AA Grapevine: The Traditions in Action

THE LEGACY of Service affirms our faith in the democratic ideal of majority decision, the group conscience, basic decency, and the collective wisdom of AA’s representatives in the General Service Conference, together with the Trustees of the General Service Board of AA, both AAs and nonalcoholics. The spirit of this Legacy can be summed up best exactly as Bill wrote about it:

“We expect that our Conferences will always try to act in the spirit of mutual respect and love–one member for another. In turn, this sign signifies that mutual trust should prevail; that no action ought to be taken in anger, haste, or recklessness; that care will be observed to respect and protect all minorities; that no action should ever be personally punitive; that, wherever possible, important actions will be taken in substantial unanimity; and that our Conference will ever be prudently on guard against tyrannies, great or small, whether these be found in the majority or minority.

“The sum of these several attitudes and practices is, in our view, the very essence of democracy–in action and spirit.”

The Twelve Traditions stand for the Legacy of Unity. The pith of the Traditions is clearly expressed in the familiar Preamble that is usually read before AA meetings (and printed on page 1 of this issue of the Grapevine). And they include suggestions concerning common welfare, group structure, organization, public relations, and anonymity. Bill’s reflections upon the wisdom and humility of the Traditions are heartwarming: “Implicit throughout AA’s Traditions,” he said, “is the confession that our Fellowship has its sins. We confess that we have character defects as a society and that these defects threaten us continually. Our Traditions are a guide to better ways of working and living, and they are also an antidote for our various maladies. The Twelve Traditions are to group survival and harmony what AA’s Twelve Steps are to each member’s sobriety and peace of mind.”

And our Twelve Steps themselves–the Legacy of Recovery–what principle do they affirm?

For Bill, they centered on the priceless value of every individual human being as an image of his Creator and as a potential instrument of His will, no matter how befogged his mind or how far destroyed his body by the ravages of alcoholism. None of us who are sober today in AA could have heard, in the desperate final moments of our last hangover (while guilt, remorse, and nausea wound our nervous system into tremulous, sweaty knots), any words sweeter than Bill’s steady faith that “AA’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

Many of us, upon first seeing those words, asked ourselves the question “Can it be just that simple?”–and then heard a voice inside us answer “Yes.”

Bill’s application of AA principles to ever-changing circumstances was another of his remarkable talents. Day in and day out, letters would arrive at his desk asking for his “last word” on a matter of AA policy. And, in answer after answer, Bill would fall back upon the basic principles of AA’s three Legacies, tempered by wisdom, humor, perspective, and regard for the feelings of others.

One warm example occurred in 1968 when a well-meaning AA wrote to Bill, in deep concern, about an influx of youthful hippies or flower children to local AA groups, along with their distinctive manner of dress, sexual mores, and other unorthodox behavior, including the use of drugs. The writer feared that this particular invasion might be “a very real threat to our wonderful. God-given program.”

Bill’s reply was typical of his use of AA principles to meet new challenges.

“Your letter about the hippie problem, so-called, was mighty interesting to me. I doubt that we need to be alarmed about this situation, because there have been precedents out of the past. All sorts of outfits have tried to move in on us, including communists and heroin addicts, prohibitionists and do-gooders of other persuasions.

“Nearly all of these people, who happened to have an individual problem with alcohol, not only failed to change AA, but, in the long run, AA changed them. I have a number of them among my closest friends today, and they are among the best AAs I know.

“You also have some people who are not alcoholics, but are addicts of other kinds. A great many AAs have taken pity on these people, and have actually tried to make them full-fledged AAs. Of course, their identification with alcoholics is no good at all, and the groups themselves easily stop this practice in the normal course of AA affairs.

“Thoughtful AAs, however, encourage these sponsors to bring addicts to open meetings, just as they would any other interested people. In the end, these addicts usually gravitate to other forms of therapy. They are not received on the platform in open meetings unless they have an alcohol problem, and closed meetings are, of course, denied them. We know that we cannot do everything for everybody with an addiction problem.

“There has also occurred lately a new development centering upon hippies who have LSD or marijuana troubles–not so much stronger stuff. Many of these kids appear to be alcoholics also, and they are flocking into AA, often with excellent results.

