Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: big book, god stuff, sponsorship, twelve step practice
“The Twelve Steps are a design to change you. They also bring you every Step closer to God.”
HISTORY AND CONTEXT
Alcoholics Anonymous, which earned the moniker “the Big Book” due to the unwieldy size of its first edition, was not used as a guide to recovery from alcoholism until some years after its publication in Cleveland, where a member of the fellowship named Clarence S. began using the book as a way of educating newcomers. In Cleveland, meetings of this now growing fellowship were the first to call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous. Clarence S. and the AA members in Cleveland modeled a style of one-on-one sponsorship in which a member of the fellowship experienced in the Twelve Step program would take a “pigeon,” or newcomer, under his wing, help him adjust to sobriety, and coach him through the Twelve Steps. This meant that the sponsor and newcomer would meet and work their way through the Big Book together, page by page. “Big Book sponsorship” was a style of AA unique to Cleveland at that time, and has since become a vocal minority movement within the fellowship.
In relation to the rest of AA today, Big Book sponsorship tends to be more conservative. Whereas there is a wide assortment of Twelve Step guides and recovery literature available, Big Book sponsors claim a place of priority for Alcoholics Anonymous and often reject other works, including AA approved literature, as inadequate deviations from the original. Big Book sponsors also tend to place greater emphasis upon the spiritual aspects of the AA program. In meetings hosted by a network of Big Book sponsors, one is likely to hear a great deal about God and how God has transformed the lives of those who have worked the Twelve Steps as they are laid out in the Big Book.
The often vehement insistence of Big Book sponsors upon the effectiveness of their approach, their denial of the value of other approaches, and their insistence upon the need of a recovering alcoholic to develop a relationship with God have earned Big Book sponsorship a bad reputation within AA. “Big Book Nazis” and “AA Fundamentalists” are terms that have been used to characterize this minority movement by members of mainstream AA. The reputation of Big Book sponsorship has led many to be cautious of the movement. After all, who wants to get bullied by a Big Book Nazi?
Fortunately, as with all social movements, Big Book sponsorship’s most aggressive members are not necessarily the movement’s best representatives. There are many networks of Big Book sponsorship, each with a different way of thinking about the Twelve Step program, and each with its own attitude toward mainstream AA. While some Big Book sponsors do live up to their negative reputation, others are more broadminded. Though they may have their disagreements with other styles of sponsorship and with mainstream AA, these more broadminded Big Book sponsors do not demand that everyone adopt their point of view. Rather than insisting that theirs is the only true and healing experience and then bullying newcomers into agreement, these Big Book sponsors are more likely to simply offer their own experiences to those who are interested.
One such network within Big Book sponsorship began on a Thursday night in the early 1990’s in Farmington, Maine, when three recovered alcoholics opened a meeting they called “The Chapter 2 Group” in the basement of Farmington’s Old South Church. In the last decade, the Farmington Chapter 2 Group has grown in to a small movement of five meetings, three in Maine and two in Massachusetts. In the Chapter 2 groups, spiritual experience is understood diversely among members. In fact, Chapter 2 members encourage people working the Twelve Steps to have their own experience and interpret that experience in their own terms. While there is a manner of working the Twelve Steps that members of Chapter 2 feel strongly about, the kind and quality of experiences that the Twelve Steps produce is seen as unique for each individual. The Chapter 2 groups value and nurture an environment in which diverse understandings of God and a variety of spiritual experiences coexist. The common denominator reported in Chapter 2 is a faith that results from the experience of having been changed and brought into relationship with God by working the Twelve Steps.
CHAPTER 2 SPONSORS
We interviewed ten sponsors from the Chapter 2 groups, and began by asking each sponsor to describe the purpose of the Twelve Steps in a general way. Our follow up questions asked each sponsor to talk about their experiences with individual Steps.
The striking fact about the sponsors’ descriptions of the Twelve Step process and its purpose was that not a single sponsor suggested that the Twelve Steps were primarily a means to sobriety. Rather, in every case, the Chapter 2 sponsors stated that the Twelve Steps were a means to contact and be changed by God.
