This is not the first time you may have heard me being down on the Daily Reflections, and it won’t be the last, but I’m going to approach it a bit more systematically in this article.
I realize that the futility ranking of this project is on level with a scientific treatise on why they sell more Christmas trees in December than in July. I should have just thrown the damn thing over my shoulder and never looked back. But here we go anyway.
“I AM A MIRACLE”
The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, p. 25
This truly is a fact in my life today, and a real miracle. I always believed in God, but could never put that belief meaningfully into my life. Today, because of Alcoholics Anonymous, I now trust and rely on God, as I understand Him; I am sober today because of that! Learning to trust and rely on God was something I could never have done alone. I now believe in miracles because I am one!
They do give you a five day break without god after this one so you can recover a bit, but this is how the Daily Reflections start on January 1st. It sets the general tone.
Bill Wilson had indeed said more or less outright that the purpose of AA is not so much sobriety as it is bringing us closer to god. For instance in the Big Book (page 29) he talks about the stories in the back of the book: “Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view…” – and then, not “the way he recovered” – but “the way he established his relationship with God”.
Daily Reflections was published in 1990 when I was just a few years sober. We were happy to see it at the time: we needed something. The 24 Hours a Day from Hazelden was popular, though not with me. I thought it was way too religious. The Daily Reflections turned out to not be much better in that respect. I would even say it is worse, because so much of it makes no real sense. Just people mindlessly yakking AA lingo, as in the quote above. I’m a miracle too, but do we have to check our brain at the door?
There isn’t much information about its origins. The General Service Conference decided to undertake making it in May of 1987. I joined AA History Lovers in preparation for writing about this and one member there reports that:
I’ve used over 30 daily reflection books over the years & a few years ago when I started to go through the AA Daily Reflections book. I found it to be a little on the weak side compared to many other ones I’ve worked with. I didn’t find it worth my time so I moved on to another one. I asked around about it & was told by a friend at GSO that when they were putting together the book & asking for submissions to be included from members of the fellowship, they didn’t get much of a response. The normal editing process for a book like this would be that they get more submissions than they need & then they exclude the weaker ones & include the better ones. In this case they didn’t do that because they didn’t have more than needed, they just had about 365 of them so they just included them all, whether they were inspirational/profound or not. That explains why my experience with the book is that it’s not something I would recommend to my Sponsees.
From Michelle Mirza, the GSO archivist I got the following, which seems to agree:
In October 1988, the trustees’ Literature committee reported the following with regard to the response of the mailing:
“In response to a summer mailing to all delegates with guidelines for submitting manuscripts, material has been arriving at the General Service Office almost daily. The article in the October/November issue of Box 4-5-9 inviting contributions is resulting in additional manuscripts. The subcommittee plans to review manuscripts in December with the hope of having material for the committee to see in January.”
However by January 1989, in a report of the status of this project, the trustees’ Literature committee reported that there were an insufficient number of manuscripts suitable for publication and that the deadline for receiving additional manuscripts be extended to April 1…
Finally, in 1990, the General Service Conference approved a daily reflections book… (and) the first printing of Daily Reflections was completed in September 1990.
In the Foreword in the book it says they received 1300 contributions.
My problem with the book is that I think that a particularly god-focused group of editors must have been responsible for how it turned out, that it seems to follow a particular formula, and it still puzzles me. Let me explain.
There are probably a couple of dozen daily readings in there which one might call secular in the sense that they do not have any religious message in them (even if maybe a “spiritual” one), but the vast majority follow this script:
No matter what the beginning quote, and no matter what the following “reflection” says about that quote, and even no matter whether or not it even says something intelligent, or coherent about that reflection, which is far from always the case – somehow, even if there has been nothing up to that point to warrant it – they invoke god in (usually) the last three lines. Gratitude toward god, or just plain talking about the things god does in the ordinary course of existence which apparently can’t be otherwise understood. There is an obsessive quality about it which it seems couldn’t have happened at random if they indeed just barely got enough responses to put the book together. There must be more at work. Or is it really just me having a god persecution complex?
Anyway, I will try to support this in the following. I eventually got statistical, though it took a couple of hours, and I divided the daily entries into 3 groups. I did not single out the perhaps 50 entries which were about the traditions, and those were more likely to be of a secular nature:
The religious, where god is the most important part of whatever is being talked about. The ones where AA shows the side of itself where it is more of a religion than a recovery program. And you just can’t get all religious without talking a bunch about god, so those are nothing but, such as January 1st. There were 34 days of that.
Those entries where a god or higher power is invoked for no good reason, such as where a person may be talking in a perfectly sane and sensible manner about their subject, but then feels compelled to thank god at the end, or in some other manner get Him involved. There were 208 days of that.
