Humility in the AA Program of Recovery

We don‘t proceed very far into a typical AA meeting before we encounter some fundamental ideas about humility and recovery. In most cases, humility is presented as the "opposite side" of pride and the topic rests there.

Most likely, we have also attended AA meetings where the topic was about the difference between humility and humiliation. Likewise, we may have also encountered various discussions about pride and its consequences for the alcoholic. The idea of allowing humility and pride to "define" each other when presented as opposing states is very convenient and often validated by its Biblical context.

However, just as was the case with the Redux discussion of selfishness, our "pride problem" may be even more serious than this. To look at this idea a little more closely, we can approach it from two angles. In each case, of course, we can begin with the ideas in our basic text.

In our first approach, Chapter Three, There Is A Solution, offers a compelling reference to the serious problems which pride may have introduced into the life of an untreated alcoholic.

"So many want to stop but cannot. There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation." (BB p25)

And in Chapter Five, How It Works, we find pride included among the causes of our "grudges" in the example inventory. Although not mentioned in the list of causes introducing the example, pride appears later in the list of reasons. (BB p65)

As to our second approach, we need venture no farther than the 12 Steps, themselves. Here we may need to look at our steps in a slightly different way.

In Step One, Step Five and Step Ten we find the word and idea of "admitted."

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

For this side of the discussion we will need to "connect" three ideas: admitting, pride and humility. Fortunately, no particular tricks will be required to accomplish this. It is "one of those things" which emerges from repeated readings of our basic text as we look deeper and deeper for its meaning and relevance. At once we see the rather unusual choice of the idea of "admitting." When we consider alternatives to this specific word, all sorts of possibilities arise. For example, we could have "become aware" of our powerlessness over alcohol (Step One), we might have "acknowledged" to God, to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs (Step Five) and we might have "promptly faced or remedied" instances of continuing alcholic behavior in our sobriety (Step Ten).

Instead, however, each of these steps uses the term "admitted." The point here is that each of these references to "admitting" also represented a quiet guide to an important kind of new humility.

In this discussion we must take note of two of meanings generally associated with the word. "Admit" clearly means to confess something which has been previously hidden. However, more importantly, "admit" also means to "allow in" or "allow to enter." It is this second idea which is central to our understanding of humility.

Because of this, we will not necessarily wish to visit the dichotomies of sin and virtue or, for that matter, guilt and confession, because the "allowing in" idea holds an even greater, more fundamental promise for our understanding of humility. It also introduces another idea with which AA‘s are familiar, denial. If "admitting" is to mean "allowing in," then denial comes to imply "not allowing in" or "denying entrance."

Steps One, Five and Ten all refer to -- and rely on -- honest self-observation. The product of such self-observation can hardly be of much us to us if we "deny it entrance." Further, simply denying these newly recoginized facts about ourselves "entry" is not consistent with our common understanding of pride.

It is difficult to have a conventional "pride problem" when one is a falling down drunken failure who is avoided or even hated by those around him. When we look at it this way, we are more likely to see a "denial problem," although the consequences may remain roughly the same.

Looking back over our mental state while we were in our darkest alcoholic drinking, denial was a mortal defect for us. Riddled by alcoholic fear, we were not interested in the crushing, painful discomfort which would have accompanied "admitting" or "allowing in" such honest, objective self-observations about ourselves and our lives.

This may well have been the basis for Dr. Silkworth‘s statement. "The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false." (BB DO) We had little access to the benefits of such truth while we remained unwilling to "allow it in." To a non-alcoholic observer such as the Doctor, this state could have easily appeared as he described it.

Although not an idea directly derived from our basic text, humility has been well described in meetings as the state of "being the right size." This may be a way to describe the growing embrace of reality AA members encounter as they journey through step work. The old denial slips away bit by bit to be replaced by more and more honest and penetrating kinds of self-realizations as the work progresses through each step. Although this denial may have represented "too large a bite" to swallow if challenged all at once, the gradual advances made, one step at a time, are far more manageable.

Most of us had become experts at all sorts of false self-deprecation as we watched our personal relationships being consumed by our alcoholism. This kind of "convenient humility" was actually driven by the constant companions of the untreated alcoholic: fear, pride and denial. The humility idea contained a wonderfully refreshing "right size" feeling where embracing sobriety‘s reality, although sometimes difficult, grew more and more attractive.

All the "admitting" led this alcoholic to become the actual "real" person who accompanied that physical body which walked through the door to his first meeting. The humility -- along with the great benefits of it -- grew slowly at first, but when more and more facts were faced and when the stark reality of alcoholism became more and more clear, the life saving ideas of the AA program of recovery were "allowed in."