a new form of society.

Each AA group is a safe haven . But it is always circumscribed by the tyrant alcohol. Like the men on Eddie Rickenbacker’s raft , we who live in the haven of AA cling together with an intensity of purpose which the outside world seldom comprehends . The anarchy of the individual melts away. Self-love subsides and democracy becomes a reality. We begin to know true freedom of the spirit . The awareness grows that all is well ; that each of us may implicitly trust in him who is our loving guide from within — and from above.

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