Anyone who has ever attended an AA meeting has no doubt at least heard a recitation of the first couple of pages of Chapter 5 of the Big Book - “How It Works.” Amidst declarations that the newcomer is the most important person in the room, and that no one ever has to drink again, this seemingly contradictory bomb is dropped at the beginning of virtually every meeting on the planet. The ubiquity of the reading attests to the fact that its message is absolutely fundamental to the program. Indeed, it contains the first explicit expression of the beloved 12 Steps. Yet a careful examination of what exactly it says yields something that seems to be at odds with the notion that anyone can recover in the program.
In it, we are told that those who don't achieve lasting recovery can not, or will not, follow its precepts due to their constitutionally incapability of being honest. It then goes on to make an unequivocal existential statement: “There are such unfortunates.” To paraphrase, that such people exist in the world, flesh and blood, possibly sitting next to us in the noon meeting. And then to drive the point home further, “They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.” That they are naturally incapable (the second time that word is used in the same paragraph) of living the kind of life required by AA sobriety.
Enter a newcomer at her first meeting. Or, perhaps, a long time member in the midst of a storm of personal struggles seriously considering hitting the local saloon for some relief. Neither have to drink, they are told, unless (an unspoken qualifier, but undeniably implicit in the passage at hand) they are one of the doomed unfortunates.
This begs the question: why was this particular language used in the text? And how and why did the tradition of reading it aloud, that one paragraph in particular, get started? The rest of the passage, up through “c) That God could and would if He were sought,” are promising, encouraging even. But not that one.
I have struggled with these questions and, to date, cannot come up with any kind of satisfactory reason. Is it some kind of built in explanation for those who don't stick with the program and succeed? A preemptive defense for the fallibility of the program? A cautionary word to those successes whose sponsees heartbreakingly do not make it?
For me, personally, it is this one set of words, and not the antiquated male-centric language, the thinly veiled Judeo-Christian ideology in the midst of declarations of unqualified pluralistic spirituality, or the century old cultural milieu in which the book was written, that screams for an update to the basic text. I am aware that the program as written has helped many, many people, but the further we get away from 1930's America and the more multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-national the membership becomes, the more difficult it becomes to identify with the founding fathers' intention and worldview.
In any case, might it be time to stop qualifying the potential of a suffering alcoholic to recover in AA before she has even begun the journey? To not start a meeting with the stark proclamation that, though she is most certainly welcome, she might not have what it takes to avoid a nightmarish alcoholic death? The essential message can be salvaged even if the language, metaphors, allusions, etc. are modernized. Electrons and electricity are fairly well understood these days, not “mysteries” in which our beliefs are similar to those in a power greater than ourselves.
And as a bonus, and whatever the overall impact on program efficacy such an update would have, the simple aesthetics and relate-ability of the book could not help but be improved. When was the last time “What an order!” was uttered in casual conversation? And please, for the love of all that is holy, let us retire the terms “John Barleycorn,” and “no soap there.” Any loss in tradition would be more than offset by potentially saving those who could embrace the program wholesale but for ridiculous terms like those semantic fossils.
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