CAN WE STILL USE THE
A Look at Standards that Led to the Twelve Steps
by Mel B., Teledo, OH
Now and then, as an AA Old Timer and a casual historian of the Fellowship, I am asked about the Four Absolutes: Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love. That takes more than a few minutes; thus this explanation follows:
As many people in 12-Step programs knows, Alcoholics Anonymous grew out of a movement known in the 1930s as the Oxford Group. Quite strong and influential at the time, the Group went through a name change in 1938 to Moral Re-Armament (MRA) and declined considerably following the death of its founder, Frank Buckman, in 1961. It survives today as a much smaller society with the name, Initiatives of Change, and an office in Washington, D.C. as well as a fine resort hotel in Caux, Switzerland, which serves as an international meeting place.
The Oxford Group did not have the 12 Steps as we know them, but its basic program did contribute directly into the AA program that was first presented in the Fifth Chapter of the text Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book), published in April, 1939. Like AAs, Oxford Group members met together, admitted their faults and sins to one another, made amends for past wrongs, followed regular prayer and meditation, and carried their message to others.
They also honored four standards which became known as The Four Absolutes: Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love. These were clearly adopted by the early AA members in Akron and Cleveland, but were not included in Alcoholics Anonymous and other AA literature that followed. The Cleveland Central Committee of AA publishes and sells a pamphlet about the Absolutes, and some AA members refer to these standards at times.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob S., whom we honor as co-founders of AA, were both members of the Oxford Group; indeed, it was their Oxford Group affiliation that brought them together. Bill would later explain that he and his New York friends left the Oxford Group in 1937, while Dr. Bob and the Akron contingent were Oxford Group members until November, 1939, when they too seperated from this society which had done so much for them. By that time, the Big Book had been published and groups were meeting under the Alcoholics Anonymous name in several cities.
When asked about the Absolutes, AA co-founder Bill W. would explain that they are included in the 12 Steps. He could have added that Honesty is of great importance in AA, along with Unselfishness and Love. But he did worn that the term "Absolute" was to extreme for alcoholics, though he would show that it was necessary to stay away from unselfishness and pursue honesty. He was often critical of himself and felt that he had fallen far short of his ideals.
My belief is that Bill also avoided a direct mention of The Four Absolutes as a tactical measure. As much as
possible, he wanted to distance the early AA fellowship from anything that conected it to the Oxford Group or its founder, Frank Buckman. He always acknowledged AA's dept to the Group, but quickly withdrew from endorsing it. He would also state that AA had no connection to the Group after 1939.
The sound reason for distancing AA from the Group was that an unfortunate interview in 1936 had resulted in a news paper story that had Buckman expressing praise for Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. This was a nasty setback for the Group, because even in 1936 the world was beginning to realize that Hitler was not Mister Nice Guy. The article was unfair to Buckman, however, because some of his statements in the interview were misunderstood by the reporter. But the unfortunate interview may have benefited AA, because it demonstrated the risks of making a political statement and thus may have convinced Bill of the need for what has become the AA preamble.
Another reason why Bill wanted to seperate from the Group was that Catholic officials were beginning to look upon it with suspicion and disfavor. They were rumored to be considering a directive to ban it for Catholics. As Bill commented, "That would have kept a lot of Irishmen from getting sober!"
Despite there problems, the Four Absolutes are still treasured by some AA members and have a secure place in the Fellowship's history. We might find it profitable to look at the history of the Absolutes and trace how they contributed to the origin and the development of AA.
Robert Speer, Henry B. Wright, Frank Buckman
The Absolutes, then called Standards, were first introduced in a 1902 book titled The Principles of Jesus, by Robert E. Speer. Speer as an undergraduate at Princeton University, had been greatly influenced by Dwight L. Moody, the leading American evangelist of the 19th Century. Speer became prominent as a religious leader and author, but his Four Standards were reportedly passed on to Frank Buckman by Henry B. Wright, a highly acclaimed professor of religion at Yale. Buckman, an ordained Lutheran minister, used the Absolutes as guiding ideals. Following a religious conversion experience he had in 1908, he began passing his vision along to others and offering the Absolutes as necessary standards for a new life. This practice survived, and even today the Standards are posted by Initiatives to Change. Individuals in the movement were encouraged to use the Four Standards as yardsticks in measuring the real worth and morality of any decision or action. Later on, Moral Re-Armament publisized the Four Absolutes as an ideology that was the right alternative to the threat of communism.
