FOLLOWING a recent noon AA meeting,
a member I scarcely knew said that he wanted a word
with me. He appeared very agitated as we stepped into
the privacy of an adjoining room. Naturally, I thought
he wanted my advice on a serious personal problem. But
I was in for a rude shock.
It turned out that I was the problem!
More specifically, the language I had
used during the closed meeting was the problem. He said
that it was offensive to his wife and several other
members. He had apparently monitored my discussions
for some time, and had finally decided to say something.
I accepted the criticism with as much
grace as possible. But inwardly I began to boil. For
one thing, this noon group was known for raunchy discussions
and highly colorful language, so why was I being singled
out? And who was this fellow to set himself up as an
arbiter of AA talk? Beyond that, why did he have to
be so cutting and belittling in the way he talked to
me? For a moment, I felt like dragging him back into
the meeting room and demanding a verdict from the group
on the entire matter of off-color language.
But sanity prevailed. It usually does,
despite my inner feelings. I mumbled a lame apology
and moved away. As I reviewed the incident later, I
began to realize that it contained some valuable lessons
for me. I had to admit that I wasn't really carrying
the AA message effectively if the nature of my discussions
offended people who were seeking help. It was also likely
that I had said other things which this member resented,
and that more care and thought would improve the quality
of my contributions at discussion meetings. I could
also see that to accept such criticism without hitting
back was a useful exercise in self-control.
But the most valuable lesson contained
in the incident was this: It showed me how far I really
need to go in the search for humility. It didn't take
much reflection to realize that I resented the criticism
because my pride had been hurt. Pride is at the root
of many of my personal problems, and when my pride is
injured, I can feel a certain type of anger connected
with it. The most common effect of hurt pride is to
make me almost unable to talk or to think rationally.
I have not progressed to the point of being able to
turn off such feelings, but I have worked out a way
of stalling off additional trouble when pride is attacking
me. It consists of reminding myself that only my pride
is being injured, and that I cannot really evaluate
the current problem until cool off. I also remind myself
that some day I hope to find the humility to rise above
such conditions. But, as most AA members readily admit,
humility is a difficult thing to find.
I have heard humility defined as a state
of being teachable. In that sense, most of us who are
able to stay sober have acquired at least a smattering
of it, or we never would have learned how to stay away
from the first drink. AA's good friend of our early
years, the late Father Edward Dowling, said that the
shortest cut to humility is via humiliations, which
active alcoholism offers in abundance. This tells me
that all of us in AA are humble in certain areas, though
we dare not boast of it.
Humility is also characterized by the
absence of aggressive self-assertion, the sort of arrogant
behavior that many of us displayed when we were riding
high in our drinking days. AA co-founder Bill W. seemed
to have a strong feeling for this aspect of humility.
He admitted to colossal pride, both before and after
finding sobriety. It is likely that if Bill had not
been able to make terms with his fierce pride, Alcoholics
Anonymous might have been damaged or destroyed in its
formative years. And it is obvious that Bill conquered
pride in the way that he conquered alcohol--by first
admitting that he was powerless over it.
There are also signs that humility may
be closely related to honesty. Perhaps this is what
we're talking about in AA when we present the triad
of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness as conditions
necessary for success in the program. If a person practices
self-honesty, is open-minded about the need for change,
and is willing to seek improvement, he certainly has
I suppose the reason I have made such
slow progress in becoming "teachable in all things"
is that pride is intimately associated with my meager
self-esteem. Time and again, I have stubbornly clung
to false ideas and positions because I really feared
that I would be left defenseless and annihilated if
I admitted having been wrong. Anything that hints of
"backing down" or "surrendering"
seems distasteful to many of us. But. I have always
found later that my self-esteem actually soared when
I was able to push pride into the background and truly
face the facts of a problem. I suspect that people with
true humility have more genuine self-esteem than those
of us who are repeatedly victimized by pride. And this,
undoubtedly, is a function of the self-honesty that
goes hand in hand with humility. A person who rigorously
practices self-honesty tends to have a fairly accurate
understanding of himself and his personal qualifications.
Unfair criticism docs not reach his heart, because he
knows it is not true. At the same time, he does not
have a neurotic need for constant praise and reassurance,
and he is willing to accept himself for what he really
is and to work patiently for improvement.
In my opinion, Alcoholics Anonymous
has three great humility Steps in the twelve-point program.
These are Steps One, Five, and Ten. The First Step--admitting
that one is powerless over alcohol--is the newcomer's
task, and without it nobody ever gets far in AA. The
Fifth Step--admitting the nature of one's wrongs to
another person--is the short-timer's task, something
that usually should be completed during the first several
years of sobriety. But the Tenth Step is the task all
of us have in our search for humility, because it suggests
that we always need to continue to take personal inventory
and when we are wrong, promptly admit it. This puts
the admission and inventory Steps on a daily basis,
and is usually our answer when things go wrong even
after years of sobriety.
Pride has devious ways of diverting
me from thorough and continuing attention to the Tenth
Step. The first temptation is to focus exclusively on
wrongs of the drinking past. It is comfortable and convenient
to talk about the way I used to be, rather than about
what I am doing today that is wrong. Nobody in or out
of AA is going to hold it against me that I behaved
badly and used obscene language when I was drinking.
Many people are even beguiled into thinking that I am
showing unusual honesty in talking about those hideous
sins of the past. Actually, this is really nothing more
than "the pride which apes humility." It is
possible to obtain considerable approval while relating
the wrongs of a spectacular drinking career. The before-and-after
contrast can be so marked that nobody thinks to ask
what I am doing about my current shortcomings.
I am also swayed from good Tenth Step
work by the temptation to call attention to the wrongs
of my critics. In the case of the AA member who objected
to my language, I started to sputter something about
his obvious defect of cherishing resentment. But of
what benefit is that to me? If I am wrong, it makes
no difference whether my shortcomings are pointed out
by saints in pure linen or by sinners in fouled burlap.
My shortcomings are my own burden and responsibility.
It is futile to use the shortcomings of others as an
excuse for not facing my own faults. This is akin to
the alcoholic's refusal to admit his own drinking problem
because he sees others who are apparently worse.
I also find that progress slows down
when I resort to the "Haven't I done well enough?"
excuse. I am now in my twenty-fourth year of sobriety
and may soon be able to say that I have spent half a
lifetime in AA. I have fought and won savage battles
with mental depressions, resentments, self-pity, immaturity,
job difficulties, and human relations. In overcoming
some of the more severe problems of my life, I have
been able to make wonderful and rewarding progress.
It is certainly tempting to demand the opportunity to
rest at the oars and put this inventory business in
But there is something in our natures
that requires us to go forward if we do not want to
slip back into the problems of yesterday. That something
is pride, I suppose. Almost every step of the way, I
find that pride is nipping at my heels. Moreover, I
suspect that my victories over personal problems are
much like the victory over drinking. They are merely
daily victories and depend on my willingness to practice
self-honesty, whether I like it or not.
I usually don't like it, just as I didn't
like it very well when my use of had language was criticized.
But in AA, all of us should continue to be students
as well as teachers. We can always learn if we remain
teachable, and we will be teachable if we refuse to
let pride interfere with the learning process. Humility--whether
it is called teachability or self-honesty--is the pathway
to continued improvement in the quality of our sobriety,
and all of us want that.