Step Twelve: Reflections on the Three Parts of the Step

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps,

we tried to carry this message to alcoholics,

and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

“Working with Others”, Chapter 7 in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, addresses Step 12, but covers only the second part.

Nonetheless, it opens with these two astounding paragraphs that filled me with hope when I first read them 43 years ago:

“Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail. This is our twelfth suggestion: Carry this message to other alcoholics! You can help when no one else can. You can secure their confidence when others fail. Remember they are very ill.

“Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship group up about you, to have a host of friends—this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives.” (p.89)

It is important for me to remember that these words were drafted in the depths of the Great Depression when investment professionals like Bill Wilson were jumping out of skyscraper windows to commit suicide after losing all on Wall Street. Alcoholics were considered moral failures, and there was no movement called “Alcoholics Anonymous”. There were no treatment centers or addiction professionals available other than ‘drunk tanks’ or ‘funny farms’. There was only the occasional alcoholic treatment center like Charles B. Towns Hospital in Manhattan where Bill was hospitalized and treated four times by Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, who went on to write “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book.

What is more, there were no women in alcoholic recovery in Bill’s and Dr. Bob’s Oxford Group meetings when the Big Book was published in April, 1939. The first successful woman, Marty Mann, did not enter what was to become A.A. until two months later, four years after Bill gave Dr. Bob his last drink on June 10, 1935, A.A.’s sobriety date.

However, Chapter 7 of the Big Book did set out the important practical part of what worked for Dr. Bob and Bill in staying sober in their day, even though it did not address the spiritual first and third parts of the “twelfth suggestion”. That had to wait for the publication of A.A.’s second book 13 years later, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Published in 1952, this was A.A.’s first conference approved book, and it included input from thousands of sober men and women members of A.A. at the time through the newly established General Service Conference service structure.

In contrast, according to A.A.’s biography of Bill Wilson, Pass It On, the final draft of the Big Book in the spring of 1939 was reviewed by the 60 to 100 men in recovery at that time and 300 non-alcoholics in the medical, psychiatric, psychological, and religious caring professions for comment, and by a New York University professor who deleted up to one third to one half of the contents to increase readability. (1984, p. 204.)

The chapter Step Twelve inTwelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (1952) springs forward from the second part of Step 12 described in the Big Book with these striking words, adding the first and third parts of the Step to the discussion:

“The joy of living is the theme of A.A.’s Twelfth Step and action is its key word. Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety. When the Twelfth Step is seen in its full implication, it is really talking about the kind of love that has no price tag on it.

Our Twelfth Step also says that as a result of practicing all the steps we have each found something called a spiritual awakening.”

The chapter then discusses spiritual awakening in detail, reviewing all of the steps, describing carrying the message in broader terms than in the Big Book, and then in the rest of the chapter, describing what the last clause of the Step, “practice these principles in all our affairs” means.

Remarkable statements in the chapter for me include:

“When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being.”

Women began to be recognized in A.A. literature, although not yet in the pronouns.

“So, practicing these steps, we had a spiritual awakening about which finally there was no question.”

And if I continue to practice them in all my affairs, I will continue to wake up spiritually. I am grateful that I have a lifetime to do it.

“We forgot that most alcoholics in A.A. have an earning power considerably above average.”

I sure took note of that when I was new in A.A. and short on cash.

“When A.A. was quite young, a number of eminent psychologists and doctors made an exhaustive study of a good-sized group of so-called problem drinkers…These distinguished men had the nerve to say that most of the alcoholics under investigation were still childish, emotionally sensitive, and grandiose.”

What?! And for a while, the alcoholic ‘objections’ kicked in: ‘Yes, but! You don’t understand! I’m different!’

Finally, after the Serenity Prayer appeared in the chapter on Step Threein the “I” form, the chapter on Step Twelve ends with the original “We” form of the Serenity Prayer, adapted from the modern version written by American theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr. It was found by an A.A. member in an obituary (death notice):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

For me, no review of any of the Steps would be appropriate without recalling the humility Bill Wilson displayed when talking about them:

At the 20th anniversary of A.A. 1955 General Service Conference he stated that, “Our principles of recovery are borrowed.”, and “…it would be false pride to believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is a cure-all, even for alcoholism…. Let us constantly remind ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen; that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and that we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants,” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 1957. pp. 224 and 232).

In March 1960, he published an article in The Grapevine, celebrating A.A.’s 25thanniversary with these words:

“No single one of us, nor any single group of us alcoholics got together to invent Alcoholics Anonymous….”

“Where did the Steps come from?”, he asks and responds:

Step One from “the little doctor who loved drunks, William Duncan Silkworth”; Step Twelve from William James, “the father of modern psychology….through his famous book, Varieties of Religious Experience, when my friend Ebby handed me that volume at Towns Hospital immediately following my own remarkable spiritual experience of December 1934.”

“The spiritual substance of our remaining ten steps (Steps 2 through 11) came from Dr. Bob’s and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker.” (The Language of the Heart, 1988. pp. 297-298)

So, as long as I don’t put the poison called “alcohol” into my body no matter how I feel, and as long as I practice spiritual principles from the program and other spiritual sources in my daily life, just as the founders did, I have a better chance of staying sober and of contributing to the continuing growth, development and evolution of the program; to meet the needs of alcoholics yet to be born, and for that I am grateful.

Dan F., Belgium