The power of our primary purpose
The first time I sneaked my fearful, bewildered self into an AA meeting, I was struck by the seriousness and singlemindedness of the meeting and its participants. The meeting was a somber, pain-filled beginners meeting. These were the first real alcoholics I had ever seen, and unsure whether I belonged there, I listened for weeks until I found that their pain and bewilderment was the same as mine. But mostly I remember my astonishment as I compared these meetings to the committee meetings I had become accustomed to in my outside life.
I was used to free-wheeling discussions, often flying off the subject and into the personal agendas of those present, the jockeying for position, demands for attention and the ego driven clamoring for the upper hand. I had been a “leader” in my community, and had learned well how meetings worked. You determined how an issue was to be resolved (according to your own knowledge of what was best), convinced others of your point of view beforehand, and generally intimidated the rest to go along. Meetings like this dominated my days for years before I came to AA. I was an expert at running meetings, solving problems, and convincing others of the superiority of my point of view. I had no understanding at the time that this was a symptom of my “self-will run riot.” And as long as I was willing to take care of all the details and follow through on the decisions, others seemed to be quite impressed with my command of the organizational structure and personally I thrived in the leadership roles that I later discovered had become my way of covering up my growing insecurities and my increasing sense that I was losing control.
But here, at AA meetings, was a phenomenon I had never experienced. The meetings began and ended on time. One topic was chosen, each person took a turn, in order, and stayed on the topic. No one interrupted, and to my astonishment some even passed so they could listen to others.
I was glad that no one knew of my prestigious abilities to run meetings because then, at the end of my drinking, I was too beaten and lacked the confidence to do more than offer my brief comments and pass. But I was getting a message: this was serious stuff (too serious to allow for the antics I was used to) and that somehow what was going on here, whatever it was, was working for some people. This fascination with procedure, along with the fact that I was desperate to stop drinking, kept me coming back.
Although it’s been quite a few days since those first few meetings, I am still amazed at the aura around AA meetings. I still marvel at the way a group of very ego driven people quiets down to a hush when the chairperson announces the beginning of a meeting, at the attention when the Steps are read, at the courtesy given to the speaker. No matter what our immediate problems, fears, or resentments, we come to a halt when the meeting begins and focus on our primary purpose.
Nothing illustrates this more than what happened at my home group meeting last spring. A small, soft-spoken woman had begun to speak to the eighty-odd alcoholics gathered that night. We could hear her better because of the new amplifier the group had just bought. Five minutes into her talk, the lightning and thunder raging outside were competing with her whispery voice, and bodies were leaning forward to hear better as Marge told where alcohol had taken her.
Suddenly the lights dimmed twice and then went out, leaving the church basement pitch black. Marge stopped, and everyone waited for the lights and the microphone to go on again. After a few minutes of hushed blackness, the room took on a spooky aspect as tiny flames flickered from cigarette lighters randomly struck around the room.
Still in darkness and silence, Marge resumed her story, while three home group members slowly felt their way to the supply cabinet, found used candles from December’s holiday meeting, lit them and placed one on each table. One more was placed on the lectern in front of Marge, illuminating her face as she continued to speak. The three members retook their seats, and in the blackness, no one moved or made a sound. We all sat there, Marge’s voice somehow amplified by the silent darkness and the earnest concentration of the group.
When Marge came to the part about her recovery, the lights went back on, but no one seemed to notice. No cheer, no acknowledgment at all that anything had changed, except that the posture of the group relaxed slightly in response to the resumption of the sound system that made Marge’s voice easier to hear.
After the meeting ended and the room filled with the raucous noise of fellowship, I reflected on the simplicity of this wonderful program. For forty-five minutes, attention to everything around us–the thunder, the sudden blackness, the difficulty of hearing Marge’s timid voice, the insecurity of not being able to move about freely–was suspended as we all focused on our primary purpose: one drunk talking to another about alcoholism and recovery.