Updated: May 24, 2022
At the ripe old age of 68 with 35 years of continuous sobriety in AA, I find myself sounding like a cranky old lady bemoaning how much better "it was back in the day". In my day, (oh dear, put me on a soapbox!), my AA sponsor and home group took the 12th step directive of "carrying the message to those who still suffer" seriously. Very seriously. I was taught that those of us who were fortunate enough to get and stay sober, were granted that reprieve though the grace of a Higher Power. That gift of sobriety made us uniquely suited to carrying the message to other alcoholics. Our experience, strength and hope were gifts that would wither away if not shared with others. I came to believe that working with others - humbly, without judgement or expectation, and always with as much love as I was capable of, was the heart of my spiritual practice.
Back then, there was a difference between 12th Step work and service work. Service work was more impersonal - being on committees, making coffee, cleaning ashtrays and putting the chairs away. 12th Step work meant hauling strangers to meetings, answering the help line, sponsoring women, and as radical as this sounds, actually welcoming strangers when they came to a meeting! We had greeters who said hello to everyone coming in the door and chatted them up especially if they were new to the group. We made sure to chase a teary-eyed drunk into the parking lot so they could talk in private rather than let them be alone and upset. We gave our phone numbers away as we do now. The difference was we didn't demand that a newcomer call us first so we could evaluate whether or not they were worth our time. We called them. We overcame our own reluctance to call because it was more important to help than to wallow in our own fear.
Alas, life in AA has changed from the good old days. Today, carrying the message works if you can squeeze it in an hour-long meeting. Catching up with friends is more important than introducing yourself and making conversation with someone new to that meeting space. Chairing a meeting - too many people just can't make that commitment. How many program people support jail meetings or other institutional meetings? How many of us just ignore folks from the treatment courts because "they are just here to get their paper signed". When asked for help, do we say yes or make excuses?
In my experience, 12th Step work requires unselfishness, a willingness to stop looking at your watch, and sacrifice. Uh-oh, sacrifice sounds like something out of a church or horror flick. But I have found that in AA and other 12 step programs, I have to sacrifice my first place in line. I have to put someone else before me. I have to give up my comfort zone, I need to carry the message of recovery whenever there is an opportunity to do so. And I need to help whoever is placed in front of me not just those that are similar to me. As one of my old-timer friends expressed it, "We can't just carry the message to the pretty people."
As I creakily climb off the soap box, I feel a sense of loss. The 12 Step work that I remember was always a little bit scary. But the rewards! Friendship, purpose, spirituality. I don't know how to impart that sense of responsibility and reward to the women I sponsor. In a world where podcasts and Zoom replace so much person to person communication, vulnerability is a catch phrase not a prerequisite for good 12th Step work. Maybe I am just behind the times. But, as long as I am able, I will be out there doing whatever 12th Step work is put in front of me. And I'll be working on that 13th step - dying sober not drunk!
Please let me know what you think. Comments are welcome. I love a good discussion.