Give Me Liberty!
AT THE MOMENT when Ebby T. said to Bill W., "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?," our Fourth Tradition began to germinate, it seems to me.
As page 12 of the second and third editions of the book Alcoholics Anonymous shows, that question freed Bill almost miraculously from the prison of his old ideas. And I can now use that notion, as expressed in our Fourth Tradition, as my own charter for personal freedom in AA- as long as I behave responsibly.
"Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole," the Tradition says.
The idea got to me during my first year in AA, 1945, through the slogan Live and Let Live. At that time, I was so hypercritical of everyone that I lived in an almost perpetual state of negative feelings about people. My first AA mentors helped me apply the slogan to my family and to others I was continually finding fault with, including AAs.
Maybe this aspect of our program has more to do with the effectiveness of AA than has been widely recognized. Sitting in judgment on other people--a constant preoccupation of mine while drinking--is a temptation that keeps recurring. God is a heavy role to play, and I've conclusively proved to myself many times that my life becomes unmanageable when I try. In helping to free me from that shortcoming, or defect of character, Tradition Four has proved priceless in my own AA life.
I gingerly tiptoed around the edges of Step Three during my early AA months, not too scared of it; after all, it did say, ". . . God as we understood Him," Step Four suggested that for my own recovery I pass judgment solely on myself, not on anyone else. Step Eight suggested that I concern myself with the inventory of myself only, not with the inventory of persons I had harmed or who I felt had harmed me.
So, despite the fact that Tradition Four had not yet been spelled out, I think its basic idea of liberty coupled with responsibility was already operating to help me stay sober my first year. As I have since detected other outcroppings of it in many forms within our Fellowship, it seems to slap some new humility into me every time. That is a prime value all the Traditions have in my recovery.
Once, an agnostic member began to object to our group's closing the meeting with the Lord's Prayer. True, he said, the group did not force anyone to pray; but the weight of social pressure pushed everyone heavily in that direction, and since that one particular prayer is identified with one religion, he asked the group to change its custom.
For weeks we discussed it, at times even rationally. Two members, one pro, one anti, wrote GSO about it, each sure GSO or the board of trustees would rule his faction right, the other wrong. Both were irritated when they got GSO's reply--that it was up to the group to decide for itself. (I empathize. I still don't like being told, "Grow up.")
No formal group vote ever occurred, because the objecting friend and some who agreed with him decided to start a new group, with entirely different customs. As a result, for years now there have been two thriving groups where only one existed before--twin fruits of Tradition Four--and I have often been able to get from both precisely the help I needed.
The liberty each of us has to start new groups, experiment with meeting formats, or change our home group provides a resilience in AA that has been important in my sobriety. AA is so flexible, it is hard to fight. Anything we don't like about it, we know we are free to change. We do not need anyone's permission, and no one can declare us wrong or overrule us or read us out. As I and some other "slippers" have learned, we can't resign from AA, because there is nothing to send your resignation to! We can't break AA rules, because there aren't any. How can I take my marbles and run away from a game played without marbles?
The freedom from the necessity of passing judgments on one another has prevented the Fellowship from breaking up in all kinds of disputes. If the General Service Board, GSO, or the Conference constantly refereed arguments among groups or members, it would be tantamount to pronouncing one side or the other wrong. We'd probably keep squabbling until the unhappy losers went away. And this would happen over and over, after every such judgment was passed.
Instead, we are told--sometimes to our exasperation--to decide for ourselves.
Local central offices operate under the same guiding principle, of course. Here in Manhattan, years ago, we formed an intergroup association. For a while, it was a delicate little thing. Its fragile life could easily have been shattered if its steering committee had tried to dictate to groups about officers, or meetings, or whatever. Every resistant group could have simply withdrawn its volunteers and financial support--and poof, no intergroup! Instead, the association decided each group was autonomous, thus avoiding the kind of intra-AA squabble that could have been fatal.
Perhaps this Tradition derived from the ego-inflicted suffering some of our first AAs had to endure after getting sober. Robert Thomsen shows so beautifully in Bill W., his stunning biography of AA's chief architect, that co-founder Bill tried and tried to impose various orthodoxies on AA, only to be frustrated painfully time after time.
One of the delights of growing older can be a lessening of my compelling desire to make everybody else do things right. (For "right," read "my way.") It is liberating to learn repeatedly that I cannot bend AA to fit just my particular shape. The pain of such struggle disappears when I can let other AAs have things their own way. That leaves me more energy that I can devote to my number one problem: me.
The price I must pay for this freedom is a corollary responsibility. I have virtually unlimited independence in AA, as long as I act within the framework of the last part of the Fourth Tradition.
Recently, I decided to stop paying my dues in a political organization. The fee is small, and the club takes very little of my time. I still believe in its purpose and generally approve its methods. So why, I wondered, did I want to resign?
Examining my last few contacts with the society, I realized why I wanted out. I had encountered some members (not all, just some) who seemed to me unpleasant and not entirely trustworthy. (I was better at finding such faults in people when I was drinking, but since sobering up I have certainly not lost all my skill at taking others' inventories!)
I caught myself in time. I was judging the whole outfit by a few of its members. Because I found a few not to my liking, I was condemning the whole group. That reminded me of the last part of our Fourth Tradition: ". . .except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole."
Again, I saw that anyone who knows I am an AA member may just as easily judge all of AA by me. If I am found unpleasant and unreliable, someone may easily say, "Those AAs are nasty and dishonest."
Each of us may be the only AA experience some people have. The Fourth Tradition gives me no license to behave in any way that reflects badly on AA.
That's a sobering thought, isn't it? I find that's literally true of all our Traditions, for me.