Every month, in addition to updating our series on the Twelve Steps, we also likes to focus on the Twelve Traditions. Having recently covered Step Seven, it is now time to focus upon the Seventh Tradition. For those who have read a number of our articles, Tradition Seven will seem a bit strange. We talk a lot here about the need to ask for help. But the Seventh Tradition essentially dictates not asking for help. This does not contradict the principles of recovery, but it will most definitely require some explanation if we are to apply it to our own lives.
And as always, the goal of this examination is to show that we should apply the Seventh Tradition to our own lives. The fact that the Twelve Traditions were meant for AA groups does not mean addicts and alcoholics cannot learn from them. In terms of the groups, Tradition Seven falls in line with Tradition Four (autonomy) and Tradition Six (withholding endorsements). In terms of our personal recovery, the major theme of the Seventh Tradition is self-efficacy. We must learn to ask for help when we need it, but we must also learn when we should accomplish something on our own.
Below, we’ll discuss the ways in which the Seventh Tradition applies to sober support groups, as well as how we may apply it to ourselves. The latter focal point will require some discussion of enabling, a subject we usually address to friends and family. But addicts and alcoholics must understand it as well. There are times at which we must be the ones to stand up and say that we will not be enabled. Once we learn to do this, we can discover the joy of true self-sufficiency.
What Is Tradition Seven?
The Seventh Tradition, as written in the AA 12&12, is as follows:
“Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”
This immediately leads into a joke about the concept of self-supporting alcoholics. Interestingly enough, much of the discussion in the first paragraph does not pertain entirely to the groups. It instead focuses on the change that we encounter when we become sober. During our active addiction, we always sought financial support whether we needed it or not. Not surprisingly, the early groups believed that AA could not do this. The groups must help addicts stay sober, and that means setting an example.
The 12&12 notes in the chapter on the Seventh Tradition that it was difficult to put this tradition into place. Many addicts and alcoholics have very light wallets when they first get sober. This is one of the consequences of our former lifestyle. But there were those with financial means, and these members did not feel it was right to accept handouts. While some felt as if outside donations could do a lot to help the groups, others felt that it would interfere with the organization’s spiritual focus. They had seen this in action already, as noted in the 12&12:
“Now and then, grateful benefactors had endowed clubhouses, and as a result there was sometimes outside interference in our affairs. We had been presented with a hospital, and almost immediately the donor’s son became its principal patient and would-be manager. One A.A. group was given five thousand dollars to do with what it would. The hassle over that chunk of money played havoc for years. Frightened by these complications, some groups refused to have a cent in their treasuries.”
While handouts caused disruption, poverty caused disillusionment. How could the groups help people if they could not afford meeting places? How could they answer the phone if the company denied service? They needed money in the treasury. This led to the Seventh Tradition as it is currently written. Perhaps the groups could not accept outside contributions, but they shouldn’t need them. The groups had to be self-supporting. This meant that their members needed to give what they could. Not all members could afford to do this, even at a low rate such as a dollar a day. This is why AA’s pamphlet for newcomers goes out of its way to state that donations are not required. Nonetheless, self-supporting groups require donations from their members. The Seventh Tradition does not require members to donate, but they should if they are able.
One interpretation of the Seventh Tradition is that it does more than simply prevent outside interference. In fact, it may actually assist our spiritual growth. There is a story in the 12&12 about a time in which AA needed money, and Bill Wilson asked for members to donate as little as one dollar per year. Unfortunately, this was met with little action. To prove his generosity, he donated five dollars to a single alcoholic who had relapsed. But his group was in need of money, and the landlord was breathing down their backs. When the hat was passed that night, he could only donate a dime. He donated to the alcoholic not to help him—if anything, he feared he might’ve enabled him—but out of pride. As a result of this pride, he found himself unable to support his group when they really needed it. He decided it was better for his spirituality that he donate his money to the hat, not to the individuals.
Of course, not all shared Bill’s epiphany. The groups were still struggling for money. This caused turmoil when a woman left ten thousand dollars to AA’s main office. The members engaged in lively debate over whether or not they should accept it. Many wanted to take the money, but there was a problem—this woman’s last will and testament was not the only of its kind. There was at least half a million dollars’ worth of such wills out there. And those were only the ones that the members knew about.
They declined the money for numerous reasons. First, they feared that accepting all such donations would make the organization too wealthy. The threat of outside interference loomed over them, for there existed a possible chain reaction. If they began accepting outside contributions in the form of wills, they had no reason not to accept them from living persons. These benefactors would hold too much sway over AA’s principles, and the fellowship might be broken. Second, they did not wish to deny the fellowship their spirituality. For if AA became rich, its members would stop donating. They would revert back to selfishness and greed—the same defects of character they embodied while drinking.
It does not matter how we define the Seventh Tradition. Perhaps we see it as a means of gaining spirituality. Perhaps we see it as a way of avoiding outside interference. Neither interpretation is incorrect, for the board considered both of them when forging the Seventh Tradition in the first place. Emotional and spiritual support are one thing. But when it comes to financial matters, sometimes addicts and alcoholics simply must be self-supporting. It may not always be easy, but it is the right thing to do. After all, what good is sobriety if we do not learn responsibility?
Following the Seventh Tradition
In explaining the Seventh Tradition as it pertains to AA, the 12&12 hints at how it may benefit us personally.
“To people familiar with endless drives for charitable funds, A.A. presented a strange and refreshing spectacle. Approving editorials here and abroad generated a wave of confidence in the integrity of Alcoholics Anonymous. They pointed out that the irresponsible had become responsible, and that by making financial independence part of its tradition, Alcoholics Anonymous had revived an ideal that its era had almost forgotten.”
These words apply to an era long gone. Yet at the same time, they apply very much to our own era as well. All around us, there live people who want something for nothing. Many of them fit the description of the addict or alcoholic. But many do not. There are people, addicts and non-addicts alike, who live off of their families yet feel they do not get enough. There are people who do not apply for jobs, yet complain frequently about the economy and the job market. We recognize these behaviors easily because many of us did the same thing in our addiction. Perhaps this does not apply to all addicts and alcoholics. But it is undeniable that there are many of us who have yearned for independence without self-sufficiency.
The Seventh Tradition allows us to break ourselves of this behavior. We learn to give instead of taking. We realize that, if we have a few dollars to spare, we may as well contribute to the donation bucket. In doing so, we allow the groups to continue serving those who are truly penniless. The Seventh Tradition therefore teaches us more than self-efficacy. It teaches us that we are not the only ones in this world who struggle. There are others like us, and we should do what we can to help them. And as this lesson takes hold, we learn that it applies to more than mere donations.
If we truly wish to embrace the Seventh Tradition, we cannot allow ourselves to be enabled. We cannot be selfish or greedy. We should do our best to earn what we have, asking only for emotional and spiritual support along the way. Perhaps, at times, we will truly need financial assistance from friends and family. But we must assess whether or not this is a true need. And if it is, we should move forward with a solid plan to pay it back. The Seventh Tradition allows us to develop the responsibility needed to stay sober. If we truly care about our spiritual growth, we must never take this responsibility for granted.