The Twelve Traditions are a part of the foundation of 12 step recovery programs. While the Twelve Steps focus on how we recover on a personal level, the Twelve Traditions focus upon our recovery as a group. As we have said time and time again, the addict or alcoholic cannot go it alone.
These two foundational pieces of literature don’t always match, but Tradition Two and Step Two are firmly in sync. Both the Second Step and Second Tradition focus largely on nurturing our spirituality as part of a group rather than on our own and navigating potential turbulence within our homegroup.
What Is Tradition Two?
“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.”
Let us first address the elephant in the room. Alcoholics Anonymous has religious roots as a Christian organization that greatly influenced the original literature. However, the organization has come to realize the Second Tradition is not necessarily meant to imply that everyone within an AA or NA group should be following the same God.
At the same time, the notion of God is not quite as open as the Higher Power referenced in Step Two. The concept of “one ultimate authority” indicates that there is to be an element of fate or destiny in your perception of the Power that governs your primary sober support network. And just as there are many addicts and alcoholics in recovery who do not believe in religion, there are many to whom the very notion of fate stands against everything in which they believe.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions elaborates on the presence of faith in the group while also addressing the notion that AA leaders do not govern. Much of the chapter relating to Tradition Two consists of a hypothetical situation in which a group of leaders attempts to impose their will on the group. In doing so, they exhibit many character defects such as self-centeredness and stubbornness. They lead more of a dictatorship than democracy and are eventually replaced after an election is called at a group consciousness meeting. After a time, the new leaders do their duties without any delusions of power, and it is at this point that the story ends thusly:
“The committee gives no spiritual advice, judges no one’s conduct, issues no orders. Every one of them may be promptly eliminated at the next election if they try this. And so they make the belated discovery that they are really servants, not senators. These are universal experiences. Thus throughout A.A. does the group conscience decree the terms upon which its leaders shall serve.”
It is important to note that the lack of a traditional government does not deprive AA of all leadership. In fact, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions notes that even those who have been removed from their positions may still act as leaders in the group. As for the type of leadership they decide to invoke, there are essentially two types. The chapter on the Second Tradition refers to these two types as elder statesmen and bleeding deacons.
“The elder statesmen is the one who sees the wisdom of the group’s decision, who holds no resentment over his reduced status, whose judgment, fortified by considerable experience, is sound, and who is willing to sit quietly on the sidelines patiently awaiting developments. The bleeding deacon is one who is just as surely convinced that the group cannot get along without him, who constantly connives for reelection to office, and who continues to be consumed with self-pity. A few hemorrhage so badly that—drained of all A.A. spirit and principle—they get drunk.”
Those who harbor resentments and concern themselves only with the moderate power gained by holding a service position in AA will often wind up on the wrong path. Those who express humility, however, will become the best type of leader AA and NA have to offer—the kind who leads by example. As for how their Higher Power plays into this, there are multiple interpretations that may be considered.
One interpretation of the Second Tradition can be tied into another story that is told in the corresponding chapter. It involves one of AA’s first members receiving a financial opportunity from the same hospital that employed William Silkworth (the physician who wrote “The Doctor’s Opinion”). There were many benefits of accepting this offer, but it was ultimately the Second Tradition that held him back.
Basically, this man (Bill) spoke with several alcoholics who were staying in his house and attending meetings there. He told them that AA would be able to conduct its business in the hospital, he would make more money, and he’d be able to help them out by acting as a lay therapist. In his mind, this all sounded good. But he had run it by his wife, and she had been less than enthused. When he ran it by the group, they reminded him that “sometimes the good is the enemy of the best,” something he had told them himself.
Bill realized upon hearing this that his prayers on the matter, during which he came to the conclusion that it would be the best option, were misled. In the spirit of the unity promised by Tradition One, he had to heed group conscience. And in the mind of the group, affiliating AA with an outside institution would be harmful to the program. Bill may have technically been in charge, but he was being led by the feelings of the group. Because it was through his friends that his perception of God was revealed.