For these sponsors, the Twelve Steps were not about getting sober; they were about getting into relationship with God. Sponsors said that sobriety was the natural results of spiritual change. A few sponsors mentioned the value of the Twelve Steps in treating the symptoms of “untreated alcoholism,” which they defined as being sober without a spiritual solution.
I think there has to be something to really change us. There has to be some way to make us unlike who we were when we stopped using. Because if we just stop using, then we’re still that person, just without the substance.
[The Steps] are spiritual principles that keep me spiritually fit so that I don’t suffer from the symptoms of untreated alcoholism, and I guess more importantly they give my life purpose and meaning.
When characterizing their experiences with the Twelve Step process, some sponsors spoke of dramatic experiences and sudden personality change, but more frequently they spoke of a gradual, though nonetheless profound, process of transformation. Several sponsors referred to their initial experience with the Twelve Steps as a period of rapid spiritual growth followed by a steady and stable growth period, which they expect to continue throughout their lives.
I had really wild experiences. I have a hard time talking about them because I have a hard time believing them myself. I had the experience of feeling like water after reading my inventory. For a person who has been Mr. Intense, going through life like a rock, full of resentment, then all of the sudden feeling as pliable as water. I wanted to feel that way all the time. That’s a little touch of heaven I’m going to have to wait for.
I had the educational variety. I had difficulty with believing. I wouldn’t accept that I didn’t have the power to do things myself until I had really hit the absolute low point of any area of my life, and that proved I couldn’t do it. That happened over and over again. Then I finally became willing to go by what people were saying and things started to change.
THE “GOD STUFF”
While the Chapter 2 sponsors unanimously described the Twelve Steps as a pathway to God, nine of ten entered the Twelve Step process in some form of agnostic state. The sponsors were either resentful of God, believed in God but did not believe that God could/would do anything for them, or simply were uncertain whether or not God even existed. Only one sponsor undertook Step-work with full faith that God existed and was active in her life. These various agnostic states were more or less reconciled by the same circumstances: most sponsors reported that they became willing to believe in God due to the level of pain and desperation they experienced as a result of their disease.
When I went into the army I had no religious preference put on my dog tags. Not to say I was an atheist. I knew something was out there, but I just didn’t buy into the Catholics and the Christians and the Jehovah witnesses coming to your house. I didn’t like any of that stuff. I didn’t like going to church. But I was just so beaten down and tired that I was like, “Whatever,” and then as soon as I was willing—Boom—it just happened. Now I don’t have second thoughts. Now I kind of feel silly that I used to not believe. Sometimes when I pray I apologize.
When it came to the Steps, the thing of it was feeling completely hopeless. I was willing to believe anything.
There is an agreement in Chapter 2 that it is important to enter into the Twelve Step process with a sense of personal doom. Desperation provides the willingness necessary to surmount the sometimes rather entrenched agnostic state of the alcoholic/addict/alanon. In ideal conditions, this sense of personal doom is coupled with access to someone who had once shared that doom, but is now clearly changed. In many cases, sponsors stated the importance of meeting someone who had a transformative experience with the Big Book. This encounter seemed to open up a pathway out of the sponsors’ despair. The sense of doom was converted to motivation and hope. Especially powerful, it seems, were the instances in which a sponsor had encountered someone before and after that individual’s Big Book experience, or had known them throughout their time as Big Book sponsees.
I’d been around AA stuff for a long time, and NA stuff. Nobody, in my mind, was really getting better. People were not using some. And then I saw what happened to a friend of mine who worked the Steps from the Big Book. He told me at some point when he was into it, “You don’t know shit! Somebody’s got to help me here!” And he was right. I had no idea what to do. And then because of meeting his sponsor and watching what happened to him it became clear to me that it was possible to really change. I was very envious that he could get better like that so quickly, and I’d be damned if I was going to get left behind. Seeing somebody change. Proof that this works. I’m used to people talking crap and I don’t believe it. I’m really cynical. And seeing what happened to him—I’m not going to say that he became instant Mr. Wonder—but the change in him was powerful and it was significant.
