If you’ve ever found yourself in an exasperating political argument with a fellow AA member during the “meeting after the meeting” or on Facebook, you can appreciate the need for Tradition Ten, the AA Tradition that enjoins us to avoid outside issues. However, agreeing on a definitive understanding of just what constitutes an outside issue is not so simple.
The fact of the matter is that AA is hardly neutral when it comes to all manner of outside issues. The most obvious example is the blatant promotion of religion, an outside issue without parallel in its ability to generate controversy. My aim here though is not to scold anyone for “breaking the rules” or to purge AA of all impurity. I actually don’t think it’s all bad that outside issues creep in. Furthermore, excluding all outside issues would not only be impossible; where it would lead is not even what anybody wants.
Welcoming without judgment everyone who has a desire to stop drinking, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic circumstances, criminal history, political persuasion, citizenship status, or sexual orientation, is not an uncontroversial move, but to fail to be clear about its necessity would jeopardize the whole point of AA. While we can all agree that AA is not the place to debate issues like marriage equality, can we really be neutral with regard to whatever it is that might stand in the way of, for example, greeting LGBT alcoholics with an enthusiastic welcome?
AA’s message is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, it is supposedly a simple solution that focuses exclusively on the specific problem of alcoholism; on the other hand, the way that solution is articulated is necessarily wide ranging and complicated. The problem with a too strict interpretation of Tradition Ten is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater.
A literalistic understanding of Tradition Ten leads to ridiculous results. Are we prohibited from talking about parenting, familial relationships, or problems at work? Do we have to stay away from talk about the most common relapse triggers, famously summarized in the quip, “romance and finance”? The plain fact is that there are many concerns that, while they are technically outside issues, are highly relevant to a comprehensive life of recovery. They are often what make the difference between sustainable sobriety (a life that is palpably preferable to drinking, “‘a design for living’ that really works” – BB p. 28) and white-knuckle “so-dry-ety”.
AA is not about how to become a better person. It’s about not drinking. However, being able to stay sober might necessitate becoming a better person. The Twelfth Step concludes with the statement, “[we] practiced these principles in all our affairs.” If we can’t talk about how to incorporate “these principles” as we understand them into our lives outside the meetings, what is there to talk about? If the simple imperative to “put the plug in the jug” were enough, why do we need AA at all?
But does anybody even know what “these principles” are? The words are put out there in a matter of fact manner as though it is clear what they refer to, but is it? The most obvious place to look for their antecedents is in the preceding 11 2/3 steps. Unfortunately, there are no explicitly spelled out principles there.
But there are some implicit principles that we can infer (once we’ve filtered out the religious content) that have to do with becoming responsible and building moral integrity, self-respect, and resilient inner strength – in other words, doing what it takes to be an ethical, responsive, and psychologically-sound human being in general.
According to one of AA’s many folksy aphorisms, “If you sober up a drunken horse thief, what you end up with is a sober horse thief.” It is not AA’s business to persuade proverbial horse thieves give up their horse thievery; nonetheless, I shouldn’t have to pretend that I’m OK with their stealing horses or worry about whether any talk about business ethics will make them angry.
I was told early on that recovery is about being held and being held accountable. One of the main reasons I’ve stuck around is that AA has not only been a safe, supportive space to go through a lot of really hard life challenges, but it has also been a well-lit place where I’ve been able to do a lot of much-needed “growing up in public”.
The fifth tradition’s singleness of purpose might warn us away from focusing on anything that distracts from equipping alcoholics for sobriety, but having an attitude that, as long as I’m not drinking, I’m exempt from scrutiny is not how it works. In fact, we take each other’s inventory all the time. If we are constantly judging each other regarding any number of things that have nothing to do with sobriety, including fashion choices and how eloquently someone shares in a meeting, why would we expect that stuff which actually matters, like whether we are “walking the walk”, is out of bounds?
In the world I live in, walking the walk means recognizing that there are far reaching consequences that result from my everyday decisions, whether I want to see them or not.
Are my concerns about the social and environmental impact of my lifestyle choices an outside issue? Doesn’t the way we put all social concerns off limits set up a false equivalency between commitments that are driven by compassion and abhorrent tendencies like racism? Isn’t the most attractive example of recovery an actualized human being who stands for something positive rather than a bland, generic shell floating around in an artificial void?
There’s an old story about some villagers who keep finding drowning babies bobbing down the river until someone finally thinks to ask where all those babies are coming from, what is going on upstream, and how the babies got in the river in the first place. They realized that if all they focused on was saving the babies from drowning, they were condemning most of the babies to a cruel death.
