by Alan G.

“As an A.A. member, I am an anarchist who revels in liberty” (Our Great Responsibility, p. 27). I believe if I had heard those words spoken by Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, on my first day of getting sober, I might never have wanted to leave the rooms again. Of course without working the steps my chances of staying sober were slim. But the philosophy that serves as the foundation for A.A’s success has been a primary factor for my continued sobriety. All knowledge of alcoholics and alcoholism leading up to that fateful meeting between Bill W. and Dr. Bob would have everyone believe that a society of drunks helping drunks was an impossibility. It turns out that lunatics running the asylum can actually produce miracles around the world.

Our Fellowship would find in our principles of recovery a sufficient containing power to hold us in unity

Published in April 2019, Our Great Responsibility includes sixteen of Bill W.’s talks at the General Service Conference between 1951 and 1970. He narrates the precarious birth of the General Service Conference, the tumultuous growing pains as the Conference took hold of its intended purpose, the maturity of the service structure as the Fellowship rapidly expanded, and finally the adult phase of a global organization whose function is to forever be unorganized. Reading through the talks, I felt Bill’s amazement witnessing the unlikely development of A.A.’s service structure. He shares his sense of humility, acceptance and grace and the history of the Conference. The guiding presence of a higher power, an ultimate authority, resonates down through the years as Bill’s tone fluctuates from emotional effluence to wizened analysis of the miraculous gift spreading worldwide among those beaten to within inches of their own lives.

Bill talks us through the big changes faced by this experimental society of sobriety: the writing of the book, the explosion in membership and the formation of the Foundation. The loss of Dr. Bob and the birth of the General Service Conference all happened within the first fifteen years. Even through the darkest times of A.A.’s adolescence Bill refers to what he calls the language of the heart. He expressed a strong belief that a society of “drunks helping drunks” could work like the 12 steps to change in alcoholics’ lives. He witnessed a psychic transformation in the Fellowship as a whole as it gradually placed its trust in the leaderless leadership.

Bill always stayed focused on A.A.’s primary purpose. “Everybody in a certain sense is a leader in this Society. Everybody who carries the language of the heart to the man or gal still suffering; this is the supreme leadership. This is the greatest trusted errand. But there are those of us who find ourselves cast into assignments of service leadership, and this is nothing but a specialty in which we are supposed to become expert and dedicated in the task of making the primary leadership possible. If the light is to be carried to the newcomer, he has to be brought within reach of it. This is our business here. It is the business of every intergroup association, every group committee” (pp. 161-162).

People who worked on preparing the book were moved by reading these long-archived talks of Bill’s

During that first decade the ever-present doom of dissolution became the fertile ground from which a vibrant fellowship sprung. Much like the gift of desperation guides the suffering alcoholic to the life raft of sobriety, so did those fledgling groups cling desperately to what they were building to protect the gift of sobriety at all costs. The traditions evolved during that period of adolescence as groups discovered how best to carry the message. They survived through trial and error, sometimes overreaching and other times overly cautious in their acceptance of change. “Then came the test whether our growing groups could live and work together — whether the enormous, explosive, neurotic quality of our Fellowship would find in our principles of recovery a sufficient containing power to hold us in unity” (p. 41).

Simultaneously, the Alcoholic Foundation (now known as the General Service Office, or G.S.O.) and the individual groups learned the lessons which informed the creation of the traditions. Each discovered their own path towards a shared understanding of how Alcoholics Anonymous would survive. The rapidly growing society of alcoholics — many of whom were crushed morally, physically and spiritually upon entering the Fellowship — brought the question of leadership into sharp focus for Bill. These old-timers knew recovery depended on faith in a power greater than themselves. So, it turned out, did our unity.

A.A. progress can be reckoned in terms of just two words: humility and responsibility

A momentous shift in A.A’s service structure occurred at the 1965 General Service Conference. The balance of trustees shifted from a majority of Class A non-alcoholic trustees to a majority of Class B alcoholic trustees in 1966. The fate of the society was in their hands. A.A. had come of age and the tumultuous growing period evolved into a stable service structure. Its foundation was traditions and principles for adapting to whatever challenges the future held.

Bill’s talk at the 1965 convention resonated with an aura of grace. His words conveyed a sense of calm reassurance for the fellowship’s capability to meet its responsibilities. Early on in my own path of service in A.A. I heard a quote from this talk, “As we know, all A.A. progress can be reckoned in terms of just two words: humility and responsibility” (p. 84).

Alcoholics Anonymous may never again have to trudge through the challenges of those first 20 years, but change is constant. Our ability to adapt is prefigured in the experience, strength and hope of those who set the stage before us. We face momentous changes. Social structures are shifting, new technologies are evolving, and people around the world are wondering what the future holds. We in A.A. have a history of adapting to survive. We will reach still-suffering alcoholics wherever they may be. Guided by our three legacies of recovery, unity and service, we take responsibility for the progress necessary for the future. “Ever-deepening humility, accompanied by an ever-greater willingness to accept and to act upon clear-cut obligations — these are truly our touchstones for all growth in the life of the spirit” (p. 84).

For more information on Our Great Responsibility is in the Spring 2019 issue of Box 459.

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