Embracing the Third Tradition

by | Mar 4, 2016 | Recovery | 1 comment

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The Third Tradition is one of the absolute backbones of programs such as AA. (chrisdorney/Shutterstock)

The Third Tradition is one of the absolute backbones of programs such as AA. (chrisdorney/Shutterstock)

Being the third month of the year, we’re following up our article on the Third Step of AA/NA with an article on the Third Tradition. While Tradition Three may not be entirely connected to the Second Tradition, it does actually correlate to the First Tradition in a few major ways. While Tradition One is all about group unity, Tradition Three helps establish one of the basic principles that keeps this unity intact. And if groups are following the Second Tradition as they should, the Third Tradition should never suffer in any group.

The Third Step and Third Tradition do not necessarily line up perfectly with one another, but that is not to say that they do not share their own much looser bond. Those who take Step Three must give up their willpower, following through on Step One and Step Two in admitting their powerlessness and turning to a spiritual remedy for help. The Third Tradition applies to all who have demonstrated the willingness to do this themselves, and as such it might be said that Tradition Three thrives on the completion of the first three steps.

With that said, Tradition Three is like any other of the Twelve Traditions in that there are some who have differing interpretations of how it should be enacted within various home groups. This is mentioned in the Third Tradition’s corresponding chapter in the 12&12 (the informal name given to the AA book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions). But we’ll get to that a bit later. For now, we should explain just what the Third Tradition states and what it means on a basic level. Once this is understood, we can discuss various interpretations and how you can utilize Tradition Three in your everyday life.

What Is Tradition Three?

AA should be open to anyone who has grown weary of the alcoholic lifestyle. (Axel Bueckert/Shutterstock)

AA should be open to anyone who has grown weary of the alcoholic lifestyle. (Axel Bueckert/Shutterstock)

Tradition Three is, as stated in the 12&12:

“The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

This simple notion has become such a defining principle of AA that it is even stated in the preamble read before every meeting. It may seem at first as if the Third Tradition has little in the way of a deeper meaning. On the surface, it is little more than a mere description of AA’s membership, and it isn’t a definition that would take a rocket scientist to figure out. But the 12&12 actually goes a little bit deeper.

“This Tradition is packed with meaning. For A.A. is really saying to every serious drinker, ‘You are an A.A. member if you say so. You can declare yourself in; nobody can keep you out. No matter who you are, no matter how low you’ve gone, no matter how grave your emotional complications—even your crimes—we still can’t deny you A.A. We don’t want to keep you out. We aren’t a bit afraid you’ll harm us, never mind how twisted or violent you may be. We just want to be sure that you get the same great chance for sobriety that we’ve had. So you’re an A.A. member the minute you declare yourself.’”

Many who have been through AA or NA have seen the Third Tradition in action. We have met people who committed crimes that we ourselves may find abhorrent. But what has often amazed us is that these men and women did not strike us as malicious individuals. Had they not had the honesty to tell us of their transgressions, we would never have known about them. They were changed people, men and women who had hit rock bottom and decided that they wanted to live a better way. What kind of unfeeling monsters would we have to be to deny them access to our halls?

Interestingly enough, the Third Tradition has not always been in place. According to the 12&12, early AA groups refused to admit homosexuals, inmates (of prisons or asylums), homeless people, prostitutes, and anyone else who they felt might hurt the integrity of the program. This intolerance stemmed largely from fear, and this is one of the major reasons that we must embrace the Third Tradition today. The fellowship is AA’s single greatest gift to each and every one of us. We should never fear our brothers and sisters under the banner of recovery.

Multiple Interpretations

Believe it or not, there are some who believe that drug addicts should be turned away, no matter how badly they need help. (Artem Furman/Shutterstock)

Believe it or not, there are some who believe that drug addicts should be turned away, no matter how badly they need help. (Artem Furman/Shutterstock)

Much like the United States Constitution, there are those who take both strict and loose interpretations of the Third Tradition. Some view the “desire to stop drinking” as an indication that only pure alcoholics may join their ranks. There are many groups today that will not tolerate members who have dabbled in other substances, sometimes to the point that they may cast these members out even when alcohol was still their primary drug of choice. You may not run into a lot of these groups, but they exist.

The 12&12 describes such an instance. In its second year, AA was presented with an addict who struggled with a highly stigmatized addiction (which is not defined explicitly in the text). Many members at first wished to turn him away, but they also knew that he was in a bad way and would likely die without finding the help he needed. They decided that, since he still had a desire to stop drinking—and to stay sober in general—he was worth admitting to their group. He eventually became one of the group’s hardest-working members.

