Each month this year, we have been covering one of the Twelve Steps in addition to one of the Twelve Traditions. Now that it is May and we have already covered Step Five, it is time to take a look at the Fifth Tradition. Like many of the traditions we have already covered, Tradition Five is written for the sake of individual AA and NA groups; however, it most certainly applies to the individuals within these groups as well. Not only that, but one might say that this particular tradition even extends beyond addicts and alcoholics themselves, affecting friends and family members who do not wish to see others suffer.
We will explain the Fifth Tradition below. We will also have our usual section in which we analyze multiple interpretations, although it should be noted that the Fifth Tradition is not as broadly defined as most of the traditions we have covered to date. In fact, it is actually relatively straightforward. As such, the interpretation section will cover various ways of performing Tradition Five rather than different ways to interpret its meaning. The final section on embracing the Fifth Tradition will pertain to how individuals may take the lessons from this tradition into account when working outside of their groups.
Naturally, we understand that many of the people reading this have potentially not entered recovery just yet. In such cases, the following will simply give you an idea regarding what to expect from fellow addicts and alcoholics when entering treatment. Family and friends, however, may begin practicing the Fifth Tradition immediately. If you feel that addiction has harmed you or your loved ones, you will find great relief in practicing Tradition Five to the best of your abilities.
What Is Tradition Five?
As written in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (also known as the 12&12), Tradition Five states:
“Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”
We have noted in many of our articles that addicts and alcoholics must have a strong support system in order to stay sober. Without a sense of fellowship, recovery often fails. And in many ways, the Fifth Tradition is all about the need to deliver this sense of fellowship to the newcomers, those who are entering recovery with fresh wounds left from their addictions and may feel a bit lost and isolated as a result.
According to the 12&12, the Fifth Tradition is a bit like Tradition One in the sense that it strengthens the unity of the entire group as well—not just those who are new. When we see that this tradition targets addicts and alcoholics who are still suffering, it is easy to assume that this is referencing those who are still actively engaging in substance abuse. And to an extent, this is true. But most addicts and alcoholics, especially in early recovery, will still suffer to some degree from time to time. We have character defects that must still be relieved, and we occasionally have losses to accept. We need to rely upon one another if we are to fight the urge to take that first drink.
The Fifth Tradition also entails the need of AA and NA groups to focus upon a singleness of purpose. In our article on Tradition Four, we told the story of an AA group that tried to do a bit more than they were able, offering money and education to alcoholics in need. This is certainly a worthy cause, but it eventually brought the group in question to its knees. There are many charitable organizations out there who may play a hand in providing these sorts of amenities, but it is best for support groups to focus upon their primary purpose—the goal of recovery.
This is not to say that the Fifth Tradition should hamper the unique qualities that every individual in a 12 step recovery program might have to offer. The 12&12 explains the matter thusly:
“Alcoholics Anonymous can be likened to a group of physicians who might find a cure for cancer, and upon whose concerted work would depend the answer for sufferers of this disease. True, each physician in such a group might have his own specialty. Every doctor concerned would at times wish he could devote himself to his chosen field rather than work only with the group. But once these men had hit upon a cure, once it became apparent that only by their united effort could this be accomplished, then all of them would feel bound to devote themselves solely to the relief of cancer.”
In other words, we may feel that our biggest strength is in educating others or trying to help them fix their relationships. But we should let the first thing come first. Without recovery from addiction or alcoholism, a person’s education or relationships will continue to suffer regardless of temporary fixes. Once we realize this, we see that the Fifth Tradition cannot be ignored.
We noted above that everyone has their individual strengths. But the beauty of the Fifth Tradition is that it can be fulfilled no matter what those strengths may happen to be. Everyone in recovery, even those who have only been sober a few days, is intimately familiar with the pain that addiction can cause. And because of this, we can all help others by sharing our experience, strength and hope. Even if we go our entire lives without ever getting up during a speaker meeting to tell our stories, we can still share in meetings and let others know what we have been through. As long as we speak from the heart, we have the potential to touch others with our words.