The secular ones. I have to confess that there were more secular ones than I had expected. I did define secular as broadly as I felt able to do, including quite a few which generically talked about spirituality, some which in passing mentioned faith, in a couple of instances even prayer – however, so long as they didn’t specifically refer to a deity, but only to the state of being as it relates to a person themselves, and one for quoting the 6th step where the reflection itself did not invoke god. There were 124 days of these, and my broad definition may include about 20 which some people would say belong to category 2.
So the overwhelming majority invoke a god in some manner. What I find so annoying about these is that with the majority of them it is entirely unnecessary. They would have been every bit as meaningful without. Someone offhandedly remarking how grateful he or she is to their god or higher power, where they could simply have said they were grateful.
Take May 19, “Giving Without Strings”. A bit naïve like much in this book is, but otherwise much in tune with the strong core aspects of the program – until they throw in “my life is full of a loving god of my understanding…” – a piece which could just as well have been left out, and the reflection would have said exactly the same with respect to its applicability to the real world.
Then take May 20, it talks about “One Day at a Time”. A fine reflection for that day and without any deities invoked. But of course they *could* just as well have taken the opportunity to thank their higher power for it.
When I sit in a meeting and say I’m offended over something like May 19, and the religious people get offended over me being offended, I sometimes ask, now what about May 20, are you offended that they did *not* invoke their higher power on that day? I usually get blank stares in response. Well, if you weren’t offended that no god was mentioned on May 20, then couldn’t it also have been left out on May 19 where it was absolutely uncalled for? I usually get another blank stare for that.
It doesn’t seem to register how offensive it may be to some whenever all the god talk is there.
While there are a few dozen good, and even some “very good” entries (for instance January 12), many of the reflections by agnostic standards do seem unusually naïve or even irrational for having been published so relatively late in the century.
I credit this book with much of the fundamentalism that has taken root since its publication. Many places where I find myself in meetings it is read at the beginning, and its overwhelmingly god-laden material sets the tone for the whole meeting. I even sometimes go to a Living Sober meeting where the first half, or more, is taken up with discussing the daily reflection, as are all the other meetings there during the week. Results in an awful lot of god talk before we can get to the Living Sober part.
In the end it’s difficult to say whether they indeed got enough contributions. Further investigation into this book’s history could include looking into who were the people on that literature committee, and the people who selected the stories, and were they edited? Did they say hey, we better throw a god comment in here and there, or was that truly from the people submitting the stories? I imagine this would be in the area of the almost impossible. I just have this funny feeling that something’s not quite right about it all.
All in all, the book is offensive. All the more since it was not put together in the 1930s or 40s, but in more modern times. Offensive in light of the requests non-believers have made for material to support our recovery better, starting more than a decade before publication of this book. Not possible, apparently. But more of this religious stuff? No problem, it seems. Hopefully the times will be changing.
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But then, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
We do have other daily readers which are better. There is Touchstones from Hazelden (written for men) and though it still has quite a bit of god stuff in it, it’s a much better book. Mostly because the authors seem to not have checked their brains at the door while that’s mostly the case with Daily Reflections.
Then we have of course Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life by Joe C. which was published in early 2013. We (my girlfriend and I) have been using various readers for a few years, and we were grateful when we found Joe’s book.
He’s using an amazingly broad range of quotes – from Mother Teresa to Albert Einstein – for his daily reflections, which take us into philosophical areas often not touched on at all by most recovery literature.
My absolute personal favorite is 365 TAO by Deng Ming Dao. We’ve all been discussing whether and how AA is or should be “spiritual but not religious”. 365 TAO accomplishes this better than anything else I’ve seen.
This last year we used Forgiving & Moving On by Tian Dayton. We weren’t particularly happy with it, though it did help us look at how forgiveness is every bit as important as making amends. Still too much god stuff, though not as bad as the Daily Reflections, so it got us through this last year’s mornings. For the new year so far we don’t have anything. So for myself, and for all of us I would like to ask all of you to tell about your favorite daily readers, it would be a good resource for us to have a list of them.
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So we do have some choices for daily readers. We don’t have to read about god 242 out of 365 days of the year. It’s a shame that with this as with many other issues we non-believers have to look outside AA for good books, or write our own. The worst of it is of course that many doubters and non-believers in mainstream AA never get exposed to those alternatives. So all they have is books like the Daily Reflections which promote an interventionist deity to such an extent that its suggestions in many cases are not only useless to a non-believer, but often quite offensive.
While we have seen signs that the General Service Board is staffed by open-minded people, the General Service Conference which makes all the decisions for AA literature seems bent on exercising “tyranny of the majority” by keeping all of AA as Christian as possible. Some of our early literature has specifically Christian roots. What Bill wrote in 1938 with three years of sobriety is forgivable. The way Bill’s every word from those beginnings is canonized while his later writings are ignored is not.
The publishing of a book like the Daily Reflections fifty years later when we should all have known better or the recent pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality” is deeply shameful and offensive for an organization which claims to be “spiritual, not religious”.
Wake up, AA.