As they moved from agnostic states to the beginnings of faith, Chapter 2 sponsors had diverse reactions to the Big Book’s approach to spirituality, which assures each alcoholic that he or she can enter into relationship with a God of his or her own understanding. For some of the sponsors, this approach allowed them to participate in Step-work while still in a fairly hostile stance toward religious ideas:
When my sponsor talked about her experiences, she said, “I can’t prove to you the power of God changed me, but if you do this then you can see for yourself, and whether it does or it doesn’t work, then you won’t have to take my word for it. You’ll know.” At the time I had been trying to be a Catholic, and study the Bible, and go to prayer meetings. But I was not willing to give myself over to that way of living. I was not willing to let go of my old ideas, and I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do. So I had a lot of collision with those people. I was afraid of being brainwashed and manipulated. If somebody in AA were to come across that way, I would have just dammed up. For some reason, this person in AA was able to come across in the way which I needed. That opened up the dam.
Other sponsors found a great freedom in the Big Book’s approach to spirituality and took full advantage of that freedom to address their spiritual needs.
He said I could choose my own conception. He said, “Throw away anything else that you’ve learned and start new.” I started out with all powerful, all loving, and all forgiving. Powerful because I didn’t have any and I needed something with all the power that could straighten me out. All forgiving because I had done so many things wrong and I didn’t know if they could ever be righted. And all loving because I didn’t feel loved. I needed something that had the love I needed so I could want to exist.
A few sponsors found the Big Book’s spirituality problematic, as it was taken for a requirement to understand God before entering into that relation.
When I started working the Steps, the idea of a God of your own understanding made me angry for a long time. Because I thought that it meant that we’ll all just make up our own idea and it could be completely false. I thought that if I had to come to my own understanding, then I had to make up my own lie. I just couldn’t do that.
It is not a requirement in the Chapter 2 groups or in the Big Book to begin working the Twelve Steps with a concept of God. Rather, the Step-worker’s understanding of God is expected to begin with willingness to believe, and then develop an understanding of God that is based upon his or her own experience in the Twelve Step process.
Now the idea of a God of your own understanding just makes sense because my understanding of God just comes from my own experience of working the Steps, and I don’t expect our experiences to look identical. They can have a lot of similarities, but definitely not at all the same. In which case, I don’t expect my understanding of God to be the same as yours. There’s no necessity for it. We don’t have to agree, and it can be true.
Chapter 2 sponsors also reported a variety of experiences with the Third Step act of turning their will and lives over to the care of God. Many reported an expectation, or an environment of expectation, that the Third Step would result in a powerful emotional experience. Some sponsors did have such experiences in their Third Steps, but the majority did not. Those who did not tended to think of the Third Step as a formal expression of their commitment to God and to complete the Twelve Steps, or simply as something that moved them into the next phase of the Twelve Step process.
I started crying because I knew it was real. It probably took me three minutes to finish praying it because I just kept crying and then everyone was crying. It was very cool.
I don’t think it was that earth shattering like people talk about. It just sort of moved me on to start writing a Fourth Step.
Some sponsors expressed their ambivalence about the value of emotionally powerful Third Steps, and felt that a strong experience too early in the Twelve Step process could be distracting or even de-motivating, leading the Step-worker to feel that they’ve already gotten what they need out of the Twelve Steps. It was also reported that the environment of expectation around strong Third Step experiences can have negative consequences for many sponsees.
It’s nice if that happens to you but you can’t rely on that to keep you sober. There’s other things to do that are way more important. It’s nice that that experience comes to someone, but the rest of the Steps are equally important and probably more so. There’s so many people that falter in a place in this process and they stop.
A lot of people, if they don’t get that bright light blinding spiritual experience, they get burned out and they give up. They say, “God’s picking on me,” or whatever. There’s nothing you can say to them.
