John’s Recovery: Step Twelve

By John B

AA Step 12: 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.

My Step 12: Strive to serve as an example that sobriety is achievable and rewarding and be willing to help others to attain it.

The decision to accept the mentorship of a select few sober alcoholics was challenging and at the same time both enjoyable and rewarding. The wording of Step 12 immediately activated my skepticism (not hard to do) because from a chronological perspective it is illogical. Wilson wrote the book throughout 1938 and it was published in 1939. Whomever the pronoun “we” is alluding to could not “have had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps” because the steps did not exist for them to refer to. Step 12 has three distinct parts and I’ll try to address each one, but first I’ll point out one of AA’s many idiosyncrasies.

Throughout my AA experiences (39+ years), I have noticed that some of AA’s minute details seem to demand pontification, and there has always been a pontificator ready to spring into action. I did refer to my Oxford Language Guide to make sure I wasn’t misusing the word pontificator – does pompous dogmatist ring a bell? The word “the” in Step 12 is one of those tiny details. The group I attend has a self-appointed pontificator ready to pounce if anyone shares that they have had “a” spiritual awakening. OK, maybe the word “the” carries with it a connotation of more specialness, or more explicitness, but so what? An awakening is only the beginning of a process the value of which is yet to be determined in the unforeseen future. There is no need for any demand for mathematical preciseness here.

The time frame encompassed by my step work has escaped me. I don’t recall the number of months I had been alcohol free when we arrived at Step 12, but the word “awakening” is an accurate way to describe some of my newfound perspectives. Most importantly, the admission to myself that I had to enlist the help of someone or something to supplement my own capabilities was special. For four years I had paid lip service to the idea but had never had accepted it as absolutely necessary, and here something that Wilson had written was actually helpful.

In Appendix II of the Big Book, Wilson states, “Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the ‘educational variety’ because they develop slowly over a period of time.” This appendix was added to the second printing of The Book to defuse the opinion that all spiritual experiences had to be of the colossal form previously described by Mr. Wilson – the most prominent of which was the “bright light” experience when he was in the hospital heavily medicated. The James quotation led me to the conclusion that rationality and spirituality are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The term “educational variety” clearly implies the use of our power to reason and the idea that a person’s spirituality develops “slowly over time” implies to me that it can be experiential in nature. This line of thinking negates the necessity to believe that spirituality comes from some sort of cosmic blast devoid of any explanation except for the commonly applied default position,  “God did it.”

I hear the word miracle used a lot in AA meetings when people stand up to receive a token for another year of sobriety – their sobriety, they say, is a miracle bestowed upon them by the grace of God. I find that absurd, but I also believe that I have no right to argue the point. What disturbs me the most about that claim is that it is demeaning to all those individuals who I know invested heavily in the person’s recovery. Here we are at Step 12 where we are challenged to carry the message of sobriety and when we succeed God gets the credit. Pure nonsense.

Throughout my 35+ years of continuous sobriety it has been comforting to discover support for the humanistic, agnostic, support for some 12 step principles. Here’s a recent one: “A humanistic morality rests on the universal bedrock of reason and human interests: it’s an inescapable feature of the human condition that we’re all better off if we help each other and refrain from hurting each other.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, p. 429). I’m sure professor Pinker would see value in Step 12.

Here’s something more personal, something any one of us might view as a pay-off. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl sees this reward for selflessness: “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… In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”(p. 115). One day at a time I try to be a net contributor to society, not a net extractor.

From a practical standpoint, anyone claiming to have completed the first 11 steps would have already begun to “practice these steps in all our affairs” beginning with the honesty in Step 1. Whether it is spiritual or not can be debated, but the most significant awakening I experienced was somewhat of a paradox. My consistent reliance on the mentorship of others, the concession that my will alone had failed to keep me sober, acted as the catalyst to re-awaken the personal attributes necessary to maintain my commitment to sobriety. Help from the outside created strength on the inside. The foundation of my recovery and the contribution it makes to the consistent serenity that I now enjoy is based on building and maintaining quality personal relationships.


For a PDF of all his Steps, click here: John’s Recovery: The 12 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.


“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book


7 Responses

  1. Richard K. says:

    One Drunk talking to another Drunk!!! Yes yes yes!!!!

  2. Bob K says:

    Excellent essay with some VERY interesting insights. Thanks for all the work you’ve put into this. I’m certain it’s been rewarding.

    Whatever fireworks Bill Wilson experienced, and wherever that all took place (an earlier draft of Bill’s Story had it in his kitchen after the Ebby visit), he made fun of it a bit by calling it his “hot flash.” His critical idea, IMO, was the vision of a chain of one alcoholic helping the next and in doing so, helping himself.

    Wilson didn’t know it, but drunks helping other drunks has been THE most effective route to the rehabilitation of alcoholics in the history of mankind. Trust me–I’ve done the research. Besides the famed Washingtonians, there have been MANY other groups such as the ribbon clubs, the Keeley Leagues, the Samaritans, various Templar groups, and many others. Jerry McAuley’s mission would fall in the “religious conversion” camp, but the “hallelujah” elements were probably secondary to the community and helping aspects.

    Once more, thanks for some fine twelfth step work that these essays surely are.

    • Daniel says:

      According to the Big Book, our very lives as ex-problem drinkers depend on our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs.

    • John B. says:

      Bob: Your comments on the website always provoke more thought on my end. Thanks for your contributions to and the support to AA Agnostica. John B.

  3. Richard K. says:

    WOW!!! I would love to meet John!!! I was told to not be a taker. A contributor not an extractor. My sponsor is an atheist. I am not. He has been my only sponsor. He is a good man. I had the educational variety. He never jammed the Big Book on me. He allowed me to have my own experience. I am so thankful to him for that.

    • John B. says:

      Richard: Thanks for taking the time to reply. Thoughtful mentors have saved a lot of us; if we’re lucky maybe we can do the same for others. John B.

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