For years I was instantly bored by AA’s 12 Traditions. Read at the outset of most meetings right after the 12 Steps, they tended to have a soporific effect, the words droning past by like train cars as I waited to cross tracks to the actual meeting.
Lately, though, I’ve been listening to them and thinking about how their guidance applies to life. Certainly not a new idea – countless people have advised such – but it’s new to me. I’m always on the lookout for guidance!
You can look up the traditions in normal and “long form” at the back of your Big Book. I ain’t gonna list them here because they’d hog up too much of my word count, so I’d have less room to cuss. 😉 Instead, here’s just the gist of what I hear in each.
1. Together we live; alone we die. I need to stay connected to AA, to join in the unity that sustains “our common welfare.” Whenever I choose to isolate, deciding my problems are unique or that I don’t need to show up at meetings, I’m dying just a little bit – spiritually if not physically.
2. God’s Guidance is the Shit. I need to seek god in all things always, to navigate by this North Star of goodness to the best of my ability in all my thoughts and actions. And when I talk matters over with others who earnestly seek god/good, I should listen for god’s guidance reflected in their words – often unintentionally.
3. Welcome Others as They Are. That AA’s only requirement for membership is a “desire to stop drinking” is HUGE! There’s so much more to this tradition than meets the eye! It points to a way of life. For example, in 1960s South Africa, sober alcoholics flouted apartheid laws by holding multi-racial AA meetings and dances; in order to avoid arrest at the latter, Black members disguised themselves as wait staff. Imagine the secret solidarity of those groups! AA embraces everyone who desires recovery, regardless of “money or conformity” or how many times they’ve relapsed. In a similar spirit, I need to recognize and honor the human kinship of every person I encounter.
4. To Thine Own Self Be True. A spiritually awakened way of life will look different on every individual, so we can live and meet in a wide diversity of styles – provided we’re conscientious about the effects of our actions. In AA meetings we can each think for ourselves, conceive of god as we choose, and talk about sobriety in our own damn vernacular.
5 & 6. Remember Why We’re Here. Like an AA group, our lives have a primary purpose: “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us” (p. 77). Helping one another, spreading love and kindness – that’s the frickin’ purpose of life, guys. Time and time again, I hear from my Near Death Experience (NDE) friends who’ve died and witnessed a life review that they were shown countless instances where they impacted others with kindness or cruelty. Effects from each act – kind or cruel – rippled outward from person to person into the world. Accomplishments we consider major did not matter, except in their impact on others’ feelings. Kindness mattered. We can’t let a focus on “money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose” of bringing about maximal good.
7. Love Ourselves. How do I get from “fully self-supporting” to self-love? Because the founders recognized that if AA failed to support itself from within, then favor toward, obligation to, and dependence on those providing the handouts would fuck up everything. Bill W. initially tried to hit up John D. Rockefeller for money, but Rockefeller, miraculously enough, recognized the risk and refused. Sure, financial solvency is a fine goal for all adults. But what really “funds” my day-to-day experience is my emotional well-being. If I place myself in a position where I’m dependent on others to provide that, I lose all integrity.
I must learn to love and support myself. I’m progressing toward this goal little by little, slowly and painfully. (To be honest, I’ve tried to blog on self-love several times and realized I’m just not there yet.)
8 & 9. Be Neither a Role nor Rule Book. The fact that AA has survived over 80 years despite being neither professional nor organized is something many outsiders can’t grasp. We charge nothing, and nobody is in charge. Rather, our cohesion results from lived experience of our shared plight and solution. Extending these principles into our lives means that we not identify with the roles or labels we tend to pin on ourselves, that we lighten up and take ourselves less seriously. Eckhart Tolle writes about the diminished experience we suffer when we identify with a role, class, or even personality. Living truly awake means seeking to be maximally open to experience right now, not hemmed in by limiting self-definitions.
10. Eschew Conflict When Possible. Regarding controversial issues, this tradition states that we “oppose no one.” I do need to know what’s right for me and be faithful to it with boundaries, but I don’t go imposing my will on others. (Given the current US political climate, though, I think we should extend our personal boundaries to consider the character of our country and who we are collectively – and stand up to those inflicting harm in our name.)
11. Live our Program. This tradition translates pretty directly. As AA doesn’t self-promote, neither should we. Rather, we walk our talk. We work the steps, seek growth and healing through god, and let the results speak for themselves. I know several people dying of alcoholism. To each I have mentioned that I’m sober in AA – end of story. They can seek me out if they want what I have.
12. Stay Humble and Grateful. Here I do quote the long form: “–And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are to actually practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of [god].” Can’t improve on that!