When asked about the process of writing Fourth Step moral inventory, nearly all Chapter 2 sponsors expressed a difficulty with the task of examining their own selfishness in relation to their resentments. Some sponsors entered the process believing they were not selfish people, and took offense at the suggestion. Others didn’t know what selfishness was. Still others were wiling to concede that they might be selfish to an extent, but not that their selfishness was at the root of their problems. Sponsors spoke of resenting the exercise, throwing their Big Book across the room, and even complaining to their sponsor that they had the right to be selfish.
The Fourth Step is a place in the Twelve Step process where many sponsees stop working the Steps. It seems that this is due to the difficulties associated with examining one’s own selfishness and the volatility of emotions raised by listing and exploring resentments. Due to the difficulty of the task of Fourth Step moral inventory, it is not surprising that many of the sponsors we interviewed voiced the value of prayer during this exercise. In spite of the pain often associated with the Fourth Step, God was asked not for comfort, but for insight.
All along I prayed to God, “God, hit me over the head with a brick. Hit me hard because I need to see it.”
Inventory was the first time I started praying for things, and the ideas came through that I’d prayed for. I’d been high for so long that I’d either blocked out or couldn’t remember a lot of the things I had done in the past. Every time I prayed it’s like the flood gates opened. And these were things I had been trying so hard to remember. After a night of prayer, the next day its was just all there.
A few sponsors expressed an extreme view of God’s involvement in Fourth Step moral inventory. For these sponsors, efforts to gain insight into their selfishness on the merits of their own intelligence were counterproductive at best. Instead, these few understood the exercise of moral inventory as, at heart, an effort to listen to God and even let God do the work.
We’re praying for God to show us what is blocking us from him. So who is writing the inventory? If I’m praying and a picture comes to me—a name, a thing—I write it down. That’s what I’ve been at least trying to get people to consider. Pray. Trust that the voice or those things that we get are actually from God and that God is showing us which are the problems that need to be removed right now.
It wasn’t difficult for me to see my selfishness in my resentments because I didn’t write that part of my inventory. It was my hand and my pen. I would write a page and go back and read it and I would have no idea where that came from. I truly believe that that’s what’s supposed to happen. People struggle with trying to think of the answer. “I can’t think how I was selfish.” You’re not supposed to think how you are selfish. You’re supposed to let God show you. Your only job is to hold onto a pen.
It should be noted that half of the sponsors we interviewed did not refer to the value of prayer in writing moral inventory. Some viewed the Fourth Step as a mental exercise, something that one simply gets better at over time.
Unanimously, Chapter 2 sponsors expressed the value of discovering their selfishness. The discovery of selfishness was called “an epiphany,” “a relief,” and “freeing.” The Fourth Step was praised for giving Step-workers “the ability to see beyond yourself,” and was described as “a new way of seeing things.” The Big Book’s suggestions for moral inventory were seen as a way to be free of anger, or to find forgiveness for the people listed as resentments. While the experience of this insight into one’s own selfishness was seldom pleasant—one sponsor described it as having all the air kicked out of him and feeling like a deflated bag—it was always understood as liberating.
One sponsor offered this example of a resentment that was resolved due to the discovery of his own selfishness:
When I was seven years old, it was Easter or something. One of my uncles we don’t see very often grabbed my pecker. You know he didn’t really molest me, he kind of just grabbed me and I pushed him away and went into the other room. All these years later, I still had a resentment against him. So I’d have to sit back and pray and think, “How am I being selfish?” Well, I never realized that he had his own issues that he was dealing with at the time, whatever it may be, his sexuality or stuff like that. That was how I put the spin on this selfishness when I had a tough time seeing it. Well, what was it that this other person may have been thinking? What may be going through his head?
