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What do We Owe in Return?

22 November 2013

AA has saved my life. And when I say that, I don’t just mean that people in AA threw me a life-preserver when I was drowning. They did. But that wasn’t all. AA took me, a 33-year-old man-child – incapable of operating in the world, utterly baffled and perplexed by the nature of society, by what it means to be a man, by employment and responsibility – and slapped me around, straightened me up, dusted me off, and set me right. Because of AA and the program that I work in sobriety, I am a capable and effective human being today. In the first place, the opportunity that AA gave me was to live, instead of not existing. As I matured in the program, it gave me the opportunity to live, instead of merely existing.

What do I owe to AA in return? What debt have I incurred to this organization that has saved my life, redeemed me, and put me back into a state of manageability? There is a plaque on the wall at many AA meetings that says:

Whenever anyone, anywhere, reaches out, I want the hand of AA to be there for them. For that, I am responsible.

I believe that. And I believe that I live that. If you, out there, cannot control your drinking and cannot manage your life, reach out to me. If you can’t go on living like you’re living, but you don’t know how to stop, reach out to me. If you want to find some other way, some other path, anything but this blistering misery of alcoholism, reach out to me. I know how to help. Wherever you are, whatever your condition, there’s a path for you out of where you are. And I can either help you find it, or I can put you in contact with local resources who can.

But AA isn’t perfect. And any organization will drift from time to time. I oppose, for example, the signing of court slips and the sentencing of drug/alcohol offenders to AA. I think it violates the spirit of our laws (in the USA), and I think it violates the traditions of AA. And here’s what I intend to do about it:


Nothing about the program of Alcoholics Anonymous requires me to be involved in AA policy. Nothing obligates me to participate in organization. In management. As I’ve written many times, there’s precious little organization or management, and I generally think there’s too much as it is. A troll who happened across my blog recently took me to task, calling me “startlingly self-centered” for not being interested in guiding policy in AA.

In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Self-centered would be to believe that my ideas are so important that all of AA must be made beholden to them. Self-centered would be to insist that other people work the program of AA the way I believe they should. Self-centered would be to demand that everyone agree with my opinions about court-ordering alcohol offenders and signing court slips.

I have an opinion. It’s not particularly well-informed. I don’t have any data about whether signing court slips is good for people. I don’t understand constitutional law. I haven’t really studied the traditions of AA. I just have opinions. And the height of arrogance is to form an opinion based on precious little information and then assert it as if it is the best or only way to approach an issue. My gut reaction is that AA and the courts should not have any official relationship. And that’s where it’s going to stay.

My obligation to AA is to be there, and be available to other drunks. People who need help ascending from the cellar of misery we carve for ourselves in the midst of our addictions. My responsibility is to the AA members in the groups I attend. To my sponsor, to any sponsees I might have. I have no obligation to AA World Services. Nor to my local Intergroup. I think it’s probably a good thing that people volunteer for those things, and take up roles that sustain the minimal level of organization that we have. But even there, I’m not sure.

I don’t know that AA and alcoholics in general wouldn’t be better off if AA World Services went bankrupt. And I personally won’t give a shit if they do. Because that’s not where the program lives. My AA meetings would keep going right on if AA World Services vanished tomorrow. AA doesn’t need a structure. All it needs is the book, and people who intend to congregate to recover. And the rest of it could all burn to the ground, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

We don’t recover because we have a carefully manicured institutional policy. We recover because one drunk talks to another. And leads them through the steps. Quit fighting. Acknowledge something bigger than you. Clean your house. Help others recover. If you let someone lead you through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – someone who’s done them themselves – with honesty, openness, and willingness, you can recover from alcoholism. I know because I did.

And in general: no one, anywhere, is morally obligated to adopt and promote anyone else’s political agenda. Vilifying or castigating anyone for failing to endorse a particular orthodoxy reveals a lamentable poverty of spirit. We cannot control how others think. We should not demand that others work toward our own goals. It is precisely that thought which offends, which dissents, that needs and deserves defense. There is no need to defend the right to inoffensive opinion. But each of us will find at some time that our own opinion offends someone with more power than ourselves.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 November 2013 05:27

    I saw your exchange – intriguing…

    The one thing I would say is that actually you do have the power to change it, or guide it – we all do. AA is the weirdest set up. There is no leadership or management – many struggle with that, esp those in service positions that think they have a leadership or management position :-/

    If you’ve not done so read the service handbook and look at the upside down triangle. For example last year my group discussed the theme for our local convention that was coming up – none of the suggestions from me (Group Rep to Integroup at the time) or the convention organiser who’d dropped into that meeting were liked. An old long term member suggested a theme and the group voted that one in without any minority anti vote. I took it to intergroup expecting the one the organiser had been loobying for would get in. Still I proposed my groups suggestion as it was not my opinion but the groups that I needed to represent. Paper vote held with the 30 – 40 delegates… ours won by a landslide. AA democracy in real action!

    The “rules” or “guidelines” should always only be the reflection of the whole conscience of AA as a whole as as per Concept 5 minority views should be listened to and considered and respected. Very hard – but after 70 years it has worked

    • 23 November 2013 09:21

      Thanks Furtheron. But all of that – conventions, meetings, votes, handbooks – none of that interests me, and I don’t believe that that kind of service is required to be a good sober alcoholic. The kind of service that interests me is setting up chairs before a meeting. Cleaning up afterward. And talking to other drunks to help them stay sober. Carrying the message. We each get to choose how to “clean house, trust god, help others”. And becoming involved in parliamentary procedure on behalf of the organizing structure (whatever there is of it) behind AA doesn’t appeal to me.

      AA, as I believe it needs to to be effective for its primary purpose of “staying sober, and helping others to achieve sobriety”, doesn’t need my help with any of that. And since the primary purpose is well-attended at the moment, in my opinion, I’m not getting involved. It’s just not my business.

      • 23 November 2013 11:58

        I totally agree with you that that service is not a requirement to be a sober alcoholic and in the grand scheme helps many little, if at all… however it does worry me that I see the same faces rotating around positions at intergroup and region – the fellowship could do with more people who represent those in the groups to turn up and take part. I fear that the limit few who do continue to think they “run” AA. But as you say each to his own – I just hope in the future AA continues to be there

  2. Syd permalink
    24 November 2013 09:27

    I was a GR several years ago and found that the assemblies, meetings, and general bureaucracy were not to my liking. I understand that someone has to do that work. I am just much better at sponsoring and doing service in other ways. I have studied the traditions and concepts and realize that the voice of the minority is just as important as that of the majority. That’s pretty cool.

  3. 24 November 2013 15:00

    Thank you my dear. You said it so well.

    I was involved in “service” for some years. It is too easy to get involved and believe that it is really “service.” I actually believed I doing an important something that no one else would do, yet when I stopped someone else stepped in and did it. Rightfully so. I don’t believe we should stay in the service structure for long – the principle of rotation is so important. Else you have an incestuous group of people who think they are keeping AA running.

    You are right, if AA as a whole imploded today, my home group would still meet tomorrow, and they would still extend their hands and hearts to a person in need. The important work of AA, in my opinion, is done in in coffee shops, and across kitchen tables. Where miracles happen.

  4. 29 November 2013 20:26

    Your last paragraph gets a big, fat AMEN from me. I think the primary question that needs answering in order to further the cause of peace is “why do humans want to compel others to adopt their own opinions and goals?” It’s a baffling one.

  5. John permalink
    5 December 2013 14:28

    Everything after your mention of my phrase “startlingly self centered” confirmed my assessment. Thank you.

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