The Origin of the Twelve Concepts
In 1962, the General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous excepted co-founder Bill W.’s Twelve Concepts for World Service as the accepted interpretation of a world service structure that could benefit the whole of AA. This conference, established by the General Service Board, addressed the need for AA to establish these concepts in order to address the fellowship’s growing ranks, which necessitated a call for order in the protocol. With one of the co-founders having passed away and Bill not getting any younger, it was important that their vision be remembered. It is this desire that resulted in the formulation of the Twelve Concepts for World Service.
The Twelve Concepts may be rooted in AA history, but that does not mean you must be a part of AA to benefit from understanding them. Bill essentially laid out a plan that has kept his group alive for decades beyond his passing. There is much wisdom in Concept I and the eleven which follow it. If the Twelve Concepts can be used to unify such a large organization, surely embracing them will help us maintain the fellowships in our own lives. At the very least, we certainly don’t have anything to lose by learning them.
It’s unlikely that Concept I or the Twelve Concepts as a whole will affect your ongoing pursuit of sobriety (unless you closely subscribe to the First Tradition—that personal recovery depends upon AA unity). The value of this literature can be appreciated whether you are a member of AA, NA, CA, or none of the above, it is important to recognize that once upon a time, a group that has helped countless alcoholics to recover decided that fellowship was the key. No matter who you are or which group you do or do not belong to, you cannot do it alone.
The History of Concept I
“Final responsibility and ultimate authority for A.A. world services should always reside in the collective conscience of our whole Fellowship.”
In 1938, nearly a quarter of a century before Concept I would ever be penned, Bill created a trusteeship referred to as the Alcoholic Foundation. Now known as the General Service Board, the job of this trusteeship was not to govern (which would, in essence, violate the Second Tradition). Instead, its job was simply to ensure that all AA groups had uniform literature and public information such as pamphlets.
Basically, the trusteeship’s job was to help new groups get started by handling their pleas for help and showing them how established groups had gotten on their feet. The Grapevine, AA’s national magazine, was also beginning publication at the time. In order to spread the message to other countries, it had to be translated into other languages. The main service office carried the weight of these duties but often looked to Bill and Bob for help. This was something that worried Bob when he became ill, realizing that he and Bill would not always be around to act as pillars of support for the fellowship they had created.
Concept I addresses this issue by establishing that the groups themselves should be in charge of AA. This may seem like a bit of an upside-down concept, not to mention a problematic one. With AA spreading across the nation and the world at large, how could there be a collective conscience? And even with the Second Tradition stating that there be a Higher Power left to govern, authority would still have to be realized by AA’s followers in the mortal realm.
Bill, however, believed Concept I to be the ultimate answer to this dilemma. Referring to AA as “a spiritualized society characterized by enough enlightenment, enough responsibility, and enough love of man and of God to ensure that our democracy of world service will work,” he devised the answer to the question in similar terms to those utilized in Tradition Two:
“The A.A. groups are to be the final authority; their leaders are to be entrusted with delegated responsibilities only.”
His answer, essentially, was that there didn’t need to be an answer. If the groups ran themselves according to the Twelve Traditions, there would be no controversy. Concept I would work because the guide to a worldwide collective conscience had already been written in the principles of the program. Individual groups may encounter problems that they would handle when needed, but AA itself would continue to guide them long after he was gone. And he was certainly right, for that is precisely what has continued to happen to this day.
What Concept I Means
Again, the meaning of Concept I lies primarily in the Second Tradition. Bill wasn’t just recommending that AA continue to follow the principles that had already been laid before them but was also expressing his undying faith that those principles were already working and would continue to work without a founder in charge. New groups would continue to spring up, and the General Service Board would keep enabling them to do so.
The organizational structure of A.A. is like an upside-down pyramid. The individual groups report to district meetings, which combine into area assemblies, which may report to the larger trusteeship that was established so long ago. The alleged ultimate authority is the largest group yet appears to report to a small organization to which Bill gave no real power. As long as the trustees continue to follow Concept I and the general principles of AA, there will be a trickle-down effect (or trickle-up, if you wish to maintain the upside-down theme) that will affect the individual groups of which AA is comprised. Each group may do things in a slightly different manner, but the General Service Board will always be there to ensure that the literature containing AA’s basic principles is kept entirely uniform.
Some have described Bill as something of an arrogant man. And perhaps, in some fashions, he was. But if you believe Concept I to be an indication that he was letting ego drive his belief that his literature would be the rock and the foundation of recovery, then you are wrong. Perhaps he did have faith in his own teachings, but we learn from his story in the Big Book that many of those teachings were derived from a friend. He never shied away from this fact. His faith was not in himself, but in the process that worked for him and helped him to remain sober. More importantly, his faith was in the fellowship, that they may continue to help others remain sober long after his own personal mission had ended. Concept I is not widely known to all AA members, but it is a shame, for it may be the single greatest legacy that has been left to them.
Embracing the First Concept
To embrace Concept I in your life, literally all you have to do is participate in a home group and trust that it will run according to the principles of AA rather than by the personalities of its members. In other words, you must simply live your life by principle and encourage others in recovery to do the same. Do this, and Concept I has not failed you. You are trusting in the program, just like Bill did so many years ago when it was time for him to leave this realm.
If you take a service position in your group, you must strive to remember the Second Tradition, which made Concept I so successful. Do not take a service position for the sake of feeling important. Do not take it in order to govern the lives of others. Instead, take a service position because you truly believe in the importance of service work in recovery. Living our lives in the service of others is what gives us a purpose that drives us to get out of bed in the morning, to drink coffee and water instead of alcohol, and—for those who cannot or will not overcome their urge to smoke—to burn tobacco instead of more illicit substances.
Try to remember Concept I and the Second Tradition in your personal fellowships as well. Do not try to control or manipulate friends and family, for their lives are not yours to govern. Be there for them when they need you, offer advice only when it is requested, and accept that they have their own Higher Power guiding their every action. When we learn to accept others for who they are instead of trying to control them, we tap into the same faith in humanity that drove Bill to devise the First Concept over fifty years ago.
Concept I can be surprisingly difficult. Many of us often struggle against our urges to meddle in affairs that are beyond our control. But we do not always get what we want from this meddling, and sometimes the result is that we find ourselves stressed beyond belief. We may feel that we have failed in our efforts to gain control over others, and we may easily turn to substance abuse once again so that we may at least gain some false semblance of control over our emotions. Through Concept I, we are freed of this threat. In order to remain sober, we must do all we can to nurture our faith in the power of unity—whether in AA, or in the whole of the human race.