Situations of physical and sexual abuse are not uncommon and can make the already difficult exercise of writing moral inventory seem insurmountable. The advice is sometimes given in mainstream AA that one should wait at least a year before writing moral inventory because it might cause a relapse, or that the examining of selfishness should be avoided altogether because it can be re-traumatizing for people who have suffered abuse. These sentiments are not echoed in the Chapter 2 groups, and more than one sponsor reported finding freedom from their resentments against former abusers. Nonetheless, abuse and trauma do provide an extra challenge during the Fourth Step, and it is not hard to understand the resistance many in AA have toward this exercise. One sponsor offered this insight drawn from her experience in working with sponsees who suffered from abuse:
I have worked with women who were abused and battered. It is an entirely different ball game. Sometimes it is helpful to look for our part after the abuse occurred. I can’t blame my dad for how I’m behaving now. That’s not honest. Sometimes I’ve suggested that maybe their selfishness is just in their unwillingness to forgive, but I don’t push it. I trust this process. I’ve sponsored women who, three years later, the abuse is still coming up on their Tenth Step inventories. Sometimes I think that when Jesus said you have to forgive 70 times seven, he meant 70 times seven for the same hurt.
DEFECTS OF CHARACTER REMOVED
When asked whether they believed God had removed anything after they had taken their Seventh Step, all sponsors answered affirmatively, and frequently they reported either significant character change or the removal of a vice or troubling symptom. Sponsors variously reported the removal of compulsive sexuality, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and even a dramatic improvement in a lifelong condition of poor reading comprehension. Many felt that after their Seventh Step they experienced an unusual level of mental clarity. Some sponsors spoke of an overall improvement in their character. Sometimes this was described as the removal of a “sociopathic tendency” or simply the new feeling of love for others.
I think the biggest thing is that in my head I’m not thinking about how I can scheme people and how I can get the best of people. I’m thinking about how I can be better in God’s eyes and how I can help someone. That’s not me. That’s just not me.
I feel love for everybody. It’s like a change in attitude. If I was thinking, “I can’t stand that person and I don’t want to be around him,” now its like, “I love him regardless of what he’s going to do and if I am mad at him what good does it do besides eat me up inside?”
One sponsor reported an experience of distress following his Seventh Step prayer. The experience is significant to us, even though it is clearly not representative of a norm in Chapter 2, because it demonstrates that the experience of the removal of character defects can be unsettling—the loss of character defects, in this case referred to as the death of self, can still be a genuine loss.
My Seventh Step was a dandy. I kept thinking that this spiritual path was supposed to make you feel good. So I take the Seventh Step and I wake up the next morning and I’m totally lost. I had no sense of where I was going. I don’t know who I am anymore. Actually, I was frightened and I didn’t feel good—physically, mentally, emotionally—and I was scared to death. I thought, “Something has really happened here and I’ve screwed myself up.” I thought I was bad before, now I don’t have any sense of bearing or direction. No value system at all. I actually went that next day to a shopping mall and sat there for a couple of hours watching people go by to see if I could get any sense of identity. Didn’t know what was going on, so finally out of desperation I called my sponsor and said, “I don’t feel good and I don’t know who I am anymore.” He said, “Yeah,” he said, “the dying of self can be kind of a tough proposition, but you’ll be ok.” And so I got clear on the fact that a dying of self is going to occur in the inventory process. It has always occurred at some level of intensity. It was a Jim dandy, but the self’s got to die and that doesn’t feel good.
The amends process of Steps Eight and Nine was described by respondents as a time of learning and reconciliation. Two types of amends were distinguished: transactional and living. In transactional amends, the Step-worker approaches someone they have harmed in the past and expresses willingness to make any necessary restitution. In living amends, the Step-worker practices living differently toward family members and loved ones, people who are an ongoing part of the Step-worker’s life and for whom a simple transaction would seem insufficient.
Transactional amends were reported to be intense experiences preceded by a good deal of fear and prayer. Most sponsors related that the desired attitude in making a transactional amend is one of concern for the well being of the person harmed. The desired end is not to relieve oneself of guilt, although this might happen, but to attempt to understand those harmed and to offer them a chance to heal. Multiple sponsors reported experiences of listening to a person to whom they were making amends and really hearing for the first time how their behavior affected others.
