NOW AND THEN, I hear a recovering alcoholic refer to the AA program as a selfish program. I fear that such a statement may hinder rather than help our efforts to stay sober and to find the peace of mind and contentment that, as the Big Book says, each of us can enjoy by working the Twelve Steps to the best of our ability one day at a time. I need less selfishness, not more!
Frequently, what is meant by calling AA a selfish program is that you and I and every other member must work the program for ourselves. This is certainly very true. If we try to work the program for our spouse or our children or our boss or our friends or anyone else, we are almost certain to wind up with a drink in our hands.
But in many cases, the statement about AA’s program being selfish is made without any explanation. Other members–particularly newcomers–can easily interpret it as a license to behave, not as the God of our understanding would have us act, but as we did when we were drinking.
The Big Book tells us that selfishness and self-centeredness are “the root of our troubles,” that “the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he [or she] usually doesn’t think so. Above everything,” the book continues, “we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible.”
As we progress in the program, the Big Book tells us, we will become less and less interested in our own wishes, desires, and plans–and ever more concerned with trying to carry out God’s will for us as it is revealed through prayer and meditation.
Far from constituting a selfish program, the Twelve Steps are a blueprint for love and service. For example, referring to Step Four, the Big Book says we must begin our recovery by searching out the defects in our makeup that have caused us and those around us so much pain and heartache; those flaws (such as resentment, self-pity, and fear) have caused our downfall.
“At the moment we are trying to put our lives in order,” the Big Book says. “But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”
And in discussing Step Eleven, the Big Book tells us that two of the most important questions we should ask ourselves each night, as we review the day just ending, are these: “Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life?”
A related source of difficulty may be that we generally fail to place as much emphasis on being mentally and spiritually sober as we do on being physically sober. I’m proud to talk about how long it has been since my last drink, but I am not equally anxious or pleased to reveal the date on which resentment, jealousy, criticism, anger, or one of my other character defects last had me in its grip. Far too often, my answer to such a question would lead you to believe that dinosaurs were still roaming the land when last I blew my stack. I would be rather ashamed to tell you that I went into an uncontrollable rage just a few days, or perhaps just a few hours ago.
I believe the true measure of my progress, or lack of it, in working the AA program is not the number of years or months or days that have passed since my last drink, but the extent to which I have succeeded or failed in trying to practice the principles of AA in all my affairs–particularly in those relationships involving the people that my drinking hurt the most.
Staying away from the first drink is, of course, extremely important. It is the foundation on which our lives as recovering alcoholics rest. But physical sobriety does not in and of itself bring us the happiness and serenity we want so badly. Abstaining from mood-altering chemicals is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end.
As someone has said, the AA program is a lot more than just a way of overcoming our drinking problem–it is really a set of guidelines for building a whole new life. In the June 1982 Grapevine, J. N., of Albany, Georgia, put it this way: “Sobriety is not a destination; it’s a way to travel today.”
An often-quoted passage from the Talmud says, ” If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But very rarely quoted is the second part of this same passage, which asks an even more pertinent question: “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
For this alcoholic, the answer is: If I am only for myself, I will soon be miserably unhappy, spiritually bankrupt, and drunk–mentally, physically, or both.