Editor’s note: It’s summer in the region and this month’s topic is humility and Step 7. We hear fellows sharing their different experiences: David talks about how his needs shifted in recovery, Wambo remembers how pride and confidence walk a thin line, Julia connects Step 7 and 9, and an anonymous contributor recounts their experience with online meetings.
True, most of us thought good character was desirable, but obviously good character was something one needed to get on with the business of being self-satisfied… But whenever we had to choose between character and comfort, the character-building was lost in the dust of our chase after what we thought was happiness. Seldom did we look at character-building as something desirable in itself, something we would like to strive for whether our instinctual needs were met or not. We never thought of making honesty, tolerance, and true love of man and God the daily basis of living…
As long as we placed self-reliance first, a genuine reliance upon a higher power was out of the question. That basic ingredient of all humility, a desire to seek and do God’s will, was missing.
Page 72, Twelve and Twelve
When I was drinking and early in recovery I fundamentally misunderstood how to get my needs met. I needed to feel ok, and unable to identify any strategy to be happy, I settled for being numb. I like to think I am honest, kind, and supportive, but I would lie and steal to get a drink. My value first and foremost was the selfish desire to be ok, which meant to be drunk. I hated the truth of that, and I was deeply ashamed, but shame and self-loathing were secondary to numbness. I thought any effort to be more honest, less controlling, and more trusting would involve a humiliating and irrevocable exposure of my wretchedness. I did not understand that admitting my soul was rotting, and exposing the wound to the sunlight of the spirit was humility to heal and find happiness.
That was the trick I had missed – being humble was being one among many. It was being a friend among friends. I had a sponsor who laughed and shared in my trials and helped remove my shame. I had a higher power that would let me feel worthy of love and peace. I had a fellowship that would accept me despite the fact I had done some awful things. The thing I wanted more than anything was not to be ok, it was to feel happy and at peace. I had to let go of the toxic fear and guilt, and a sick brain that said I was the center of the universe and if I ever revealed myself people would never forget. Humility released me from the obligation to be god, the locus to all people and things.
So humility meant I got to stop trying to steer my life, and constantly going from crisis to crisis, never managing to both man the rudder and the sails. If I was willing to get over my vanity, my outsize pride, I could join my fellows who seemed to have much smoother sailing in life. I find myself still compelled to try to take the steering from god -my pride is not lifted without my effort. Every time I do so, I misalign my needs, and my happiness suffers. Every time I just let myself be piloted and follow the direction my higher power gives me, the gentler the breeze, the lighter my spirit, and the more I find myself on a ship full of friends, love, and support.
If I had not given humility a try, I would be humbled and tried to hide my failure. Today I know that the works are not of me, and I can let gratitude, kindness, tolerance, and joy lift me instead. Today I understand that my need is peace and that peace comes from humility and being part of life.
I was born and raised in a financially struggling family, which meant we barely had enough money to meet our basic needs. Most of the clothes I wore as a child were hand-me-downs. One day, my mom made a dress for me using some old clothes. I loved it! In Kenya, where I come from, most people really dress up when going to church, so I wore the dress my mom made to church the following Sunday. When I wore that dress, I felt beautiful and walked with my head held high, something I rarely did in my early teens.
After the church service, my mom called me and told me she had noticed how I had been walking all day, full of pride. She then told me I needed to be humble, especially in church. In an instant, I felt deflated and humiliated. I was ashamed of myself for how I had been walking and carrying myself around. That was the image of humility I carried with me to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). For me, humility meant not being seen, not being heard, and not attracting any attention to myself – essentially, being a good girl.
When I came to AA after years of drinking, I was convinced that I was humble. Life and alcoholism had beaten me down, and I believed I had no ounce of pride left in me. I knew this because I didn’t want to be seen, heard, or attract any attention. I associated humility with humiliation. However, it was in AA, especially in Step Seven, that I realized how self-centered my entire demeanor was. Constantly admonishing myself not to be seen, heard, or attract attention meant that I automatically assumed that people around me were just watching for my reaction as if they did not have lives of their own to think about. I assumed I was the center of their universe even if it was in a negative way. It also involved me constantly thinking about myself.
With the help of the program, I have learned to recognize these thoughts and, instead of immediately reproaching myself, I can focus my attention on another person, and ask them how they are doing. It always works. Today, I also know that it’s ok to be seen and heard just as long as I allow my fellow human beings to also be seen and heard. The 12 and 12 teaches me that “the basic ingredient for all humility is the desire to see and do God’s will” (Pg. 73). This doesn’t mean that I know or always do God’s will. All that is asked of me is to have the desire to do so. Furthermore, I do not have to rely on my own strength and intelligence to remove my own shortcomings or even make myself humble. The book reminds me again and again, that as long as I place my self-reliance first, a genuine reliance on my Higher Power is impossible. Just for today, I am grateful that I can come to my Higher Power as I am and humbly ask Him to remove my shortcomings.