In high school, I hung out with the pot heads. There was one girl that was not quite cool enough for the rest of us and one day we tried to flush her head down the toilet. We all got suspended. It was just the cruelty of teenage girls. When I went to make amends to her, she said—it still makes me want to cry—“I always felt bad that I told on you guys.” So for all these years, whenever she thought about it, she thought about it with shame. We may know what we’ve done to people, but we have no idea how our behavior affected them.
The first amends I made was to my boss at a restaurant where I used to work. He just looked at me and said, “Ari, there isn’t anything you can do to make this better. You came in here and you lied to me from the beginning. You broke my trust. You stole from me.” He said, “We’re not friends anymore. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to see you, and that’s it.”
I walked out of there feeling really bad. I went out to the car where my sponsor was all smiles and said, “How’d it go?” We talked and my sponsor told me that I went in there with the wrong attitude. He said, “Well, this process isn’t about you anymore. You went in there expecting to feel good and that’s not what this is about.”
Reconciliation with alienated family members was a reoccurring theme in these interviews. One sponsor told of the amends he made to his father, who sexually molested him and his sisters when they were children. His story is significant because it demonstrates the extent to which moral inventory can facilitate forgiveness in preparation for amends. Not only was this sponsor willing to forgive his father, he actually found compassion and a desire to make good on the harm he had caused his father. Further, this sponsor also had a sense that restoring this relationship was providing some healing for his dad.
I have a relationship with my dad now, which I would have never had. I don’t know if I told you that he molested me and my whole family as little kids. Then I blamed my dad from that point on for everything that went wrong in my life. Toward the end of it I put my whole family back through the whole abuse trying to get back at him by suing him, and bad mouthing him all my life to any person that would listen.
Anyway, what happened was when I came up to amends I realized that he might have hurt the beginning of my life, but I ruined the end of his. So I ended up writing him a letter. He wrote me back, and then a relationship started. So now I have a dad. That’s what I always wanted my whole life, and here I had a chance to fix it. At least there is a relationship. You know, its not going to be my dream relationship, but I know that I could possibly be helping him also.
Living amends were not discussed as frequently as transactional amends. There seems to be a tendency in the Chapter 2 groups to associate Step Nine with transactional amends, and to think of living amends as an ongoing part of life. However, those sponsors who did speak about making amends spoke of them as an exercise in staying in an attentive and useful frame of mind. Rather than being a “taker,” in the words of respondent Jerry E., the living-amends maker must be a “giver.” Takers find themselves in a heap of resentments because they have a “little string attached to everything,” expecting something in return for their efforts. Givers, on the other hand, simply give to others without an expectation of return, and thus experience less resentment. Some respondents spoke of an ongoing struggle to stay in “giver” mode.
I don’t always want to make my living amends. It exhausting sometimes. There are times when I know that I can’t come home and be unselfish and open to whatever happens. I pray before I come home so that I can walk in the door and not walk in with all my own baggage and expectations. Instead I’m walking in the door thinking, “I’m here to make amends, to make things right and to be of use, to be a part of this family. I have the privilege of having this as a part of my life.”
PRAYER AND MEDITATION
When speaking about the Eleventh Step, all sponsors said that regular prayer is a central part of their lives today. Many also spoke of the Eleventh Step as an opportunity to explore various spiritual and religious traditions. Some sponsors joined a church and made a religious commitment. Others have remained outside of the church and find fellowship with other believers in Chapter 2 groups.
I’ve had to write resentment inventory after going to church on Sunday. I’ve come out of mass writing inventory about what the priest said. But that doesn’t matter. The fact is I’m willing to go and participate and connect with a group of people who have been trying to follow God, however imperfectly, for centuries.
Many times I’ve said, “God, if you want me to do this, to join this religion, I’m willing,” and it just has never happened. I have worked with sponsees whose life centered around some kind of organized religion and they’ve searched to find where they wanted to be and found me to be the missing link. One woman calls me the un-churched. She never would have believed that someone who was un-churched could lead her to where she needed to be.
