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Let's Stick to the Book in AA

The scourge of political correctness and hurt feelings dilutes the message and effectiveness of the 12 Steps.

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By Harry Healy

03/01/13

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People in general are offended by just about everything these days, and in the hyper-sensitive culture of Alcoholics Anonymous, this condition is getting worse. The other night at a large, high-energy meeting, a man was asked to read the 12 Steps from the window shade hanging in its usual place in front of the room. When he got to Step Three, aghast at a masculine, third-person pronoun (with a capital H no less), he added the words “or her, or it, or whatever” after the phrase “as we understood Him.” It got a laugh. Confronting the clause again in Step Eleven, our friend predictably trotted out his wit a second time, to less effect.

The focus of this meeting was the Third Step, and we did a round-robin reading of the corresponding essay from the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. It became a female member’s turn to read a paragraph. Each time the text referred to a hypothetical member as “he,” our reader added the words “or she.”

These folks were implying disapproval of the words they were supposed to read. Their feelings were hurt. They were offended, and these transgressions needed to be rectified immediately!

Two generations of fuzzy moral relativism have discounted the idea of evil into near nonexistence.

In the event, both people created distractions that called attention to themselves, their individual thoughts and their opinions, which, if I may be so bold, are this: These words lack contemporary relevance. They are insensitive. They are, saints preserve us, exclusive. And what’s worse, these two members—and I am quite certain of this—would think of themselves as open-minded and forward-thinking. But what they were fulfilling was self-reflection through that hall of mirrors that is the perceived orthodoxy of the group, and the obligation to stick to this orthodoxy.

I live in New York City and have attended AA meetings here for the last 20 years. I appreciate that my hometown is zero degrees latitude for this kind of thinking, the equator of political correctness. I’m used to that. And I’m older now, there’s no getting around it, and I go to meetings populated by people who are younger than myself. They may be young in life, and many of them may be new to the program, but they are not children. Writing them off as kids carries with it its own kind of arrogance, and the feathery prejudice of low expectations. But somebody should have told them to read only the words that are in black. In short, they ought to know better.

And I’m afraid that some of us have become too hip and cynical—too quick to take offense or too afraid of creating it—for the Lord’s Prayer, about which a controversy born of hurt feelings continues to blaze in AA. In a lot of rooms, to close a meeting with the Our Father is to be met with the chuffing of breath, the gnashing of teeth, and outright audible groans. But a deconstruction of this simple, encompassing prayer would yield virtually all the principles AA is trying to advance: The petitioner acknowledges at the outset that he (or she) is not located at the center of the universe, but that that space is occupied by some power far greater than the self. It goes on to recognize fault and forgiveness, and the deliverance from evil, not merely as an end in itself, but for the ability to be free to do good. “Give us this day…” THIS day—this one—this day right here and right now, the things of which we are in the most need. One day at a time. Sound familiar?

Two generations of fuzzy moral relativism have discounted the idea of evil into near nonexistence. There is no right and there is no wrong; there is right for me, and wrong for me. People make ill-advised choices, but there is no evil. The trouble, of course, is that by rejecting these ideas one would be endorsing values that are, in a word, Christian.

I’m colored by my own biases. I am a Christian, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a middle-aged white guy who is also a member of the last safe group to bash, in AA and out, Roman Catholics, and their Church. For all of its sins as an institution, the argument can be made that the Catholic Church created western culture. And just in case you haven’t noticed, western culture is decidedly unfashionable in progressive nerve centers like New York. Maybe it’s that association—between the words, the man who taught them to his friends and the church he founded—that have engendered the resistance to, and the outright hatred of, this traditional AA prayer. In their zeal to come off as countercultural, some of our members are guilty of the same narrow-mindedness that makes them so touchy and so quick to condemn in others. Without, like, recognizing it. Those rebels!

Harry Healy is a pseudonym. He lives in New York.

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