I have given all my character defects to God. There’s none of them I want. God can have them all. Then, in the 7th Step Prayer, Bill sneaks in this weird mention, ‘remove those character defects which stand in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows’ (Page 76, Alcoholics Anonymous)
When I come in, I cannot bear the idea of having any character defects. I am childishly convinced that having character defects makes me defective. I come from an environment where adults never ever admitted they were wrong. To admit they were wrong meant that you were weak/a bad parent/an awful mistake.
I suppose this is the essence of dysfunctional thinking: believing I can never be wrong. Thus Bill says God will remove those character defects which stand in the way of my usefulness to God and my fellows. This means God is going to leave me ALL those character defects which God deems useful to God and my fellows. Which are not necessarily those that I want removed.
If I were perfect (all character defects removed, only character please!) I would definitely lose interest in you, and in Alcoholics Anonymous or even in a relationship with God. I would happily sail along in my perfection.
Instead, God, one day at a time, leaves me quite a few, because they make me connect with my sisters and brothers in AA, they force me to ask for help and they motivate me to seek guidance. This is because having character defects is painful. Exercising my defects of character hurts the people I love most. This creates shame and regret and sometimes self-righteous indignation and resentment which is worse.
Growing up in AA means that I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning and acknowledge, ‘You are not an easy person to live with, Julia. You are quite a difficult person to live with. And that’s totally OK.’ Or, as an old-timer told me: the longer I am in AA, the more character I have and, as a result, the more character defects.
There’s another bad news about Step Seven: when I go on my knees in Step 7 and ask God to remove my shortcomings, this step of total willingness is just a preparation for Step 9. It is in actually and wholeheartedly making amends in Step 9 that I show God that I actually mean business and that I am really willing to change.
Example: When I was a few years sober, a single sober Mum of two small children, I sometimes stole items from the organic store where I was a solid customer. I justified that theft by telling myself that I was spending so much money there that I deserved a small self-gifted bonus at times. A decade or so later I was hearing a lot of 4th Steps and would witness how these wonderful brave women would launch into all their amends including those regarding stealing. I wanted what they had—freedom.
So I made a quick 4th step, listed the shops I owed amends to, and launched an amends campaign one Saturday afternoon. The funny thing about amends is that they take no time whatsoever once I’ve made a decision. I owed four amends to four different organic stores. Not only did these amends catapult me out of a certain dullness I was feeling in my life, but they would also free me from stealing one day at a time in the last 20 years of my recovery. Why?
At the first store, I was welcomed with open arms, the shop owner cried, and I cried and she said I didn’t need to pay anything back. I said I do because if I don’t, I might steal again.
The second store owner was angry and annoyed and threw me out of his big organic supermarket, saying I just should never come again. While I was leaving I asked him from far away, ‘Where should I donate the money?’ He yelled back angrily, ‘To the abused children’s fund!’. I did, explaining why, and they thanked me profusely.
The third store was like. ‘Who are you, people? You are the third person in a month who comes in from AA to make these amends. You are restoring my faith in humanity! Put the money here!’
The last store was the hardest. This store owner really liked me. She would sometimes give me stuff. And we would chat in a lively manner when I shopped. She took me outside as she thought I wanted to complain about something. When I told her what I had done, she went livid. She looked terribly disappointed and really sad. She said ’So you are the kind of people that steal from me…’ I realized I was going to have to spend some time with her. This would not be an in-and-out thing. I stayed. She was a good person because she said, ‘I am not going to tell my employees, because I don’t want them to think badly of you’. She didn’t have to do that. She was just a very decent human being.
Seriously, I never want to look at such a sad disappointed face again. I know I will if I steal again. Thus, I don’t steal. God has taken my character defects away in Step 9.
To sum up: brace yourself. Stop begging God to take this one or that one away from you. Instead, make your amends. Your good sober happy joyous free living sober depends upon it. In action I experience humility.
A last word about humility. In the old German language, humility, which translates as ‘Demut’ in German, literally means Mut-zu-Dienen, which means courage-to-serve. ‘Courage to serve’ means doing all the things I feel unworthy of, those I don’t want to do, those I am afraid of doing, those I am too good to do, those things I feel others should do, etc. all things that place me ‘unharmed on the firing lines of life’ as the Big Book promises in the Chapter ‘A Vision for You’ (Page 102, Alcoholics Anonymous). It also means I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to be brave. And courage comes from God and my sisters and brothers in AA.
– Julia K.
With a mixture of excitement and curiosity, I joined my group’s very first online meeting one evening back in early 2020. Sober for many years and having attended thousands of meetings before, I was unsure of what to expect. As I pressed the “Join a Meeting” button my laptop screen soon came alive with a mosaic of grinning home group members’ faces. Each member had their unique story and recovery experience ready to share, and when the secretary confidently opened the meeting, I was engaged and feeling full of hope.
