ONE of the oddest propensities of this fellowship, it has often seemed to me, is AA’s preoccupation with slogans.
They festoon the walls of our meeting rooms. Easy Does It shines forth in Gothic splendor from one large frame, while another suggests A Day at a Time.
They are as prominent, and perhaps as essential, as cups of coffee at our social gatherings. “I’ve learned to Live and Let Live,” one overhears often; or sometimes: “Now I Let Go and Let God.”
Speakers use them at meetings in much the same manner as clergymen quote passages of scripture or lawyers cite pertinent points of law; as though they carried a certain authority of their own. First Things First, gravely delivered, adds a lot to the windup of a pitch, and But for the Grace of God is a common explanation of how we happened to survive the calamities of our drinking years.
What makes all this so unusual is that AA began and has flourished in a sophisticated generation when slogans, generally, are pretty passé.
Originally, slogan was a Gaelic word, the war cry or the calling together of a Highland clan. But now, as Mr. Webster notes, the word has come to mean, “a word or phrase associated by usage with a particular party, group, etc.; a catchword.”
To most people today slogans are cornball. Even if we happen to be that gung-ho in our loyalty to a particular group, most of us remain self-conscious about trumpeting out loud the identifying call of the clan.
I don’t mean to suggest that my friends in AA are any less sophisticated or intellectually enlightened than the rest of the population. On the contrary, I find them a more intelligent, aware and stimulating circle than most that I moved in before.
But from the beginning I have been fascinated by the way that we continue to club each other, conversationally, with what seem to be the same old clichés. I have wondered why we decorate our walls with these scattered groups of words as though they were ancient incantations and we were witch doctors left over from some primeval time.
I think I have it figured out now, at least in a way that makes sense to me.
I don’t think they are slogans at all.
We call them Slogans. They tend to look like slogans and they certainly sound like slogans. But we don’t use them that way.
As alcoholics we have a disability which we know is permanent. There is no cure, although there is a form of recovery. But recovery, as we know it, is a process rather than an accomplishment. We must continue to work at it (here we go!) A Day at a Time.
In order to apply the AA program on a daily basis, we have evolved some rudimentary forms of organizing the ideas which are basic to it. We have Twelve Steps, which are numbered. We hold meetings regularly, and attend them on a more or less regular schedule.
What we call Slogans are simply an extension of this effort. They are a form of mental shorthand. They are highly portable summaries of the lessons we try to learn and apply every day. It is much easier to tuck several of them into the back of our minds than it is to carry the Big Book around in our pocket.
Perhaps the best proof that our Slogans really aren’t slogans at all is the fact that there are so many of them. In the classic sense, one slogan ought to be enough for any single clan or group. “Remember Pearl Harbor” seemed sufficient for a very large war.
Reprints of five perennial favorites, suitable for framing, are listed on the order blank in each issue of Grapevine. I have seen as many as a dozen hung on the walls of a small AA room.
None of the AA Slogans, as far as I know, has ever been promulgated or authorized in any official sense. None has been formally adopted. The five published by the Grapevine are a response to the steady demand from the fellowship’s far-flung groups.
These Slogans aren’t so much part of the AA program as part of the process of applying the program to our personal lives in daily, or more frequent, doses. They are not rules but reminders. Like the titles of books, their significance and usefulness lie in the more comprehensive ideas that they identify.
Many apparently different slogans are simply different ways of summarizing the same basic truth. Compare, for example, the Serenity Prayer (itself a summary) with the five Slogans published by the Grapevine:
First Things First Easy Does It Live and Let Live But for the Grace of God Think
In the Serenity Prayer, as in most prayers, we address God in a form which also helps to remind us of some points important to keep in mind: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In practice we have learned, often the hard way, that what we can’t control or change is our environment, or what other people do; that the only thing we can control is ourselves; and that sticking to these facts is a sometimes difficult process for which we need God’s help.
The idea of serenity through acceptance is fairly obvious as the root of Easy Does It. And eschewing the habit of trying to rearrange the environment to suit ourselves is exactly what is suggested by Live and Let Live.
The Serenity Prayer implies a continuing series of decisions. Every day, in a variety of situations, we must decide which are the things we should move to change and which are the things that we can’t change and must therefore learn to accept.
To help us in this process of sorting, we often have to resort to setting up some personal priorities by putting First Things First.
An alcoholic comes to know that these little decisions can add up importantly. But we take a lot of them lightly, or at least make them quickly. When we reach the end of the day with all the little decisions behind us, still sober, we realize that without help the results might well have been otherwise. So, wisely, we acknowledge this and express our gratitude: But for the Grace of God.
God helps us with the little decisions that add up collectively to whether we get drunk or stay sober. But he doesn’t exactly write things out. (I have never known Him to use Western Union to let us know His will.) So, if we want to hear His advice, we have to listen for it. We must remind ourselves frequently simply to Think.
As you can see, I have come to rely on these little AA reminders. I use them a lot, every day, even though I usually hate slogans and I despise clichés. To me, the AA Slogans aren’t slogans at all. They are fire extinguishers, portable, always ready, and highly essential.