By Steve K.
Some agnostic and atheist members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) tend to focus upon the fellowship as a principle means of recovery, whilst dismissing the program as not really necessary and, in effect, divorcing the two.
According to AA literature and the preamble, members have the right not to practice the suggested Twelve Step program of recovery and to correctly state that AA is a fellowship, and not a program or a book. However, I believe the fellowship and program are mutually dependent upon one another.
Twelve Step groups are often referred to as “mutual aid groups,” which suggests the reciprocal nature of members helping one another in order to recover from a common condition. This defining characteristic is encapsulated in Step Twelve: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” The message carried is clearly recovery through the Twelve Steps.
This is the “common solution” suggested on page 25, in Chapter Two of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, which describes the Steps as “a simple kit of spiritual tools”. Chapter Two, page 17, also suggests that having shared a common illness is not sufficient to bind the fellowship together, and that a common solution upon which we can all agree is required. Tradition Five states the following: “Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”
The shared problem is alcoholism, and the shared solution is the Twelve Step program of recovery. The fellowship is the vehicle for carrying the program to its members. According to its founders, these elements are the basis of the fellowship.
Liberal interpretations of AA literature and traditions can result in thinking that there is no common solution to recovery in the fellowship. I can see how this interpretation might seem legitimate. The program is only suggested, not mandatory. There are no rules or must do’s in AA. Members are free to relate to the Steps in a way that is individually meaningful to them. However, the Steps are a fundamental part of the fellowship. It’s clear that the founders’ intention was to carry the message of the Twelve Steps as a common solution to the problem of alcoholism.
This mutuality or interdependence between the fellowship and program also applies to its members. The fellowship was founded upon the basis of one alcoholic helping another in order to stay sober, a form of “enlightened altruism.” This principle satisfies the basic human need to be needed by others, which is an aspect of our social instinct. AA scholar Ernest Kurtz, refers to this need in his book, Shame & Guilt:
The sense that one is able to make a difference is a deeply basic human need; indeed, Alcoholics Anonymous very unintentionally founded its fellowship upon this vital need. For five months after A.A.’s chronologically first co-founder stopped drinking, he found no one willing to accept his help. Then, alone in “the hick-town” of Akron, Ohio, in May 1935, William Griffith Wilson, the sophisticated New Yorker, discovered that he needed another alcoholic if he himself was to stay sober . . . Perhaps an even more significant moment occurred some days later at the bedside of the alcoholic who was to become “A.A. Number Three.” Wilson and Smith told Bill D. that talking with him was the only way they could stay sober. Bill D. believed them, and therefore he listened.
This reciprocity of mutual help is most deeply felt in the experience of AA sponsorship. The aim of sponsorship is to guide someone through the Twelve Step process and to be an example of recovery through the program. Hopefully, sponsees receive the support and guidance needed to connect with and practice the 12 Steps in their lives.
My relationship with both the fellowship and the program is strengthened and developed by sponsoring another person. My growth from sponsorship is returned to the fellowship, and both I and others benefit. The depth and reciprocal nature of mutuality within the AA fellowship is expressed in another quote by Kurtz:
Mutuality means making a difference not by “giving and getting” but by giving by getting, getting by giving. This reciprocal conjunction of the experience of giving and the experience of receiving characterizes not only Alcoholics Anonymous, but all expressions of human love. This reality of love is one deep reason why Alcoholics Anonymous works.
Ibid, p. 27
The fellowship inspires the program of recovery. The Twelve Steps and the practice of the Steps inspire the fellowship. In this sense they are mutually interdependent. The principles and practices of the AA program inform the individual member’s relationships. The Steps are the glue that binds the fellowship together in a common purpose and way of being, and give it a special character or ethos, the basis of which is love and service.
The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous has often been criticized for encouraging dependence, both upon a higher power and upon the fellowship itself. This viewpoint lacks appreciation of the difference between immature dependence, or co-dependency, and healthy mutual dependence or interdependence. In time, mutual aid, as encouraged within AA and by the practice of the Steps, will develop healthy dependence and independence. This principle is demonstrated by Kurtz:
Dependence and independence, then, are mutually related. Independence is enriched by dependence just as our waking hours can be fruitful only if we obtain adequate sleep. Likewise, constructive dependence requires independence just as healthy sleep requires adequate waking exercise. The very rhythms of human life reflect the mutuality inherent in human nature. In a sense one “charges batteries” by dependence, thus enabling independent operation. The reverse of the analogy proves equally true: being dependent without exercising independence is like over-charging a battery rarely used – destructive of both the self and the source.
Alcoholics Anonymous, both in its suggestion of a “Higher Power” and in the way its meetings work, invites and enables the living out of this mutuality between human dependence and personal independence. The First Step of the AA program establishes the foundation for this understanding: only by acknowledging continuing dependence upon alcohol does the AA member achieve the continuing independence of freedom from addiction to alcohol.
Ibid, p. 29
When we acknowledge our addiction and accept help, we can become strong and free. We are then able to offer our strength and support to others in need. “Freely ye have received; freely give . . .”
Twelve & Twelve, p.114.