We were now meeting online as a direct result of the global pandemic, and no one really knew how long this temporary arrangement would last. Covid-19 had pushed us into unchartered territories, forcing us to adapt to a new way of meeting and carrying the message. As lockdowns prohibited in-person meetings, the online realm would emerge to become our lifeline and keep us connected.
But as I stared at the grid of smiling faces on my screen, a few doubts troubled me. Could online meetings truly serve as a sufficient substitute for the cherished in-person meetings I once took for granted? Would the absence of a physical presence diminish the richness of my interactions? Although these questions lingered, I remained open-minded, ready to explore the potential of this medium and uncover the possibilities that lay within.
The speed at which our group and many others all over the world jumped online was indeed impressive. Many autonomous AA groups quickly took the initiative, setting up meetings using the latest technology, publishing online meetings lists, and sharing their experience throughout the service structure to help others get their meetings promptly up and running.
Online meetings were certainly exhilarating for the first few months. I enjoyed easily connecting to international meetings at any time of the day, including my former home group on the other side of the world where I first got sober. Being reunited with old friends and meeting many new ones was wonderful. I was motivated by a wide variety of shares from all walks of life that I would not normally get to hear.
Difficulties such as “Zoom bombings” were soon mitigated as we learned through trial and error what to do and what not to do. At our home group, we all tried as best we could to replicate online what we were doing before in our in-person meetings, and we were always trying to better facilitate this new endeavor.
Conveniently accessing meetings from the comfort and safety of my own home meant I could save a fair bit of time and effort. Even though I did try to “dress becomingly”, I was not required to get myself as fully prepared as I normally would have done each time to leave the house and travel across town to get to a meeting.
Homebound and with my new camera and lighting set up, I was soon attending a tailored schedule of regular local, national, and international online meetings. However, I soon learned the hard way that unforeseen challenges to my sobriety can arise when I attend online meetings only.
Meaningful one-on-one conversations with newcomers, especially in the busy main room, became hard to come by. It was hard to talk freely even in the smaller breakout rooms as they did not feel as natural and were usually dominated by the more outgoing members while the more reserved ones were not able to participate as much.
I became more easily distracted, and despite trying to appear present at a meeting, I secretly surfed the internet and sent messages on social media. Sometimes I would zone out completely and stop listening to the shares altogether. Occasionally, when I didn’t feel like it, I just logged off halfway through the meeting (whoops sorry, technical issues!). My initial enthusiasm was waning, and with no one to hold me to account, I began approaching meetings in quite an undisciplined way.
As more time passed, my online AA persona became increasingly superficial. I felt more disconnected and alone as the weeks of staring at flashing pixels on the computer screen started to add up. In this state of separation, my defects of character resurfaced, and I began to suffer from the spiritual pains of alcoholism again. I was on shaky ground and my recovery program had slipped. To remedy this situation, the program in the Big Book suggests taking action and more action. But how was I to get out of this conundrum exactly? Much to my relief, the imposed restrictions on social gatherings began to ease. This indicated that, in accordance with advice from local authorities and our Traditions, we were able to re-open our in-person meeting. With some initial trepidation, many of us met together once again in our meeting venue, face to face.
The feeling of community, belonging, and of being in contact with my fellows up close and personal was incredible. I could again communicate freely, shake hands, and be connected to others with all my senses. I immediately felt grounded and back in touch with reality. My recovery was recharged as I had to once again put in the effort to turn up at meetings on time, rain, hail, or shine. I stayed for the whole meeting, and I even stopped looking at my phone. I never appreciated how all the actions that go into attending an in-person meeting were such an important part of my recovery until I stopped taking them.
I am eternally grateful for having the possibility to meet online. No doubt online meetings helped me to stay sober during what was a very difficult time. I too have found that online meetings are a valuable addition to AA’s resources that can help me hear and carry the message when attendance at in-person meetings is not possible. It’s also truly wonderful to be able to listen online to inspiring guest speakers from all around the world and to easily attend meetings whilst traveling away from home.
On the other hand, the online experience has shown me that I must remain vigilant and not ease up on my program to a more convenient “easier, softer” way when the opportunity presents itself. It is risky for me to stop taking all the actions that initially got and will continue to keep me sober. Actions may seem inconvenient and burdensome when compared to the ease of the pure online experience but are nonetheless an integral part of my ongoing daily sobriety.
For me, online meetings are great and definitely preferable to not attending a meeting at all, and if similar restrictions return in the future, I would absolutely do it all again. But even with my best intentions, I cannot sustain my entire AA program in a virtual environment for very long. As an alcoholic, with a terminal disease of self-delusion, at some point, I also need to be present and grounded amongst my fellow alcoholics in a real in-person AA meeting. Thank God that we have AA meetings, both online and in-person.