“Some weeks ago, there was a young people’s convention of AAs. Shortly thereafter, lour of these kids visited the office. I saw one young gal prancing down the hall, hair flying, in a mini-skirt, wearing love beads and the works. I thought, ‘Holy smoke, what now!’ She told me she was the oldest member of the young people’s group in her area–age twenty-two! They had kids as young as sixteen. I was curious and took the whole party out to lunch.

“Well, they were absolutely wonderful. They talked (and acted) just about as good a kind of AA as I’ve seen anywhere. I think all of them said they had had some kind of drug problem, but had kicked that, too. When they first came around, they had insisted on their own ideas of AA, hut in the end they found AA plenty good enough as it was. Though they needed their own meetings, they found interest and inspiration in the meetings of much older folks as well.

“Perhaps, as younger people come into AA, we shall have to put up with some unconventional nonsense–with patience and good humor, let’s hope. But it should be well worth the attempt. And also, if various hippie addicts want to form their own sort of fellowship along AA lines, by all means let us encourage them. We need deny them only the AA name, and assure them that the rest of our program is theirs for the taking and using–any part or all of it.

“For these reasons. I feel hopeful and not a bit scared by this trend. Of course, I’m no prophet. I may be mistaken, so please keep me posted. This is a highly interesting and perhaps significant development. I certainly do not think it ought to be fought. Instead, it ought to be encouraged in what we already know to be workable channels. In affection. . . Bill.”

BILL’S old desk is clear today. His voice is as lucid as ever, on tape, in books, in filing cabinets. He still has much to tell us.

Two of Bill’s familiar concerns about AA’s future bear repetition here. The first concerns the destiny of AA; the second concerns the memory of Bill himself in the unfolding of that destiny.

Of our Fellowship, he said, “Beyond a Higher Power as each of us may vision Him, AA must never, as a society, enter into the field of dogma or theology. We can never become a religion in that sense, lest we kill our usefulness by getting bogged down in theological contention.”

And he made the caution still clearer: “As a society, we must never become so vain as to suppose that we have been the authors and inventors of a new religion. We will humbly reflect that each of AA’s principles, every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sources. We shall remember that we are laymen, holding ourselves in readiness to cooperate with all men of goodwill, whatever their creed or nationality. . . .

“There are those who predict that Alcoholics Anonymous may well become a new spearhead for a spiritual awakening throughout the world. When our friends say these things, they are both generous and sincere. But we of AA must reflect that such a tribute and such a prophecy could well prove to be a heady drink for most of us–that is, if we really came to believe this to be the real purpose of AA, and if we commenced to behave accordingly. Our society, therefore, will prudently cleave to its single purpose: the carrying of the message to the alcoholic who still suffers. Let us resist the proud assumption that since God has enabled us to do well in one area, we are destined to be a channel of saving grace for everybody.”

In these paragraphs. Bill asks us simply to preserve our humility as a fellowship.

Much the same humility was infused into Bill’s confidence that Alcoholics Anonymous would continue into the future–and continue in health–without him.

Once he wrote: “It seems proved that AA can stand on its own feet anywhere and under any conditions. It has outgrown any dependence it might once have had upon the personalities or efforts of the older members like me. New, able, and vigorous people keep coming to the surface, turning up where they are needed. Besides, AA has reached enough spiritual maturity to know that its final dependence is upon God.”

For those of us who might wish to see our Bill regarded by posterity as a saint in the pantheon of modern gods, now is the time to reflect carefully upon his humility and wisdom. For, in truth. Bill was not a saint. He would have recoiled–and did–at the suggestion. He was a plain man.

His words of warning apply as much to sweet memories of him as they do to other beloved ghosts of our own pasts who settle in our recollections today: “Nothing can be more demoralizing than a clinging and abject dependence upon another human being. This often amounts to the demand for a degree of protection and love that no one could possibly satisfy. So our hoped-for protectors finally flee, and once more we are left alone–either to grow up or disintegrate.”

So long, Bill.

Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc. (March, 1971). Reprinted with permission.

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