Sponsors spoke of the Eleventh Step as the culmination of all their previous efforts in the Twelve Steps. One sponsor, Mike B., stated, “This is not about maintenance; I’ve done all the other stuff just so I could get here.” The ability to pray and meditate are cherished by the sponsors, most of whom were unable to do either before their work in the Twelve Steps. It seems that moving out of an agnostic state, taking a Third Step, discovering one’s own selfishness, and making amends are experienced together as a process that creates a place in the Step-worker’s psyche where prayer and meditation can happen. Some sponsors talked about this as “clearing house,” or “getting a new mind.” Once the “old junk” is cleared out of the psyche, or once the “old mind” is replaced with the new, prayer and meditation can happen in a way that was previously impossible.
Usually my mind flickers like somebody’s got the channel changer just going through the channels. Now I can focus in like it’s me and God and nothing else will come in. Sometimes I get feelings of happiness for no reason it seems. Like, nothing will be in my mind because I’m so focused on God that I’m not thinking of a thought that’s making me happy. I’m just all of the sudden happy. Sometimes my eyes all tear up and tears will run down, but it’s not like I’m crying because I’m not sad or anything. At first I thought it was something I would get away from, but now it’s something I look forward to. If I don’t do it in the morning my day doesn’t seem right. You can always make up for it. I can always pray wherever I am, whatever I’m doing.
Chapter 2 sponsors also reported periods of “ups and downs” in their prayer life. Times when sponsors felt alternately closer or further away from conscious contact with God were seen as a perfectly normal part of the process. Some sponsors mentioned the difference in spiritual intensity between times of pain and times of “coasting.” In pain, these sponsors felt greater reliance upon God and experienced rapid spiritual growth, whereas in times of ease, there was a tendency to ease up on efforts at prayer and meditation. No sponsor expressed anything like a desire to be in pain, but the value of pain in the life of prayer was respected by many. Such transitions between high and low points in prayer life were also seen as a corrective to the alcoholic/addict’s tendency to seek “spiritual highs.”
It’s not a constant steady rise of spiritual stuff. Its ups and downs and breakthroughs. Sometimes you go for weeks and months and you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere and nothing’s happening. I also realized, am I a spiritual junkie? Do I want spiritual highs like I wanted to get high? I’m not supposed to use God like that, although I know that I need spiritual experiences. So I do look for new ones, but what I’ve learned now is I don’t know where they’re going to come from.
WORKING WITH OTHERS
As they entered Step Twelve, many sponsors reported an initial burst of enthusiasm for working with others that received a negative response in mainstream AA. Due to the differences between the Big Book approach to the Twelve Steps and the way the Steps are treated in mainstream AA, aggressive Big Book evangelism is rarely well received. Sponsors reported that, following a period of conflict and controversy, they found a less aggressive way of approaching Twelfth Step work.
My first experience was I scared people. I just had this thing and I wanted to give it away. I was really intense about it. They call it being on fire.
Wild horses couldn’t hold me back. I was on fire to go help some people. Which I think is good. If you take somebody up through Step Eleven and they aren’t desperate to work with somebody I think maybe I missed something. I don’t use that always as a rule of thumb, but it is a pretty good indicator. Everybody’s different, but if you’ve been saved from the gates of hell, you want to go help somebody else.
I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t go to regular meetings. It creates controversy even when you don’t want it to. If we are asked to speak somewhere, we just talk about what we do and even that creates controversy, but still, we have to tell people what it is we are doing. I don’t want to create arguments. I think that just makes things worse. I just want to be useful. I’m not trying to save the world. Nobody has to do this stuff if they don’t want to. That’s how I was at first, I thought, “Well, why doesn’t everybody do this?” And now, “Because they don’t want to. Leave them alone.”
