Where's the Love in AA?

By Harry Healy 09/28/16

“Somewhere in the literature it talks about rendering prodigies of love and service. Now I’ve heard about service for the last fifteen minutes, but I haven’t heard a word about love. What about love?”

Where's the Love in AA?
Rivalry, ego, rage--none of these are love.

This story is going to start in the way that so many stories do, with a dead guy, a brilliant and demented Brooklyn Jew whose anonymity I’m choosing to extend into the hereafter by calling him Meyer.

Wordy and analytical, with a deep voice and a cartoon accent, Meyer wrote off the absurdities of this world with the bite of cynicism that reflected his hardscrabble background. He focused on the stuff that worked, for the most part anyway, both inside of Alcoholics Anonymous and out, and dismissed a bunch of the nonsense that passes for collective wisdom in AA. He was, in a word, a contrarian.

Air-dropped into my home group when he was already sober a good long while, his popularity swelled. It was easy to see why. 

That home group is a thriving men’s meeting with more than a hint of swagger. It’s on the verge of tipping into legendary status (at least in the minds of its members) and with good reason. There’s a surplus of what men who are intent on getting better would want out of an AA meeting. 

Traditional topics like the Twelve Steps, robust sponsorship, and fellowship. Not to mention a carefully curated snacks table. 

One night the announcements threatened to go on forever. Gentleman after gentleman banged on about the peripatetic activities of the group, who was responsible for the hospital commitment, who was taking care of the Intergroup obligation, etc. Eventually, Meyer was asked to speak. 

“You know,” he said, “Somewhere in the literature“—I’m drawing from faulty memory because I didn’t recognize the significance of what Meyer was saying at the time—“Somewhere in the literature it talks about rendering prodigies of love and service. Now I’ve heard about service for the last 15 minutes, but I haven’t heard a word about love. What about love?” 

I let Meyer’s question sink in for the remainder of the evening before I returned, as I so often have, to St. Paul’s description of love in his famous first letter to the Corinthians. Although I’ve been utterly eclipsed by a scholar who devoted an entire book to the passage—and I’m by no means a scholar—I’ve written about it too, meditated on it, ruminated. 

Paul outlines what love is and what it isn’t, what love does and what it doesn’t do. Love is patient, and love is kind. Love isn’t jealous, and love isn’t petty, it doesn’t keep score. I’ve yet to find a translation that I’m completely satisfied with, and that’s my problem, not Paul’s, but he says that if he could speak in all the tongues of men and angels but didn’t have love, he would be nothing. He said he could have everything, and do everything, even perform miracles, but if he didn’t have love, he’d be a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. His life would be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Wait a minute, that’s Shakespeare. I have this annoying habit of confusing my classical references.  

Paul was talking primarily about the love of God (it is, after all, Scripture) but I’ve always thought his words have a stinging secular application, so back to our men’s group.  

We have arrived at a crossroads in the evolution of our culture. Every meeting—and there are four of them a week—is packed to the rafters. The demand for this brand of AA (if that’s what it is) is so great, that led by an overenthusiastic cadre of members, some new and some not so new, the group has split off several times to form other groups, like a high-flying stock in some tech company. But the wise will recall that just before the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s, few recognized that the saturation point had been passed. That’s what made it a bubble. There are now a handful of “Sons Of” meetings that spun out of this original home group, not unlike the Sons of Frankenstein. 

Time to indulge in a general observation: The natural tendency of any large group of males, whether it’s the military, or a sports team, or an all-boys high school, is toward competition, a jockeying for position, for primacy. Within competition lies rivalry. And within rivalry, more than a sprinkle of hatred. So obvious that Paul felt no need to point it out in his poetic lines, but hatred is not love. 

Some years ago, a men’s meeting germinated from another large group that has no association with the group I’m writing about. Curiously, and right out of the gate, it was one of those meetings that during the announcements for the good of AA, was characterized as needing support. I reject that notion. 

The meetings that could truly use support are found not within giant megalopolises like New York—which has too many meetings, not too few—but in outlying communities where the same scattered members show up every week, sip the same coffee from the same wheezing coffee pot, and say the same Lord’s Prayer at the end of it. In spite of all this, they seem to get along just fine. 

There are reasons, usually several, why nobody attends those meetings that are in alleged need of support. What this usually means is that the meeting is ultra convenient for the two or three officers that run it, like next door to where they live, or that its existence is feeding the egos of the same two or three, all under the guise—and this is critical—of service.

This particular gathering was a malevolent incarnation of the He-Man Woman Haters Club from the old Spanky and Our Gang serial. One college-age chap used his time—and there was plenty of it, since the place was mostly empty—to slur his girlfriend of the week in the foulest of terms, drawing grunts of discomfort from various quadrants. Nothing about drinking, nothing about AA, nothing about the solution. Pure bile. Just rank misogyny. And misogyny is not love.

Unsurprisingly, the meeting also attracted the angriest dudes within shouting distance. I may have been far from serene myself in those days (or in these days, alas) but I was positively placid in comparison to the straight-up sociopath whose weekly 10-minute rants referred to his latest road-rage incident, subsequent assault charges, and looming court dates. My guess is that he’s in jail where he belongs. Is it any wonder nobody wanted to attend this meeting? I can gleefully report that the group never attracted the support it needed, and died a wretched and well-deserved death. Rage, it turns out, is not love, either. 

It is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing. We’re now coping with a grand total of eight men’s meetings (nine, if you count the secret gathering that convenes in somebody’s place of business) that assemble in the same general area, made up largely of the same dudes who play musical chairs among service positions. The scent of self-congratulation permeates the ether of these rooms. Whatever charm our swagger once held now threatens to cross the line into arrogance. 

We’ve got a problem. Our senior members are dying off. Meyer was just one of them, but there’s a batch of sick old guys in the back of the room who are doing the best they can to look after their health. That consumes time and waning energy. The middle-timers like me are on the verge of being overwhelmed by contemporary life, with its incessant need to generate money. We’re obligated to devote time to our families, and in many cases, to contribute to the care of our aging parents. I get the sense that these men would do more if they could.

And so the burden of leadership among the proliferating men’s groups has defaulted to the guys with the Instagram haircuts. Although I can say with 100 percent sincerity that these men are doing the very best they can, the qualities of a leader are rare. 

Currently, my home group is being led—I hesitate to use that word—by a phosphorescent ego who favors shorts and flip flops, and whose mission, he seems to believe, is shooting down the sage elder statesmen of the group at the business meetings. All in the name of service, you understand. Sadly, the phosphorescence of ego does not breed love. Love does not insist on putting itself first. Love is willing to put itself second, sometimes even third or fourth. 

I realized while I was writing this piece that Meyer’s question about love was among the last words I heard him say. To me, that’s his legacy. Love. 

I also recognize that I might be coming off as unduly harsh, but the antidote to that is patience and kindness. The antidote to that know-it-allness is love.

Love encompasses service, and service is love in action. And according to St. Paul, and to a lesser light named Meyer, late and lamented, love never fails.

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