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November 1976

The Challenge to Ego in Tradition Five

Squabbling ceased when the newcomer's needs turned the group to its primary purpose

OVER COFFEE at an all-night cafeteria some years ago, disagreements flared among four or five tables of AAs. There was dissension about the bookkeeping of the clubhouse treasurer, about dues and rules for membership, about the brand of coffee, and about the right of the program secretary to schedule a nonalcoholic speaker. I recall feeling vehement about several of these matters, and I expect I got loud, too.

Suddenly, someone brought to our attention a newcomer who had attended his very first meeting that night. All arguing ceased, as if by magic. Everyone pitched in to comfort Charlie and encourage him. Even those of us who did not care for each other acted polite and friendly, for new Charlie's sake.

We ended the evening amicable and united. Although this happened in 1945, before our Twelve Traditions were written, their good sense prevailed among us. It was a beautiful demonstration that "Each group has but one primary purpose--to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers," our Fifth Tradition. No one doubted that Charlie's welfare was more important than our petty arguments.

For me, there was still another lesson embedded in that one. Since I was so new myself, I had been made to feel very much like the most important alcoholic present--until then. But when Charlie appeared, I wasn't. Not even to myself.

Much later, I realized that my nose had not gone fiercely out of joint, that I had not gone all-over jealous. I had been so eager to help Charlie (with my vast store of AA knowledge gained in about six weeks) that I had not suffered even a twinge of sibling rivalry. I began to think of someone else, not of what I wanted.

It was a classic illustration of the "twelfth suggestion" made in the book Alcoholics Anonymous at the beginning of Chapter 7: "Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail."

So the Fifth Tradition, like the Twelfth Step, encourages me to become progressively less self-concerned and more concerned about others. Traditions repeatedly have that effect on me, and that is why I rank them as highly significant in our process of recovery.

The Fifth, like others, has a liberating effect. As AAs, we don't have to get tied up in owning real estate or operating clubs, with all the organizational, legal, and financial hassles and ego battles such projects would involve us in. We need not try to become a medical or a religious fraternity, an educational organization or a political one. Because of the Fifth Tradition, we are free of the necessity of raising large sums, or trying to change society. It is not our purpose as AAs to educate children about drinking, nor to teach the medical profession or the government about alcoholism. These might be side effects or spin-offs, of what we do, just as a network of enjoyable and therapeutic social activities may also result from AA life. But they are not our chief purpose; they are subordinate to our goal of staying sober and helping others.

Another time, I saw AA members really mistreat a sick and shaking alcoholic. He had managed on his own to get to the clubhouse where the group met, and he asked for somebody to talk to him--to tell him what he should do to stay sober.

No one had time. Clubhouse officers had to discuss the upcoming anniversary party, and a couple of other members were planning new furniture arrangements and swapping fishing tales. My excuse was that I was just a visitor from out of town and had to catch a plane home soon.

I felt awful on the flight and took our inventory pretty sternly. It was the clearest instance I could remember then of violation of our Fifth Tradition.

We all agree, I hope, that such things should not happen. Aren't we unanimous in the conviction that helping a new prospect is more important than planning a party or chinning with old friends?

If there is any one thing on which all, or nearly all, AAs can agree, maybe our primary purpose is it. There's a world of things we can all disagree on, thanks to Tradition Five. We do not have to see eye-to-eye on theological issues, on politics, on the causes and psychology of alcoholism, or even on how to stay sober. So it is beautiful, I think, for us to have one notion we all salute and honor--our primary purpose. When we carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers, it binds us together and can heal ever so many wounds.

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