While AA members rarely call for its absolute form, rigorous honesty is regularly recited as a basic requirement for seeking and finding real sobriety. Despite the depth of our troubles, we can find sanity and sobriety if we possess enough honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to consider the 12-step program and apply it in our lives. Active alcoholism, we soon learn, consists of conciderable self-deception and delusions. Many of us have been
dishonest in our relations with others, but the more serious bar to recovery is that we have been dishonest with ourselves. We have not been willing to accept the fact that we are powerless over alcohol and cannot recover by using our own will power and good intentions. We have been unable or unwilling to admit that we are alcoholics and must seek the same solution that has worked so well for others. We often hear this dishonesty expressed in statements like these: "I still think I'm man enough to handle my liquor," or, "I think I'll be ok if I stay away from the hard stuff and just stick to beer or a glass of wine now and then." My continuing dishonesty while drinking was to return to my old haunts "just to have a Coke and chat with buddies." One or two Cokes, and I'd order a beer or a whisky.
The honesty required for recovery is sometimes called "self-honesty." We might also hear of "cash-register honesty," which simply refers to avoids stealing in its various forms. Beyond that, some of us may have lied about our accomplishments or taken credit for the achievements of others. Any practice that includes bearing false witness is certainly dishonesty. I had been in the Navy in the western Pacific during the last year of World War II. In talking about it, I always made it sound as though I had survived ferocious combat when most of the tour was boring and uneventful.
How can we detect and face dishonesty in ourselves? One way is to face the real motives behind our thoughts and actions. We've all known people who say and do hurtful things under the guise of "just being honest." If we do this, our real motive might be to feel superior by
putting others down rather than to offer constructive criticism. Being truly honest means that we should be kind and considerate in our relationships with others.
We're also probably dishonest when we compare ourselves favorably or unfavorably with others. We some times decided we were doing well because our behavior and conditions were somewhat better than others in the community. We still had a job, and therefore we weren't alcoholic like the poor fellow whose drinking has left him unemployable.
AA groups, in order to help alcoholics become honest about their situation, can use a number of questions to help people decide for themselves wether they had crossed the line into alcoholism. In earlier years, most groups used a set of 20 questions reported to have been developed by doctors at an important university hospital. But these have been replaced by a set of 12 questions issued by AA Publishing that explore such matters as loosing jobs because of drinking, being arrested for drinking, sneaking extra drinks at parties, etc. In order to encourage honesty on the part of a newcomer, a sponsor can review the questions with the person and recall his/her own difficulties in these areas.
We are also seeking honesty when we seek truth, which Emmet Fox listed as one of the Seven Main Aspects of God. Many of us believe that God is Truth, and that there is a Spirit of Truth that can lead us to the right thoughts, the right decissions, and the right outcomes. Some of us use this saying from Shakespeare: "To thine own self be true, and thou can'st be false to any man." If we seek honesty, honesty will find us.
Purity was the second absolute of the Oxford Group and in their view it clearly referred to one's thoughts, feelings, and actions in sexual matters. Since Lust is classified as a deadly sin, the Oxford folks unequivocally denounced it and made no provision for occasional "recreational" sex. Frank Buckman, according to a major biographer, believed that sexual indiscretions were major problems with people he counseled. In fact, he was apparently barred from the Princeton University campus for discussing sex too openly with students---something college authorities frowned on in the 1920s. But since Buckman never married, some critics have believed he was really a suppressed homosexual who may have had a prurient interest in the sex lives of young men, though there is no proof to support this accusation. The Oxford Group also considered Masturbation and homosexuality sinful.
What ever the Oxford Group's views may have been, AA managed to take a more conciliatory approach to sex matters. On page 81 on the very first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, it's conceded that many of us "needed an overhauling" in the area of sex. But it calls for us to be sensible about the question. We are urged to shape a sane and sound ideal for our future sex life. "We subjected each relation to this test---was it selfish or not? We asked God to mold our ideals and help us live up to them.... God alone can judge our sex situation. Counsel with persons is often desirable, but we let God be the final judge. We realize that some people are as fanatical about sex as others are loose. We avoid hysterical thinking or advice."
Since this was written, several "S" groups have been formed, using the 12 Steps to deal with what is now recognized as sexual addiction. At least one of these societies takes a firm position on sex that could be described as demanding Absolute Purity. Others deal with it in a slightly less regid manner. At the same time, society in general has become more open about sex issues. Purity, as a term and an ideal, seems to have fewer and fewer advocates with the passing of time.