As they became more moderate Big Book sponsors, the people we interviewed in the Chapter 2 groups developed a style of sponsorship that emphasized being present to sponsees and offering experience when the sponsee was interested. Sponsors reported that they do not make rules for their sponsees or tell them what to do, as sponsees are only able to have their own experience of God when they are treated with a level of respect and autonomy.
My sponsor was the first person I’d ever met in AA who when I said things like, “Well, I don’t know if I really agree with this or believe in these things,” he said, “Alright. Check that out. Why should you take it on anyone else’s word?”
It’s more challenging with people who are not really desperate. I tend to become much more laid back. “Hey, you want to do this? Have at it, man. You think you’re going to get better hanging out with him? Go ahead.” So it’s suddenly a lot easier when I don’t have a lot of rules for my sponsees.
Part of my job is to shut up and let them talk. By my nature I am a listener, or at least I have become one. I share my experience to a point if it’s necessary to say, “Hey slick, no matter what you think, you’re not alone here.” If I tell them they need to make five meetings a week is that going to guarantee anything? That they are going to have a connection with God? I doubt it. I can’t even tell them they need to work the Steps. That may not guarantee anything a connection with God. By the same token if they decided they want to do this, they have already begun the surrender process. They’ve made the decision. I haven’t made it for them. Once I started this process I had to surrender and keep surrendering and I still surrender today. So why would I want to cheat somebody out of that great gift of active surrender?
Several sponsors also mentioned the importance to them of the realization that they were not able to control the outcome of any other person’s experience of the Twelve Steps. As many sponsees do not successfully complete the Twelve Step program, sponsors found that they learned to trust God with each sponsees care. Sponsors stated that sponsoring others was not about “fixing” people, but about letting God do what needs to be done in the context of the sponsor/sponsee relationship.
So far I’ve never seen anyone crash and burn from the mistakes I’ve made. Plenty of people crash and burn, but not from my mistakes. And if somebody’s really working, the mistakes I make won’t harm them. When one of my sponsees starts working with someone else and they are so afraid to make a mistake, I just tell them about all the mistakes I made, mostly with them. If we are both there with the Spirit of God it’s going to work out fine.
It’s very humbling to work and work and work with someone and then to have them just not call or disappear. I used to think I had to do this in a certain way or it wouldn’t work, and I didn’t realize that it’s God working through me. It’s not my work, it is God’s work. It’s taken me a long time to realize it’s not about me.
In the context of the larger Twelve Step movement, the Chapter 2 Groups can be characterized as progressive Big Book sponsorship. Chapter 2 sponsors emphasize the values of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which are relatively conservative within recovery culture, but Chapter 2 sponsors also are progressive in the way they implement those values. The demands and rule-making of Big Book Nazis are not present in Chapter 2. Rather, each individual in the Chapter 2 groups is encouraged to have his or her own experience of God in the Twelve Step process. This results in an environment of diverse spiritual experiences that is valued by the sponsors of Chapter 2.
Individual experiences within the Chapter 2 groups appear to vary as to how much God’s aid is perceived in the different exercises of the Twelve Steps. For example, some sponsors had an almost out-of-body experience with writing Fourth Step inventory, while others regarded it as a simple mental exercise. All sponsors, however, reported that they did have a spiritual experience in the Twelve Steps and that God had come to their aid at some point in the process.
On the whole, the stories of the Chapter 2 group sponsors speak to the power of the Twelve Steps in facilitating spiritual experiences. Here we have ten sponsors, nine that began the Twelve Steps with ambivalence or active antipathy toward the idea of God. No one forced them to believe in God, nor were they under any pressure to adopt a particular idea of God. Instead, their sponsors suggested that they give the Twelve Steps a try and then see how this work influenced their attitude toward spiritual things. In all ten cases, the sponsors had an experience, which they could not explain in any other way except to refer to it as God working in their lives. All ten sponsors are now active in the work of offering spiritual experiences to others.
There are currently a handful of Chapter 2 groups scattered throughout New England. If you are interested in knowing more about Chapter 2, feel free to contact http://www.stepstudy.org.
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