I'm surprised you've read past the title. The big snooze: the part of a meeting we love to tune out: “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,... unity... blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,... self-supporting … blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, … service centers... blah, blah … special workers … blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,... principles before personalities.” Finally that's over – can we please get back to our meeting now?
So here's what I probably like best of all, addict that I am: there are no rules. Think about it. How often, for instance, does someone “share” long after the timer has sounded (not infrequently when they have nothing to say)? It happens all the time – on average maybe once or twice per meeting. And so what; we move on. You're a member when you say you are – not that hordes of “normies” are clamoring to become card-carrying dope fiends. By the way, we don't have membership cards. Strictly speaking, meetings are meetings whether the Twelve Traditions are read or not: a group's respect for tradition retains the practice. And that is the essence of the miracle: that groups of rebellious drug addicts police* themselves – that broad principles alone prevent anarchy. They don't just prevent anarchy: they account for remarkable fidelity and predictability: 12-step meetings in St. George, Utah are pretty much indistinguishable from those in West Hollywood, CA. I know: I've been there.
In ways I cherish, the Twelve Traditions make our fellowship and others the un-corporation and the un-church. The un-corporation? The traditions contradict virtually every convention of organizational structure in modern society, no matter what the political or economic system. We have no bosses, no middle managers, no pep talks from the HR department. We don't separate the “professionals” from the clerks and janitors: you're a sponsor when you say you are; today's treasurer is tomorrow's clean-up person. We own no property; our groups meet on the margins, local committees meet in member's homes. If you don't find that remarkable, consider the real estate grandiosity of most organizations (“non-profit” health insurance companies are a great example#). We live happily within slender means, soliciting no support from sources other than meeting attendees, and somehow we get by. With nothing but a website, a hotline, and word of mouth – without puffery and self-promotion – we continue to grow.
The un-church? Yes, there's a certain evangelical quality to the “pitch” of members on the speaking circuit. But where the rubber meets the road in most religions – in dogmatic interpretations of the attributes and expectations of whatever deity they worship – 12-step spirituality (“a higher power of your own understanding”) removes all the friction. What you believe is your own business. But believe.
One of the things I most admire about the traditions is how they came into being. They contradict almost every instinct of AA's co-founder, Bill W., who thought just like any other businessman eager to build a large and successful enterprise. Flushed with the first successes – a few dozen drunks in New York City and in Akron, Ohio who stayed sober for a few years – Bill W. proceeded like any other entrepreneur. Even before he set pencil to paper to start writing the “big book,” he used family connections to get an audience with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in search of the big bucks that would support a nationwide franchise of drunk tanks and cadres of paid proselytizers. Confounded by Rockefeller's fear that “money will spoil this thing,” Bill W. came to appreciate the wisdom of that perspective only after the early, hardscrabble years were behind him. Aspiring to live in the agreeable circumstances he felt he deserved, he was tempted by a well-compensated job as a lay counselor at Towns Hospital (including a profit-sharing plan); instead, he let himself be guided by group conscience to keep “twelfth step work” unpaid and non-professional. And so it went, learning lesson after lesson by carefully observing the experience of groups as they grew explosively, squabbled, imploded, re-grouped, suffered mission creep, lost their way, fell apart, and began again.
Well-equipped by talent and inclined by temperament to want to run the show, Bill repeatedly applied the principle of humility to curb his own enthusiasms and ambitions: when he became most exasperated and impatient about getting his way, he was able to reel himself in and recognize that he was on an “emotional bender.” And it is humility that seems to undergird all of the traditions: no rigid rules, no bosses, no credentials, no investments, no luxury, no self-promotion, no status-seeking. Instead, subvert self-seeking in favor of the greater good. The Twelve Traditions frame an organization that somebody who hates organizations can readily learn to love.