This will benefit us as well. As written in the 12&12:
“It is the great paradox of A.A. that we know we can seldom keep the precious gift of sobriety unless we give it away.”
It is important for those in recovery to remain “on the beam.” When we are off the beam, we may be prone to selfishness, stubbornness, pride and a general lack of compassion. When we are on the beam, these defects of character give way to charity, service work, humility and kindness. We are not saying that a person should only embrace the Fifth Tradition for the sake of their own recovery. But if they’re having trouble getting in touch with their empathy, it’s a start. True compassion will be discovered along the way, once we have learned the joy and beauty of helping a fellow sufferer get back on their feet.
Now, some might think that the Fifth Tradition is telling us to go out and find addicts or alcoholics to lecture about what they are doing wrong with their lives. This is not so much the case. Perhaps some people will get along just fine doing these sorts of things, but many will be turned off by it. There are others who feel it is their duty to practice the Fifth Tradition by lecturing addicts on the importance of religion, failing to realize that not everyone is required to have the same God in order to attain sobriety.
The 12&12 has a story about this. An AA old-timer met a drunk Irishman at the hospital. When he mentioned spirituality and the need for faith in recovery, the Irishman thought that the old-timer was trying to change his religious views. So the old-timer simply explained that the Irishman’s faith was none of this business. He merely suggested that the man (who later became his sponsee) should try to discover a sense of grace and humility that he could understand within the context of his beliefs. The tale concludes:
“‘Now,’ concludes the oldtimer, ‘suppose I’d been obliged to talk to this man on religious grounds? Suppose my answer had to be that A.A. needed a lot of money; that A.A. went in for education, hospitals, and rehabilitation? Suppose I’d suggested that I’d take a hand in his domestic and business affairs? Where would we have wound up? No place, of course.’
Years later, this tough Irish customer liked to say, ‘My sponsor sold me one idea, and that was sobriety. At the time, I couldn’t have bought anything else.’”
We should remember this story when practicing the Fifth Tradition. There is only one message for us to carry. As for how a person manages the rest of their affairs? Unless their sobriety is undoubtedly at risk, these affairs are none of our business.
Following the Fifth Tradition
Everything we’ve written above should help greatly in teaching you how to fully embrace the teachings of the Fifth Tradition. It is as simple as helping others understand the importance of sobriety. As soon as we attempt to complicate it by infusing our deep religious views or our thoughts on domestic issues, we have the potential to turn people away. Just think of how horribly these lectures often failed us while we were in active addiction. We can’t expect others to react any differently.
Also note that, while the old-timer may have spoken a bit about the Irishman’s personal history, he mostly stuck to his own experiences. In Chapter 7 of the AA Big Book, we are told that sharing our own experiences often takes us much farther when working with others than we are likely to go if we simply lecture them about their defects of character. When we share our own experiences, we become something of a case study in the eyes of those who may be unsure as to whether or not a better way of life is truly attainable.
Friends and family of alcoholics can act in the spirit of the Fifth Tradition as well, if they so choose. They have seen their loved ones in pain, and they know what it looks like. More than that, they know that other friends and family members are suffering as well. Just as addicts and alcoholics are able to help fellow sufferers by sharing their experiences, so too can those who have learned the pain of watching a loved one slowly kill themselves through substance abuse. There are parents, enablers, children and others suffering from the terrible family disease that addiction so often becomes. With your help, they need not suffer alone.
No matter what level of experience you have with addiction and alcoholism, and no matter whether you are the sufferer or simply a sufferer’s loved one, the Fifth Tradition holds that you have something to offer. And if you have not yet entered recovery, know that the Fifth Tradition has ensured no shortage of people to help you along your quest for sobriety. As long as the Fifth Tradition holds, our path will be paved with numerous kind and loving souls who are there to help us see the light.