Our last article was the first in a twelve-part series that will be published near the beginning of each month, each one dedicated to the promotion of understanding one of the Twelve Steps. While it is quite important for all addicts and alcoholics in recovery to understand these steps, the Twelve Traditions are sometimes neglected. You will not see as many meetings about them, nor are they as frequently brought up in general discussion. That’s why we’d like to make them a part of their own series, beginning with a January article on the First Tradition. Tradition One is not overly complicated, but it still most certainly warrants some discussion.
The First Tradition is, in many ways, the heart and soul of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Both AA and NA pride themselves on the promotion of fellowship between addicts and alcoholics, and fellowship is precisely what Tradition One is all about. We will discuss below what the First Tradition means (including several interpretations of its message) as well as how it can be practiced so that you may get the absolute most out of your recovery.
What Is Tradition One?
Tradition One, as written in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, is as follows:
“Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.”
In our most recent article on Step One, we noted that the addict or alcoholic must admit to powerlessness, and that this cannot be done if one is still holding onto certain character defects such as self-will. One may see the First Tradition as an extension of the First Step, in that it very much requires us to lean on others rather than on ourselves alone. If we are dedicated to isolation, if we believe that we can or must do everything ourselves, then we will not be able to carry the torch of sobriety to our fellow alcoholics. More importantly, we will not be able to hold it for ourselves. We will surely relapse if we allow ourselves to believe that life is a burden which must be shouldered alone.
Some may believe that the First Tradition advocates a complete lack of self-interest, that those who truly embrace Tradition One must not care for their own well-being at all for the sake of others. This is not completely true. Instead, the First Tradition holds that those who wish to stay sober have to give it away in order to keep it. We follow Tradition One not because we care only for others and little for ourselves, but because we embrace the notion that caring for others is the best thing that we could possibly do to keep ourselves sober.
We have touched upon this notion before, when speaking of service work. The great thing about working in the service of others is that we get to feel as if we have truly helped someone while we ourselves get something magical out of our own generosity. When one develops a sense of charity and of hospitality, we learn to let others into our own lives. And this is important, because unity is something with which many of us have had only very limited experience before embarking on our journey toward recovery.
During active addiction, many of us did everything within our power to push others away, to keep them locked out so that we could continue our use without being encroached upon by those who cared about us. When we embrace the concept of unity, we allow others to care for us just as much as we endeavor to care for them. We become a part of something much greater than ourselves, rather than simply wallowing in the mire of our addictions and the consequences they have wrought.
Individuality is appreciated in AA, but you’re probably familiar with the concept of “too much of a good thing.” In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we are given some background as to why groups such as AA and NA choose to put principles before personalities.
“So at the outset, how best to live and work together as groups became the prime question. In the world about us we saw personalities destroying whole peoples. The struggle for wealth, power, and prestige was tearing humanity apart as never before. If strong people were stalemated in the search for peace and harmony, what was to become of our erratic band of alcoholics? As we had once struggled and prayed for individual recovery, just so earnestly did we commence to quest for the principles through which A.A. itself might survive. On anvils of experience, the structure of our Society was hammered out.”
This reinforces the notion that unity is about more than service work. While we should always endeavor to do what we can to help the newcomer, we should also be open to help from those who have been around much longer than us. We cannot go it alone. We need a strong support system of people who know what they are doing and who can help us thrive in our recovery. We must seek the counsel of the good old-timers who have dedicated themselves to helping addicts and alcoholics with more recent sobriety dates accustom themselves to life in sobriety. Without these good men and women, the program would not be nearly as successful as it has become today.
Of course, while the above interpretation of the First Tradition may have come from AA founder Bill Wilson himself, many who have come through the doors of groups such as AA and NA have crafted their own interpretations over the years. And some of these interpretations may actually be quite helpful for those who are looking for a sense of unity in their new fellowship of men and women. We will now turn to these interpretations for a bit of added inspiration as we try to bolster your understanding of the First Tradition.
There are many theories on why groups such as AA and NA are built so strongly on fellowship. The most obvious would simply be that the First Tradition works. Numerous addicts and alcoholics have recovered by embracing the concepts of unity and helping each other to stay sober. Every day, addicts and alcoholics meet at their home groups and find a sense of kinship in people with whom they might never have interacted if not for their disease. This is a wonderful thing.
Then, there are those who believe that the First Tradition offers many other ideas regarding how we might maintain our sobriety. One is that the First Tradition is actually one of the many things we achieve through anonymity. Members of AA and NA have the choice to share their last name if they so choose, but it is not required. When speaking at a meeting, they refer to themselves merely by their first name and the label of “addict” or “alcoholic.” Some use their last initial when telling their story at speaker meetings, but they go no further than this.
Anonymity is not a sheer defense mechanism designed to keep people from telling our secret. Unless we happen to know somebody at our home group from work or some other such place, there is no reason to believe that they would want to divulge our darkest secrets to people with whom we have no affiliation. This fear may be justified in certain rare cases, but it is largely sheer ego on our part.
The alternative interpretation is instead that anonymity enhances our sense of unity and fellowship. We do not need to know each other’s last names, or anything other than the fact that we share a common affliction. If we wish to know more about a person’s life outside of the program, we can ask these things. Often, they will volunteer certain information either through their shares or during outside discussion before and after meetings. Aside from this, simply knowing that we are not alone in our struggles is enough to bring us closer to people.
Another common interpretation of the First Tradition is that the notion of unity extends far beyond one’s home group or the addicts and alcoholics they know on a personal basis. Instead, it is a comment on the community of addicts and alcoholics as a whole. When we meet one of our fellows, we must do so with an open mind and open heart. Should we fail to do this, then groups such as AA and NA will lose their strength. We are nothing without our ability to care for those who suffer from our same affliction.
Following the First Tradition
Given our earlier focus on service work, you might be forgiven for assuming that the First Tradition is all about helping others. And to a great extent, there is some truth in this. If we truly value the sense of unity and fellowship that we have received from our program of recovery, then we must give back to the recovery community as a whole. Whether we do this by helping other addicts individually or by participating in district meetings for AA or NA is up to us. No matter our particular method, we should find some way of giving back to the community that has helped us remain sober through their love and support.
That said, remember that we also focused largely upon the need to use this sense of unity in the service of your own sobriety. You must know how to lean on others for support. We may have lacked trust while in active addiction, but we are now given the ultimate chance to learn the value of trust by sharing the chinks in our armor with our fellow addicts and alcoholics. Not only will this bring us much closer to them, but we often find that it is through our willingness to demonstrate our vulnerability that we actually discover the true extent of our inner strength.
Nothing gives us more gratitude for the program than the realization that we have been brought into contact with good people who want nothing for the best of us. Those who enter our programs are given the perfect opportunity to experience this sense of community, not only in treatment but also by spending some time in our sober living facilities once they have graduated and are ready to begin taking their initial steps back into the wider world. Through the unity experienced in sober living, our patients will find it easier to hold themselves accountable. They will also learn mindfulness for their actions as they come to realize that the things they say and do will have an impact on the people with whom they are living. The First Tradition is about more than simply helping and relying upon others; we must also learn to respect their right to inhabit their own space and explore their own definitions of serenity and contentment. They, like us, should not have to take this journey alone.
By embracing the First Tradition, your days of isolation will finally be at an end. More than that, you will help to end the isolation of people much like yourself, people who never felt as if they had a place in the world before they found a group in which people understood the benefits of unity and fellowship. This is one of the most fundamental traditions of our sober fellows, and it is one that has helped numerous addicts and alcoholics recover. Embrace it heartily.