But if AA wanted to use the term in an effective way, it could be applied to our basic position on drinking. Here, Absolute Purity regarding alcohol is necessary for recovery and survival. Alcoholics must positively and absolutely abstain from any alcoholic beverage. One drink, a casual beverage for most people, is a deadly trigger for alcoholics. It's also dangerous even to think about drinking. Going into a bar just to have a Coke and chat with buddies is usually risky over the long term.
This was not understood in the years before AA came into existence. Alcoholics were sometimes represented as persons suffering from some terrible event in the past, and it was assumed that getting over such traumas would allow them to become controlled drinkers. We now know that this was wrong, and that alcoholics who do straighten out their lives temporarily will soon be in trouble again if they decide to drink. One drink is the trigger.
In addition to the "S" groups that grapple with sex addiction, we now have 12-Step groups facing other problems. Simply to call something "Anonymous" means
that it is probably a society dealing with certain human problems. All of the more successful ones, like AA, tend to accept Absolute Purity in dealing with their specific problems. Compulsive Gamblers must sidestep any form of gambling, including those that seem fairly innocent. A compulsive overeater must stick to a food plan that eliminates any use of things that trigger an eating binge. A sex addict must put aside salacious magizines and other things that arouse lust. A compulsive spender is advised to cut up credit cards in order to avoid the actions that lead to out-of-control spending and overwhelming debts.
The same principal of excluding those first actions that lead to trouble would undoubtedly be applicable to the management of most human problems.
One thing we do know for certain: Absolute Purity in avoiding alcohol does work.
While it's doubtful that we'll ever become absolutely unselfish, AA writings has shown that we should seek unselfishness as an ideal. We need nothing more than this paragraph from Chapter Five of the Big Book to show why we should strive for unselfishness:
"Selfishness---self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes on our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly, without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decissions based on self, which later placed us in a position to be hurt."
This is painful to read in the beginning, but as time goes on we can begin to understand how selfish we had become while drinking. The need to seek the alcoholic oblivion became the focus of our lives and crowded out the duties and responsibilities of normal living. We often neglected our families, cheated our employers, betrayed our friends, and avoided our creditors. When it appeared that we had injured or wronged others, our first thought often was about what might happen to us rather than concern for the victims.
Even in AA, we cannot seem to avoid being selfish. Some have even said that "AA is a selfish program, something we follow for ourselves." This is perhaps true, but what we should be seeking is the unselfishness that makes us fit instruments for carrying out God's will in our lives. We might begin by admitting without reservations that selfishness is a contributing factor in our alcoholism and that we need a thorough and radical change.
One way to go about making such a change is to except group responsibilities that we'd rather ignore. I recall doing this a number of times just because of the improvements it made in my self-esteem. During my first year of sobriety, I worked a midnight shift in a factory and had not been able to sleep during the day. Just as I was about to catch a few hours of sleep, an AA friend called with an urgent problem. The result was that I went to work at midnight without having slept since the prior shift, but I felt as though I had chipped away at my selfishness. It has been good to go out of my way to take people to meetings and to be concerned about people in trouble. Sometimes it's nice to do a good thing and not expect credit for it. I
10don't have to be first in line for everything and I no longer try to impress others with my knowledge.
It's also been good to recognize that fear has been the root of my selfishness. Growing up in the Great American Depression of the 1930s, I shared with others the fear that we would never have enough---that poverty would be my natural state. The cure for this, I thought, was to acquire money and possessions. I did not look upon God as the source of my supply, and always feared that something would happen to leave me destitute. It has taken considerable effort to release that fear.
As a selfish person, it's been good for me to attend meetings with people from all groups and society. I once hated and feared people in the upper stratum of society, but AA has shown me how wrong I was and that some wealthy people can be more troubled than those of us in the rank and file. And though I'd spent some time on the street, I did have negative feelings towards panhandlers and people who slept in missions. It was good to discover that both the drunken millionaire and the wino on the street can be my brothers and sisters in recovery.
I can thank God for a program that can modify our selfishness. I thank God also for the example of Bill W., who fought a continuing battle with his own selfishness. One way he did it was with the following prayer, which appears on pages 101-102 of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace---that were there is hatred, I may bring love---that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness---that where there is
discord, I may bring harmony---that where there is error, I may bring truth---that where there is doubt, I may bring faith---that where there is dispair, I may bring hope---that where there are shadows, I may bring light---that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted---to understand, than to be understood---to love than to be loved, For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life. Amen.
