Embracing the Twelfth Tradition

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The Twelfth Tradition could be the key to a successful recovery. (inxti/Shutterstock)
The Twelfth Tradition could be the key to a successful recovery. (inxti/Shutterstock)

At the end of our series on the Twelve Traditions, we arrive at that principle which drives the very heart of groups such as AA and NA. The principle that makes these programs effective, that allows them to spread and live on for decades. That principle is anonymity. We discussed it when discussing Tradition Ten and Tradition Eleven. Each of those described a very specific form of anonymity. When discussing the Twelfth Tradition, we may think of anonymity on the larger scale. We aren’t applying it to specific instances, but rather considering it as an individual concept.

There is no doubt that the Twelve Traditions each appeal to anonymity in their own way. We learn in these traditions that anonymity gives us unity. It keeps our leaders from becoming tyrannical and banning people from the group, which might damage the organization’s reputation as a whole. The organization itself remains anonymous, steering clear of outside issues and refusing to accept donations. Without anonymity, the groups could not exist as they do today. They would not function with the same sense of sincerity and compassion. The Twelfth Tradition therefore holds an important place in our recovery. It’s the one that ties all of them together under a single principle.

As usual, we’ll discuss some various potential interpretations of the Twelfth Tradition after introducing Tradition Twelve below. Since the Twelfth Tradition ties into many of the Twelve Traditions in various ways, we’ll do our best to ignore topics already covered by previous articles in this series. This will, however, limit the scope of our discussion pertaining to possible interpretations of the text. Nonetheless, we hope that those reading this will gain a much better perspective on incorporating the Twelve Traditions into their daily lives.

What Is Tradition Twelve?

Anonymity does not always mean lurking in the shadows. For our purposes, it’s more about our ego. (elwynn/Shutterstock)
Anonymity does not always mean lurking in the shadows. For our purposes, it’s more about our ego. (elwynn/Shutterstock)

In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, commonly known as the 12&12, Tradition Twelve states:

“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

Two things about the Twelfth Tradition should be immediately apparent. The first is that, as noted above, Tradition Twelve informs each of the rest of the Twelve Traditions. Second, anonymity requires us to prioritize our principles over our egos. When we feel selfish or self-centered, when we become angry over not getting what we want, we must hold on to our virtues. Because it’s when we’re at our lowest that our virtues will be all we have left.

One might expect that the spiritual foundation of anonymity is humility. After all, it is through humility that we overcome the ego. Through humility, we overcome the urge to believe that we are more important than others. Humility should help us put our personalities aside in favor of our principles. Throughout our early recovery, people repeatedly told us that humility was essential to our recovery. Nonetheless, humility is not the foundation of the Twelfth Tradition. At least, not according to text of the 12&12. In this text, they use a different word: sacrifice.

Recovery certainly requires us to make sacrifices. In comparison to some of them, putting our ego aside from time to time should seem like no big deal. It certainly shouldn’t trouble us as much as the relationships we’ve broken, the careers we’ve lost, or the health we’ve neglected. When we consider the weight of our past decisions, the Twelfth Tradition is a small sacrifice. We may be attached to our ego, but it won’t help us get our lives on track or atone for our past sins. In nine out of ten cases, all it will do is distract us from the right path.

Of course, there’s a difference between ego and confidence. And the Twelfth Tradition, despite its focus on anonymity, should not shake our confidence. True enough, the 12&12 does note that anonymity in the group was first born out of fear. Most early AA members didn’t want their membership to be known publicly. They feared that any failure to maintain their anonymity might result in job loss or other consequences. Many still seek anonymity for this reason today. But many also realize that anonymity unites the group and makes us strong. They seek anonymity not out of fear, but because it gives them confidence in their sobriety. This is how the Twelfth Tradition is meant to be embraced.

