Even those who aren’t intimately familiar with 12 step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) probably know something about the 12 Steps. These simple suggestions were designed as a way of helping us cope with life in recovery so that we may maintain our long-term sobriety. They help us overcome our resentments and character defects. We learn to make amends, help others, and achieve a general sense of spiritual growth. But aside from the 12 Steps, there exist another set of literature that can help keep recovering addicts on the path to recovery; they are the 12 Traditions.
Origin of the 12 Traditions
Although the Traditions have become a cornerstone to Alcoholics Anonymous, this literature came after the writing and publishing of The Big Bood. The 12 Traditions of AA were first introduced by the founder Bill Wilson, who wrote a series of essays for the Grapevine Magazine in April 1946. They were titled “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future”. In 1947, pamphlets of Bill Wilson’s words were sent to all members, free of charge. this pamphlet was lengthy, totaling 48 pages. It wasn’t until 1949 when the Traditions were unanimously adopted at the First International Convention in Cleveland, that it was suggested they be shortened. It is then that the 12 Traditions began to resemble them as we know them now. They then underwent years of revisions and adaptations to become the 12 Traditions used in the current AA meetings.
Purpose of the 12 Traditions
Grounded in the spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, they were quickly adopted as guidelines to help AA groups function. It served a dual purpose of providing a practical framework for individual chapter autonomy and for preserving the unity of how the organization’s purpose and message. The 12 Traditions dictate the manner in which AA groups should operate. As such, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (also known as the 12&12) states many of these suggestions in broad terms. But we as individuals must also embrace the 12 Traditions in order to keep the groups afloat. Again, AA insists that these are not rules but rather suggestions. Nonetheless, we often find that our sobriety hinges on our observation of the principles described therein. Should we stray too far from these principles, we find ourselves off the beam and vulnerable to relapse.
What Does Each of The 12 Traditions Mean?
As is the case with many of the Alcoholics Anonymous literature (and most things in life), they are up personal interpretation. Bill Wilson himself saw how easily messages could be misconstrued by members takings words or phrases out of context. The long form of the 12 Traditions leaves little room for misinterpretation, however, since it is the shortened version that is widely proliferated and referenced in meetings, there are significantly more opportunities for misunderstandings. The key to interpreting and implementing the 12 Traditions correctly means looking at the entirety of each sentence, rather than placing emphasis on certain phrases within. “The AA Group” is an official Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet that was created specifically to provide guidance for how to correctly apply these Traditions. If you find yourself and fellow members in disagreement, that’s a fantastic reference source.
“Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.”
Too many addicts and alcoholics try to recover in isolation. More often than not, they discover far too late that it simply can’t be done. But through the power of fellowship and the 12 Traditions, we can nurture our sobriety and recover successfully. In accordance with Tradition One, we must give in order to receive. We want others to be there for us, which means that we have a responsibility to be there for others. More importantly, however, we simply find no good in trying to go it alone. We are always stronger as part of a whole.
“For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
While certain AA members might take up leadership positions, this doesn’t gift them with tyrannical authority over others. This provides us with the basis for Tradition Two. In keeping with the first of the 12 Traditions, we must always work together. This means that the group’s leaders cannot start putting themselves first. We must always act in the best interest of the group, striving to do what is best for everybody rather than fulfilling our own selfish needs.
“The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
Some AA groups frown upon members with drug use in their past. But the vast majority of AA groups welcome such members with open arms. Again, we see unity as one of the reigning principles of the 12 Traditions. Instead of turning away members with shady histories, we provide them with a safe space in which to foster their recovery. Love and tolerance are our code. Were it not for the Third Tradition, the groups might turn away members for any number of reasons. But as long as someone wishes to stay sober, Tradition Three states that we should always save space for them at our table.
“Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”
Outside of the 12 Traditions, AA and NA groups don’t really follow a set list of rules. Each group runs a bit differently, with different readings and potentially different prayers before and after the meeting. According to Tradition Four, each group also has the power to handle interpersonal issues as they see fit. But if any group should encounter a problem that affects the recovery community at large, they must seek a solution that involves other groups. In some cases, this solution may even involve the General Service Office. This doesn’t happen too often, but Tradition Four protects the organization from chaos should the need ever arise.
“Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”
Many say that AA is a selfish program. Sure, we seek unity and fellowship as outlined by the 12 Traditions. But we ultimately do it for ourselves. Nevertheless, every group has one clear purpose. As noted by the Fifth Tradition, this purpose is to spread the word that there is a solution to alcoholism and addiction. When we first come into the rooms, we often feel lost and afraid. Remember that other newcomers feel precisely the same way. Someone must be there for them in their time of need. Instead of waiting for someone else to step up, we should consider doing it ourselves. Not only might you help another person, but you never know—you just might make a new friend in the process.
“An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.”
With AA’s primary purpose already established by the 12 Traditions, we turn to Tradition Six for examples of problems that might distract from this purpose. The groups cannot become overly concerned with outside issues such as wealth and reputation. In order to achieve this goal, AA must keep itself professionally separated from all outside institutions. Mixing with unrelated organizations will only result in trouble. Not only might the group damage its reputation, but such endorsements might also cause quarrels among AA members. This causes harm to group unity, thereby putting the recovery of the group’s members at risk.
“Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”
When you attend an AA or NA meeting, you’ll often see the members passing around a contribution basket. In keeping with Tradition Seven, every member may choose whether they wish to put a dollar or two in the basket as it passes them by. Nobody is required to donate, but the 12 Traditions dictate that no group may accept contributions aside from those of its own members. These donations then go toward rent, coffee, and other expenses pertaining to keeping the group afloat. If we are able to give more than one or two dollars, it is generally suggested that we do so. After all, one or two bucks per day is a small price to pay for a lifetime of sobriety.
“Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”
Unlike some of the other 12 Traditions, the Eighth Tradition requires little on the part of AA members. Tradition Eight follows in the footsteps of those before it by ensuring that AA remains a nonprofessional, unpaid organization. Nonetheless, the General Service Office and other service centers may sometimes require additional help. In such cases, these centers may hire paid help without violating the 12 Traditions. It is important that AA remain a nonprofessional organization, but it is even more important that the groups are able to keep their doors open. Tradition Eight helps make that possible.
“A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.”
Tradition Nine fulfills a similar purpose as Tradition Eight, although in this case, the issue centers on organizational structure rather than the payment of workers. While we often refer to AA as an organization, the 12 Traditions make it quite clear that AA should function differently than most traditional institutions. Essentially, AA should operate much like democracy in its purest form. But a certain level of organization may be required in order to fulfill AA’s primary purpose. Service boards and committees help AA to spread the message, making them invaluable to the mission of bringing sobriety to those who need it.
“Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”
In many ways, Tradition Ten mirrors Tradition Six. Both pertain to AA’s avoidance of issues that might tarnish the organization’s name. The 12 Traditions make it very clear that AA must avoid any actions that distract from the primary purpose espoused in Tradition Five. Not only must AA remain unallied with outside institutions, but the groups must not even voice an opinion on any concern deemed not to be germane to the goal of achieving sobriety. Not only could this hurt the organization—an issue addressed by Tradition Four—but it might put off newcomers who would see AA as a political group rather than a recovery tool.
“Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”
While AA seeks to spread the message, Tradition Eleven advises against direct advertisements. The organization’s founders did not want AA members breaking anonymity and acting as spokespersons for the program. Instead, the unity espoused by the 12 Traditions must develop organically. Addicts and alcoholics must seek help because they want help, not because a radio ad told them they should. Given the vast number of people seeking sobriety in AA groups today, this public relations policy clearly proves quite effective.
“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
The 12 Traditions mention anonymity multiple times, but Tradition Twelve really drives this point home. We learn from the Twelfth Tradition that anonymity acts as more than a safeguard to protect our social reputation. Instead, we use anonymity to keep our ego in check. Our top priority at an AA meeting shouldn’t be whether people love our shares or even our personality. Naturally, we would prefer that people speak favorably of us in this regard. But more than anything, we should care about our principles. Without a solid foundation of spiritual principles, our recovery will often fail. The foundation of anonymity helps us to keep our principles strong. In this way, the 12 Traditions ensure that both the groups and their members are able to achieve spiritual growth in recovery.
If you’re new to recovery, don’t feel as if you must fully digest all of this information immediately. Hopefully, this article can act as a resource any time you wish to know more about AA and the 12 Traditions that help the organization remain operational. If you still find yourself with any questions, feel free to post any and all inquiries in the comments below. As always, we’re more than happy to help.