For this reason, many now strive toward a looser interpretation of the Third Tradition, to the extent that some with other primary drugs of choice have joined AA simply to partake in the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the general sense of camaraderie that AA provides. While some old-timers would rather see them go to NA, others recognize that NA is not quite as widespread. And why should anyone have the right to risk the death of a fellow sufferer, simply because they chose a different substance of choice?

The 12&12 describes another issue presented by AA early in its youth, an atheist salesman who did not believe in AA’s reliance on God. Some were so put off by him that they practically wished for him to relapse.

“He browbeat everybody, and everybody expected that he’d soon get drunk—for at the time, you see, A.A. was on the pious side. There must be a heavy penalty, it was thought, for blasphemy. Distressingly enough, Ed proceeded to stay sober.”

Ed was nearly kicked out of his group, but he appealed to AA’s mission that anyone who wishes to stop drinking should be admitted to the program. He stayed, but people were not so happy about it.

“The group was in anguish so deep that all fraternal charity had vanished. ‘When, oh when,’ groaned members to one another, ‘will that guy get drunk?’”

Ed did suffer eventually, but it was short-lived. He returned to his group later, never to take a drink again. And after that, many began to think back on their treatment of him. He helped many people in sobriety, people he would not have helped if he had been omitted from the program. His service work only came because he found within himself the power, faith, and willingness to return to the fold. There are implications that this was due to a spiritual awakening, but one thing is for sure—ever since it was penned, the Third Tradition is held by many groups to be one of AA’s most important guiding principles.

Following the Third Tradition

To truly follow the Third Tradition, we must be tolerant and loving of all people. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

To truly follow the Third Tradition, we must be tolerant and loving of all people. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

In order to fully embrace the Third Tradition, you must first make a choice—are you going to be the type of person who only wants to deal with “pure” alcoholics, or will you be open to helping other addicts as well? In the spirit of the old AA groups, it may be wise to take the latter approach. More than that, you must remain open to the fact that you will meet people with diverse and sometimes troubling histories. But given the number of such people who have thrived and become fully functional citizens through the help of AA, you should never consider any of them to be beneath you. Remember the three keys to sobriety are honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. Never lose sight of any of them.

Truth be told, it might be worthwhile to consider applying the Third Tradition’s underlying principles of social acceptance outside of AA as well. The time in which we are currently living is one in which intolerance is becoming less acceptable by the minute. If you haven’t hopped on board the love and acceptance train just yet, it might be time to punch yourself a ticket. You may not be able to accept literally everyone, but try to keep your mind on the present. Accept people on the basis of who they are rather than shun them for what they once were.

We will often find that others are more accepting of us when we are more accepting of others. There is a karmic balance in the Third Tradition, in that we will often benefit from the fellowship of AA to the extent that we are willing to truly become a part of it. When we are intolerant and judgmental, putting our false pride above our sense of benevolence, others in AA will not be leaping for joy at the prospect of getting to know us. Instead, we are sending a message that we do not understand the meaning of fellowship, and in doing so we risk banishing ourselves to isolation at the end of every meeting when people aiming to expand their support network are looking for members who are a bit more accepting. If we do not practice the Third Tradition in our lives, then we are destined to work our programs alone.

In other words, the secret to embracing the Third Tradition is simply not to be a jerk. Be nice to people, and they will treat you in kind. We are all here for the same reason, so no one should receive subpar treatment unless they have gone out of their way to earn it. And if you are truly attempting to be less judgmental toward others, you will have no trouble telling which people you should be avoiding. Because nine out of ten times, this is one of the many principles that such people will violate. Give them a second chance, but do not hang around them for too long if you fear that they may put your own sobriety at risk. You are here to get rid of your character defects and become a better person in sobriety. Time to start thinking about what that means for your social behavior.

1 Comment

  1. I.C.

    Before you start broadstroking what AA members and AA groups should and shouldn’t do, I advise you to have a look at the long form of tradition three. The addict you refer to came to AA before there was an NA, CA, OA etc. The traditions of AA were put in place for the survival of the groups and AA itself. The need for unity and identification is essential. The often cited phrase “a drug is a drug” is nowhere to be found in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, but does pop up in therapy groups and treatment centers. Honestly, AA is for alcoholics. If you suffer from other maladies, respect the “house” you’re in.


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