There are few chapters as important to Alcoholics Anonymous as the fifth chapter of The Big Book, “How It Works”. It’s so vital that this chapter is frequently invoked at most AA meetings. “How It Works” has strong tie-ins with Step Three and Four of AA’s Twelve Steps and provides further explanation of how these steps can be fulfilled. In addition to diving into the deeper meaning of this passage and how it can be applied to the lives of those in recovery, we will also look at why it’s so often referenced in group meetings.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recovery if they have the capacity to be honest.”
This section of “How It Works” goes on to say that we often recover through the power of the Twelve Steps. But for those who cannot embrace these steps, the road to recovery will be long and difficult indeed. We must embrace the fact that we can only achieve progress, not perfection. We must embrace the fact that we need help, that we cannot achieve everything on our own. Once we accept our need for a sober support network, we can begin relying on others. Once we can begin relying on others, we can accept that we are not in complete control. These admissions will assist our recovery—but only if we are willing to make them.
The Daily Meeting Reading
Nearly every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting begins with a recitation of “How It Works” before moving on to the primary topic. What makes this passage so significant? It reminds us that if we are not honest with ourselves, we may damage our own recovery. We can accomplish great things when we look inward and accept that we have much work to do. Without this ability, they cannot complete Step One (those who recover are those who are willing to make a vital admission as to their powerlessness). There is no way around it: honesty is integral to the recovery process.
Emphasis on Step Three: Admitting We Are Unmanageable
Once we have admitted that we are unmanageable and have accepted that we are powerless to cure our own disease, we must become convinced that the only solution is to turn our back on the illusion that our willpower has gotten us anywhere.
“The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision with something or somebody, even though our motives are good. Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased.”
No matter how we go about this type of control, “How It Works” notes that the show is usually a flop and the players do not often appreciate our efforts. So we blame others, even though it was our own illusions of control that led to the mess in which we now find ourselves. Eventually, however, we will learn that to give up our self-will is to experience true relief. The more religious among us may then recite the Third Step Prayer:
“God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”
The less religious among us may not use prayer, but we will still come to realize that we cannot exert our will onto every situation. Having made this realization, we will be ready to embark on a journey of reflection and self-improvement. And this is when recovery will begin truly elevating us to new heights.
Step Four: Taking Moral Inventory
Once we have begun to let go of selfishness and egocentrism, we are ready to begin Step Four. We cannot do this without Step Three, for we must learn to see how many of our troubles were of our own making. We have to learn to see how our downfall has been caused by self-will run riot. An analogy is made in the text of “How It Works” to the manner in which a business takes inventory. They look for damaged or missing goods to determine whether or not their store has any issues that need solving. When taking a moral inventory, we do much the same thing with our own character. Primarily, we are looking for resentments, which can be much like poison to us if left unchecked.
“How It Works” explains how this moral inventory may be written:
“On our grudge list we set opposite each name our injuries. Was it our self-esteem, our security, our ambitions, our personal, or sex relations, which had been interfered with?”
It should be noted that their sample list also includes pride and fear. Living our lives in fear is no better than holding onto resentments. Furthermore, hurt pride can drive us to abuse drugs and alcohol, or to commit vengeful acts against people who might have meant no wrong. We have to see how our emotions have gotten the better of us if we wish to grow and remain sober. It is noted in “How It Works” that we will only be successful in this endeavor if we leave no stone unturned. We must be thorough, or else we may as well have not bothered with the list at all.
We must also realize when doing our moral inventory that those who have wronged us were not perfect. If we can attribute our own wrongdoings to spiritual sickness, we must be willing to do the same for others. It is important to focus on our side of the street. Our resentments. Our fears. And lastly, any sexual conduct that could be called selfish, dishonest, or otherwise harmful to the other parties involved. The conduct of others is not our concern—not if we wish to remain sober, anyway.
Upon completing this step, we will learn much about ourselves. Some of this knowledge will not sit well with us. Nonetheless, “How It Works” states that we will have made a good beginning. And as long as we continue striving for progress, with a willingness to return to Step Four in the future if need be, we will have done well. For the more we learn about our condition, the more we can do to change it. Knowledge of ourselves is the key to recovery. If we can embrace this key, we will unlock the joyous path that leads us to the wonders of sober living.