Multiple Interpretations

We know that anonymity is important, but how precisely are we meant to practice it? (Tomas Urbelionis/Shutterstock)
We know that anonymity is important, but how precisely are we meant to practice it? (Tomas Urbelionis/Shutterstock)

The first rule of anonymity is that no one has the right to sacrifice another person’s anonymity. This isn’t much of an alternative interpretation of the Twelfth Step, because you’ll find that pretty much everybody agrees with this rule. It’s something that AA learned the hard way:

“Enthusiastic over the spectacular recovery of a brother alcoholic, we’d sometimes discuss those intimate and harrowing aspects of his case meant for his sponsor’s ear alone. The aggrieved victim would then rightly declare that his trust had been broken. When such stories got into circulation outside of A.A., the loss of confidence in our anonymity promise was severe.”

This means that failure to uphold the Twelfth Tradition may also violate the Fourth Tradition by hurting AA as an organization. Some might argue this even if we are talking about our own anonymity. As we discussed in a previous article, a relapse by someone popularly known to be in AA might make the program seem invalidated in the eyes of many people. On the other hand, a person with influence might inspire many of their fans to become sober just by talking about their own experiences.

As far as the groups were concerned, it wasn’t easy to find the appropriate balance. People needed to know that they existed, so they couldn’t be secret societies. But they couldn’t be part of a media circus, lest such flamboyance distract them or their newcomers from the group’s primary purpose. As organizations, AA and NA managed to accomplish this largely through word of mouth and some support from the treatment community. This works well enough for the organization, but how do we apply the Twelfth Tradition to our own lives?

It isn’t actually as difficult a balance to strike as you may think. In fact, the 12&12 notes that most of us aren’t really all that anonymous when you look solely at certain disclosures:

“As a rule, the average newcomer wanted his family to know immediately what he was trying to do. He also wanted to tell others who had tried to help him—his doctor, his minister, and close friends. As he gained confidence, he felt it right to explain his new way of life to his employer and business associates. When opportunities to be helpful came along, he found he could talk easily about A.A. to almost anyone. These quiet disclosures helped him to lose his fear of the alcoholic stigma, and spread the news of A.A.’s existence in his community.”

Losing the fear of stigma sounds great, but how are these numerous “disclosures” compatible with the concept of anonymity? Well, it’s all about our mindset when approaching the Twelfth Tradition.

Following the Twelfth Tradition

Those who embrace Tradition Twelve should be willing to help others without expecting anything in return. (Liderina/Shutterstock)
Those who embrace Tradition Twelve should be willing to help others without expecting anything in return. (Liderina/Shutterstock)

Embracing the Twelfth Tradition became easier for the groups over time. Not satisfied with word of mouth alone, groups began holding open meetings so that interested parties could observe. Speakers started giving anonymous talks to correctional facilities and members of the medical profession. They put themselves out there, yet still maintained their personal anonymity. It wasn’t about making sure that people heard their name. They only wanted people to hear their message. This is the spirit of the Twelfth Tradition.

When applying Tradition Twelve to our personal lives, we should remember that anonymity and humility are intertwined. If we tell a friend about our recovery just to keep them in the loop, that’s fine. But if we try to sell a book about our experiences so that we can publicize our names and become AA gurus? This would go against the concept of humility. The 12&12 defines humility quite well:

“It is an all-pervading spiritual quality which today keynotes A.A. life everywhere. Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction as A.A. members both among fellow alcoholics and before the general public. As we lay aside these very human aspirations, we believe that each of us takes part in the weaving of a protective mantle which covers our whole Society and under which we may grow and work in unity.”

Those who embrace the Twelfth Tradition aren’t good people for the sake of recognition alone. They say that the only behaviors that really define us are the actions we perform when nobody’s watching. Full anonymity gives us the ability to test out this principle daily. Do we still act like good people when nobody congratulates us for it? Are we willing to do anonymous good deeds as part of our service work, even though we know that no one will pat us on the back for it?

The 12&12 is right. We make many sacrifices when we practice the Twelfth Tradition. Not only do we have to sacrifice our material greed, but our entire focus on selfishness altogether. Paradoxically, in an effort to improve our own lives, we begin thinking more frequently about others. Not only does this give other people more faith in the program, but it gives us more faith in ourselves. That feeling alone is worth every sacrifice we’ve ever made.

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