After moving out West, I attended a beginners meeting one afternoon. A man stood at the door greeting people this way: “Are you new? Do you have a desire to stop drinking?” If the individual didn’t admit to having such a desire, he or she was invited to leave and go to another meeting. I was furious. Where I got sober, no one was ever asked to leave an AA meeting unless they were causing a disturbance. In disgust I left this meeting and went to another being held nearby.
Even though I was new to the area, I voiced my chagrin. Older members listened but didn’t seem too concerned. They knew of the gentleman in question and were aware of his self-appointed function as greeter/screener. To my surprise, they invited me to chair their discussion meeting. The topic I selected was Tradition Three: the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
It gave me a perfect opportunity to vent my anger. “Where I come from,” I said, “we don’t put people out of meetings. The Big Book says I have to admit to myself, not to you, that I am powerless. No human authority has any right to say who can or can’t come to an AA meeting.”
The sharing was very diverse. There were many who agreed with me: no one should be put out of a meeting except in rare instances. But others pointed out the importance of having closed meetings. Some people have occupations that would be jeopardized if they were known by outsiders to be AA members. Others had family and legal difficulties that put constraints on the amount of public anonymity they could afford. In fact, anonymity is the right of everyone who comes to our Fellowship; it’s the new member’s guarantee of the right to privacy.
Further, it was pointed out that each group is autonomous. So long as it has no other affiliation, it has the right to conduct its affairs as it sees fit.
Finally, some AAs noted, the Traditions, like the Twelve Steps, are only suggested. They aren’t rules. And Bill himself warns us against becoming so rigid in the conduct of our AA affairs that we lose the ability to grow with the society we purport to reflect. To my surprise, I found this variety of opinion reassuring. I wasn’t clear why, but I just felt better after the meeting. AA was alive and well out West.
But my serenity was short-lived. Soon after this, at another closed discussion, there was a man there for his first meeting on his first day out of prison. His wife was there to support him. When the chairperson asked if she was an alcoholic and she explained the situation, she was asked to leave. Because the husband was new and didn’t know if he was an alcoholic, he was asked to leave as well. I felt my ears burn. “If they go, I’m going too,” I announced. Right or wrong, I had completely forgotten the warning Bill gives about people who go to another area and try to tell it how to run its AA.
There were other things about that area that I thought were off-base. Young people were hardly ever seen at regular meetings. When I asked why this was so, I was told, “They have their own meeting.” Or, “They aren’t serious about AA.” Or, “They go to NA.” All disparaging remarks. Even the few young people I met were negative about other young people. This attitude seemed strange to me. Where I got sober, young people were very much a part of the AA scene. They brought an energizing perspective to group and service activities. I missed this in my new home out West.
Then, too, the chairperson at a meeting would frequently ask questions of a newcomer that seemed personal and inappropriate. “How long have you been sober?” “Are you here for yourself or for someone else?” I felt these questions made new people feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.
It seemed that certain personalities took a very high-handed and proprietary approach with people who were new and vulnerable. I became increasingly agitated with what looked like AA bullying. So much so that at one meeting I challenged a woman who had been grilling a new person with a lot of questions I felt were none of her business. Who did she think she was, doing a kind of sobriety intake at a meeting with everyone looking on? When I got done she asked, “May I ask how long you have been sober?” I was delighted to be able to tell her, “Twenty-three years.” That really shut her up. I was in my glory.
Maybe I was right, but the upshot was that now, increasingly, I found myself sitting in the back of the room. For me, a warning sign that I have left the path is often isolation: I start sitting on the sidelines, I refuse to volunteer or put my hand out, I start taking inventories. I became more and more critical and resentful. When my isolation was nearly total, my discomfort reached an intolerable level, and I saw I would have to do something or stop going to meetings altogether.
At this point I had to apply Step Ten. I always promptly admit when I’m wrong–eventually. Now self-examination and a searching inventory gave me some objectivity and perspective. Once again, I realized, my old self-righteous ego had reasserted itself. While I thought I’d been coming to the rescue of helpless new people, what I was really doing was just meeting these “AA bullies” at their own level. It was bossiness and big-shotism on the rampage all around. And the new people were not the only losers. I saw myself as a kind of spiritual Robin Hood, robbing from the cocky and giving to the cowed–and all the time getting a smug, superior rush out of the delusion that I was helping new people. I had found another way to be first among equals. I would rather be right than well any day.
The Traditions are suggested, I think, because Bill knew that with our cunning, baffling egos we could even use these principles to practice our disease. I have sometimes felt that I didn’t become capable of much real harm until after I got sober.
Fortunately, before leaving the West, I had a chance to help start a young peoples group there. I also started to sit at the table and share. I let people know where I’d been all the while AA was going on without me.
Of course, the Traditions are important, and it’s up to every one of us to be aware of them and contribute to an informed group conscience. But when I start to become critical of AA for any reason, I have to check my motives. Is my interest in the common welfare or in grabbing more attention for myself? Do I really want to make a contribution–or just complain so I can take the focus off myself?
I think Bill knew that the principles had to be put in the form of suggestions because he knew there were just too many people like me who might take advantage of rules and regulations to try to exert control over others. And that’s something that would be toxic to the spiritual entity which every AA group is, and bad for the individual as well. The right to be wrong is guaranteed not just in any one Tradition, but in the fact that our whole program is suggested. This is the best guarantee that no human authority will ever become preeminent in the affairs of an AA group and so will never pose a real threat either to himself or to the future of AA.