Is it OK to share how disturbed we are by metaphorical babies floating down the river (or the not so metaphorical televised images of war refugees) but not OK to dig deeper and ask ourselves how we might be contributing to the problem? There’s a line somewhere between, on the one hand, acknowledging our natural human sorrow about the fallout from large political and social realities and, on the other hand, advocacy of outside issues. But what about the feelings we create when we shirk responsibility for participating in solutions?
How the line between recovery and outside issues is generally drawn reminds me of a quote from Hélder Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” There are many corollaries to this bit of wisdom. For example: “When I condemn thirteenth steppers and other lurking predators, everybody puts a concerned look on their face and nods their head in smug agreement, but when I begin examining my participation in the patriarchal culture that sanctions, encourages, and glorifies the predatory mindset, I’m introducing an outside issue.”
In general, the understanding of what an outside issue is leans toward an insidious form of majoritarianism. Mainstream views are accepted as natural, and everything outside the mainstream is an outside issue. This becomes a tacit endorsement of Christianity (those who want AA to be less religious are the ones who are accused of pushing an outside issue), an anti-science bias (talking about scientific research into addiction is out of bounds, but scoffing at science is OK), and many cultural affectations that are invisible to everyone within the mainstream but shout “you don’t belong” to everyone else.
It is not surprising that decisions about whether a topic is an outside issue usually comes down to whether people are uncomfortable since many of us have come from families in which it was not OK to talk about “the elephant in the room”. Unfortunately, recovery is inherently uncomfortable at times, especially when it matters the most, when the decision to change brings to the surface difficult challenges.
The difficulty is not just that the line between outside issues and what is necessary for sobriety is blurry; they are entangled. It is impossible for me to talk about doing what it takes to stay sober without talking about my values in ways that sometimes risk making you uncomfortable or even angry. What is anathema to you might be central to my understanding of what it takes to get sober.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sobriety. In order to be a vital community, everyone needs to be free to be who they really are. I need to be true to my own values without being overly judgmental of or antagonistic toward yours. What you need to do to stay sober is “an inside job” for you but an outside issue for me. Your political and religious views are none of my business. What is my business though is supporting your freedom to be true to yourself, as long as you’re not asking me to agree with you or to sign off on rationalizations and copouts.
If you’ve been around AA for any length of time, you have probably encountered intense skirmishes around topics that range in scope from silly intra-group controversies to the latest international crisis. As disturbing as these disagreements can be, they actually point to a predilection that is arguably AA’s greatest strength.
The flare-ups reveal two things. First, AA members care deeply and passionately, and second, it’s all the more remarkable that we somehow manage to work together as well as we do, given that we disagree about everything except the one thing that justifies AA’s existence, helping people get and stay sober.
Needless to say, that does not mean that extraneous content can’t get in the way. A common newcomer experience is having a sense that AA is simultaneously too much and not enough – too much pushing of simplistic and dogmatic platitudes and not enough information on to get sober, too much pulling everything through the knothole of relying on a higher power and not enough “experience, strength, and hope”. But that’s all the more reason to have a more open conversation. We need to talk about the elephant in the room in order to get the fear of violating norms out of the realm of taboo where we have to walk on eggshells.
Our inability to fully separate outside issues from matters that are pertinent to recovery is a positive example of “progress not perfection”, the point being that there is no pure version of the message that is mysteriously channeled if actual human beings would just “get out of the way”. Imperfection is not something we settle for. It’s not that we have to get past the unavoidably human packaging that the message comes in. While the Big Book is dismissive of “human power” (p. 60), the reality is that without our human imperfection, there is no “attraction rather than promotion” and thus no possibility for anyone finding a viable solution.
Reaching a point where we are no longer too finicky about the way the message is presented or from whom it comes opens the way for getting the help we need from empowered human beings. Most of us are quite aware that if we had snubbed the generous reaching out by people with whom we “normally would not mix” (cf. BB p. 17), we would not be sober today. In receiving a hand up from unlikely sources, we understand that there a many paths to recovery, and amazing possibilities open up.
About the Author, JHG
The author writes here under the pen name JHG as a tip of the hat to the principle of anonymity, not out of a need to hide his identity. In real life, he is open about being a recovering alcoholic and an atheist. You can read more about him at the Clergy Project and about a book he is working at the site Recovering Humanity. He and his spouse are cofounding members of The Mostly Agnostics AA Group in San Antonio, Texas.