On a warm day in July, 1950, a frail, ailing man found his way to a platform in Cleveland and gave a brief message that included the following: "Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resort themselves in the words 'love' and 'service.' We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let's bear those two things in mind."
These were some of Dr. Bob's last words for the Fellowship, delivered at the First International Convention of AA, only four months before his passing. He was a loving man who felt that you could show your love through service in AA. He was also a devotee of Henry Drummond's The Greatest Thing in the World, a classic 1887 talk about the ingredients of love as decribed by St. Paul in I Corinthians 13. Still in print, Drummond's great sermon can be read in twenty minutes. Dr. Bob said that if you would read it everyday for thirty days, it would change your life.
I Corinthians 13 is one of the most eloquent passages in the Holy Bible. It begins with these marvelous words:
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not Love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all Faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Love, it profiteth nothing."
Drummond then showed how St. Paul defined Love by breaking it down into its separate ingredients, just as a man of science might take a beem of light and pass it through a crystal prism thus breaking it down into its component colors. In the same way, St. Paul offered a Spectrum of Love with nine ingredients:
||"Love suffereth long."
||"And is kind."
||"Love envieth not."
||"Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up."
||"Doth not behave itself unseemly."
||"Seeketh not her own."
||"Is not easily provoked."
||"Thinketh no evil."
||"Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth."
If a person's living expresses all of these ingredients, could we call it Absolute Love? Not quite, perhaps, but those who show all of these qualities stand out as extraordinary human beings. I believe that Dr. Bob displayed those qualities in the 16 years he lived to carry the AA message to hundreds of alcoholics in the Midwest. And
while a few people have been critical of Bill W. since his passing in 1971, I knew him personally, helped write Pass It On, and can say that Bill expressed those qualities in his life and work.
I was, in particular, interested in the astonishing spiritual experience Bill had in New York's Towns Hospital in late 1934. In 1956, I wrote to Bill about it, convinced that this blazing event had really changed Bill's life in a few seconds and could even be called the real start of AA.
I received a wonderful letter that reflected Bill's humility as well as his kindness and generosity. He felt that all of us can have spiritual transformations, though usually on a more gradual basis. As for the sudden, blazing type of experience he had undergone, he referred me to a 1901 book titled Cosmic Consciousness, authored by a Canadian psychiatrist named Richard Maurice Bucke. (In May, 1976 the AA Grapevine published my article by the same name, which described Cosmic Consciousness and how it related to the founding of AA. Later on, I was able to discuss the subject in other publications.)
Bucke's book, which went through numerous reprintings, was a study in the evolution of the human mind. He identified three levels of human consciousness, the first being Simple consciousness, which we share with many animals and is really our state in the first months after birth. The next level is Self consciousness, which sets human beings above the animals and has given us high intelligence, use of tools, and abstract reasoning powers.
Our real destiny, however, is to be transformed by the Cosmic Sense, which will someday become common to all people.
This is Cosmic Consciousness. Bucke described this in some detail and listed people in history such as Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, and Isaiah, who have had such experiences. A common factor in all of these experiences could easily be called Absolute Love.
Since studying Bucke's remarkable book, I've read numerous accounts of people whose lives have been changed by profound spiritual experiences. This was the subject of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, which Bill read while still a patient in Towns Hospital. In all of these cases cited by James, people were defeated in some controlling area in their lives, human efforts to solve their problems failed, but when they turned to Higher Power, relief came.
For my part, I've concluded that Cosmic Consciousness can also be called the Mind of God. We can also call it Amazing Grace, and some people call it the Indwelling Christ.
If we choose, we might also call it Absolute Love and we can find it wherever we are and regardless of our current conditions.
For what it's worth, I have adapted the lovely old hymn, Amazing Grace, for the recovering alcoholic. Here it is, a hymn to Absolute Love:
Adapted by Mel B.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
It saved a drunk like me.
I was once lost, but now I'm found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T'was Grace that brought sobriety,
Twelve steps that I could use.
Restored my life to sanity,
With freedom from the booze.
In fellowship with AA friends,
I found my rightful place.
A way of life that never ends,
A gift that came from Grace.
If I could live ten thousand years,
Through times of change and strife.
I'd trust God's Grace in facing fears,
For that redeemed my life.