John’s Recovery: Steps Six and Seven
AA Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
My Step 6: Commit to a process of self-improvement designed to make me a net contributor to society instead of a net extractor.
AA Step 7: Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.
My Step 7: Continue to focus on self-improvement with the intent to be of service to others.
By John B
One of the most common AA clichés is… “AA is a simple program for complicated people.” Usually this statement is made to a befuddled beginner by a sober alcoholic who is already enjoying the fruits of sober living. Early in recovery I failed to grasp its validity because my alcoholic brain was incapable of connecting the concept of simplicity with the goal of quitting drinking.
As we approached Steps 6 and 7, this cognitive impossibility no longer prevailed.
I saw these two steps as a logical extension of the “over to the care of” decision made at Step 3. Reading, listening, fellowship, service work and mentoring by sober alcoholics were all contributing to the development of a strength of will which enabled me to direct my thinking away from taking a drink. From the outset I never liked the term “character defects”, thus I viewed the main objective at this stage of recovery was simply to alter the old alcoholic self into a new and improved version possessed with the will to measure up to my own values and the willingness to help others.
Here’s what Bill Wilson has to say about the role of willpower for an alcoholic like me: “When he acquires willingness, he is the only one who can make the decision to exert himself. Trying to do this is an act of his own will. All of the Twelve Steps require sustained and personal exertion to conform to their principles and so, we trust to God’s will.” (12 and 12, p. 40) I certainly was not engaging in this recovery process in order to qualify for divine approval but apparently Wilson thinks I’ll automatically qualify. Why he had to clutter up a clear description of the role of personal will with a blob of God gook is beyond me.
The emphasis on self-will in the above quote was comforting because it coincided nicely with my established beliefs, but other Wilsonian positions did not fit neatly. For instance, the first paragraphs at the top of page 76 in the Big Book sounded to me like an invitation to join the men’s prayer group at the local Baptist church. I declined. Then Wilson chooses to begin the chapter ‘Step Six’, in the Twelve and Twelve, with a quote from some unidentified clergyman who states, “This is the step that separates the men from the boys.” (p. 63) I was not willing (a negative application of personal will) to accept the implication that my recovery would be determined by the effects of a purely theistic prayer or that the opinion of an anonymous preacher was worthy of consideration. I went to my sponsor.
As previously noted Louie was a devout Catholic. His version of a higher power was God as taught by the Catholic Church, but he never challenged my choice to use AA and sober alcoholics as my higher power in recovery. As a matter of fact, since he was one of the major contributors to this power source, he was predictably ready with a quip if he thought I needed help with a little ego deflation. His favorite line was, “John, when did you ever learn anything new when you were doing the talking”? Years later I heard the same principle stated differently, “new ideas enter through an open mind, not an open mouth.” Point made, listen more, talk less.
In response to my concerns about Steps 6 and 7, Louie just said, “let’s just keep operating like we did on Step 3, and see where that takes us.” No need to change course. Read the literature with a critical eye, stay connected with my sponsor, stay integrated into the camaraderie, maintain my commitment to step work and refrain from drinking one day at a time.
Further on in the 12 and 12, Wilson eases up a bit on the “entirely ready” part of Step 6. He says this about being entirely ready: “In an absolute sense practically nobody has it. The best we can do, with all the honesty we can summon, is to try to have it.” (p. 66) He may have been thinking about the earlier decision to remove the word “honest” from the term “honest desire” which was the initial requirement for membership in AA. Contrary to what he had been exposed to through his involvement in the Oxford Group, Wilson seemed to be distancing himself from their insistence on absolutes; absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute love, and absolute purity. To illustrate how Oxford Group dogma is kept alive in AA, the Cleveland, Ohio, Central Committee prints and publishes a Four Absolutes pamphlet. In the forward to the pamphlet they point out that the absolutes are “discernible” throughout the twelve steps, but never mention they come directly from the Oxford Group teachings. I wouldn’t question the worthiness of any of these four concepts, maybe purity needs some clarification, but absolutism just doesn’t fit into my quest for and maintenance of sobriety – I much prefer the idea of progress rather than perfection as the most effective way to confront life’s challenges. Self-improvement is one of those challenges.
As we addressed these two steps, two obvious needs were strikingly clear, a fragile beginner like myself needed mentoring, and it would be necessary for me to view the overall process as a series of incremental gains not a linear progression with a clearly defined ending. Incremental and non-linear, those two concepts remind me of something I heard Garrison Keillor say decades ago on the radio show, Prairie Home Companion… “The shortest distance between two points is always under construction.” This revision of the principle of Geometry learned as a sophomore in high school described how I needed to address these two steps.
Self-improvement will be achieved incrementally, and the project as a whole will be under construction for an indeterminate time. I made a commitment to myself and to my sponsor to engage in some intense self-monitoring, and he promised to keep an eye out for any backsliding or complacency. I was now under the gun to demonstrate the stated intention to change with observable behavior. The 12 and 12 does offer some common sense advice: “The only urgent thing is that we make a beginning, and keep trying.” (p. 68)
The first word of Step 7, clearly states it is all about humility. A normal person might ask, “what’s the big deal, just decide to exercise more humility, and do it, be more humble.” For a chronic alcoholic it is a big deal. Humility is the antithesis of three of the most common attributes of an alcoholic: selfishness, arrogance, and false pride, all three of which had been documented in my inventory. It seems to me there is some logic behind the placement of this step at number seven. It allows some time for the newcomer to tap into the camaraderie of AA and to select a sponsor. Equally significant, completion of the early steps produced a series of personal commitments and a body of shared facts that make any further use of denial absurd. A large body of evidence supported two conclusions; major changes were necessary and I needed help to implement those changes.
One of the hardest realities for me to accept was that I alone am responsible for my own happiness. I quoted from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, back at Step 4, about striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal. Frankl developed his theories about the nature of life’s meaning while he spent the bulk of World War II in Nazi internment camps. His wife and parents perished in the camps; he and his sister survived. His story is a powerful portrayal of one of life’s most significant narratives – how to find meaning in suffering. Here’s what he has to say about happiness. “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p.140) Ensue from what? The AA answer to that in the 1980’s would have been “right living”, “do the next right thing.” Dr. Frankl offers us a concise description of what this right living should look like: “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” (p. 115) Commitment to help others makes me a happier and more worthy person – pretty good rule to live by.
Keep it simple!
We are now posting John’s Steps every two weeks, on a Wednesday. Here are his previous Steps:
John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.