The keyword here is “perception,” as this is where those without religious faith will be able to forge their own interpretation of the Second Tradition. To these people, the Second Tradition is less about God and more about the willingness to allow the group to conduct itself naturally. Rather than impose their will on things, they let go and see how the group runs best. They look at matters in a fashion that is not quite objective but still serves more than their own desires. To many, this is all the Second Tradition really requires—the ability to put the group before oneself.
Others believe that the focus here is on democracy. They believe the notion of a Higher Power expressing itself through group conscience is an indication that every AA or NA group must not make decisions without the express consent of the group. This does not differ greatly from the interpretation above, but the focus here is on the group rather than on a Higher Power. This is not technically in keeping with a literal interpretation of the Second Tradition; however, it is permissible as long as this view does more good for the group than harm. When the individual in question sees the group coming together and succeeding in their efforts to support one another, they will most certainly experience something that could be defined as faith in something greater than themselves.
In short, the multiple interpretations of the Second Tradition revolve primarily around a person’s perception of a Higher Power. They also rely on one’s powers for observation, as we must be willing to keep an eye out and analyze the group conscience. This is how we will learn the most about whether or not the group is functioning as it should, and whether or not we are living up to the Second Tradition. As long as we are doing this, our interpretations of God or of the concept of leaders as servants can be practically infinite without posing any real threat to our own sobriety or that of others.
Following the Second Tradition
Given the very nature of the Second Tradition, it is impossible for one to embrace it alone. It takes cooperation with your group, especially with those who hold leadership positions. These people must be willing to lead by example, performing service work when necessary and demonstrating the core principles of sobriety so that others may benefit from the example that has been set. Anyone who is not prepared to conduct themselves accordingly is not in tune with the Second Tradition.
As far as how the group is actually to be run so that no one considers themselves to be “in charge,” the answer is generally quite simple. Many groups follow very parliamentary procedures, holding a business meeting every month during which they vote on any pressing issues that might be facing the group. The primary leader of this fellowship is the GSR (General Service Representative), but they do not technically have any more say in things than anybody else. All they essentially do is run the business meetings. If they try to step outside of these bounds, they have failed to follow the Second Tradition.
In order to truly follow Tradition Two, you must do a little personal reflection. Due to the presence of spirituality in the Second Tradition, it is vital that anybody who takes a leadership position in AA or NA has made an effort to reflect upon their spiritual beliefs. Without these in place, one cannot lead what is most certainly a spiritual program. Whatever it takes to reach a personal understanding of spirituality—something you will discover while working Step Two—you must undergo this process if you wish to fulfill a functional role in your homegroup.
Aside from spirituality, the primary component of the Second Tradition which you must strive to understand is the concept of group consciousness. If you have been in recovery for some time, this will not be too difficult. This is especially true if you attend your meetings within a relatively close-knit home group. If this is the case, then you should already have a fair idea regarding the wants and needs of those in your recovery community. You should know what they want to see out of the group, and will be able to address these matters in business meetings.
Those who are new to recovery may not be prepared to take a service position, but this does not mean that their opinion is not worth anything. Newcomers have a different way of looking at things. The old-timers may sometimes lose touch with the newcomers’ perspective, so it is good to voice your opinion and let people know how the group has come across in your eyes. Not only might this stand a chance at resulting in changes that suit you, but it might be enlightening for some of those who were there before you as well.
Above all, try to maintain a sense of humility in all dealings with the group. As long as you are able to voice your thoughts while bearing in mind that group consciousness does not depend upon your opinion alone, you should do well at embracing the Second Tradition and providing valuable insight to your group. In this way, you will become a part of the fate that defines the group. Or to put it in religious terms, God will speak through you as through everybody else within your recovery community. But whether you believe this or not is irrelevant—becoming involved is never a bad thing, and will almost certainly help you to remain sober. This, more than anything else, should be your primary goal.