A Question of Prudence
By Bill W., General Service Conference, 1959
These proceedings began on the theme of gratitude and of trust. I know that even in fuller measure they close on those identical themes. And our last speaker has just added the third ingredient. And that is the ingredient of joy.
To the minds of some, this has been an uneventful Conference. It has been a routine Conference. In fact, we are so prone to having to have excitement that some of us have exclaimed, “For God’s sake, why did we have to come here at all? Things have been going fine.”
And the Conference did have that aspect. But beneath that aspect of it, I find excitement. I find assurance. I find joy. In the spirit in which this routine humdrum was handled. In the meticulous and careful attention to detail. I find great joy in the recognition by this Conference that all of our leadership is by no means here. And I wish especially that they would carry my gratitude and the gratitude of all of us back to those committeemen, and those GSRs, now numbering the thousands, on whom the base of our pyramid of service really rests.
We in those echelons can fail in our trust here and there as individuals—we on the Trustees, we in the service office, but these people as a whole cannot and must not fail. And that we recognize their importance was to me a very exciting thing.
Now there was an event that occurred that was at first passed by me as something rather amusing, something rather trivial, something funny. It did have all these aspects. Yet to me, on later reflection, it proved to be the basis of the theme on which I’d like to speak, namely, the theme of fear as it relates to prudence, as prudence relates to trust and as trust relates to faith in each other -faith in God and faith in our leadership.
You remember the episode, I had made this pitch on trust and the next day, or the following day, our great friend from Montana got up and he even smiled as he recounted how the treasurer of their convention had absconded—in thirst or for some equally desirable purpose—with the Conference funds.
The great event was that we laughed – and he laughed – all of us laughed uproariously at this deplorable thing. I have been pondering this morning what was the real deeper meaning of that laughter. And those thoughts, for what they may be worth, I would like to share with you.
There was a time when any such announcement in an A.A. Group or an Area—or in a Conference like this, should such a thing have existed—would have been shattering. And, as I thought about it, I remembered the first group secretary who absconded. I remember the first uproar over bed-hopping. I remembered the first anonymity breaks. I remembered the bitter attack that my best friend made upon me – and how I retaliated. I remembered our fears of the early times – fears for sobriety, fears for the existence of the group, fears for the survival of the movement – all bound up around these very human failings.
But in that laugh about the absconding treasurer, I found a mighty assurance for our future. In the first place, in that laugh could be found no trace of a desire for punishment of the erring brother. In that laugh, I found complete understanding. In that laugh I found recognition by each of us that, as individuals, we are still capable of any folly—and I shall add myself to that list because, indeed, my own capabilities for folly are still very great indeed. We have learned here that anything can happen to any individual at any time.
But the old worry was: Will these individual failings of our some day destroy our Society and the chance of those yet to come? And in this laugh I found a complete absence of fear, speaking for A.A. as a whole, of what any individual within or without could possibly do to us…or any group of individuals. This indeed is a great change. And it has been brought about, I think, by the conscious – certainly, the unconscious – recognition that in a certain aspect this government is almost unique.
We are surrounded by a world in which fear is the keynote, in which fear is taking a destructive course, in which fear drives men to pot, to bigotry, to murderous war and an unending category of other grief’s. Fear is the touchstone of all of this. Another characteristic we see in the world around us, not a new one – it is as old as history – is this: that, generally speaking, all societies and nations, and even religions, are apt to behave as a whole far worse than the majority of their individual members.
In A.A. we have exactly the reverse condition. As a society, we have seen no attacks, nor have we been attacked. We have made no aggressions on the world outside and they have not trespassed upon us; they have befriended us. We have exhibited no bigotry, very little intolerance. So as a society of still very frail individuals, our collective behavior has been almost miraculously impeccable. Our behavior as a society has been far better than our behavior as individuals, to whom anything can happen, even as the poor brother who get thirsty in Montana.
Now I think that was behind that laugh. It was no praise of our behavior as a Society because we have developed these attributes under the lash of Barleycorn, because we must. But I got behind that laugh a sense of tremendous collective security, an absence of fear of members who may be ill. So therefore we have capitalized upon fear whilst the world in general seems to be deteriorating under fear.
The A.A. first walks in the door driven by stark fear, then gets a little confidence. And then he gets more. But at no point, if he is wise, does he get a blind faith that God, having got him sober, is necessarily going to keep him that way unless he prudently does his part. So, prudently, our new man looks at the Twelve Steps and he commences their practice and he begins to grow. Then he probably enters a period of disillusion. He sees people around him victimized by power drives, all the forces at work, apparently in greater measure, than are tearing the outside world apart. But somehow the group hangs together. Somehow it functions. In fact, it does it magnificently despite what anybody inside it can do. And then he has a look at the Traditions and he suddenly sees that the Traditions are nothing but a special application of our relations, one to the other and to the world outside and to our functioning, animated by the spirit of the Twelve Steps and powered by the grace of God.
So the Traditions are a prudent setting forth of what would be necessary for us to do in order to be sure that our unity remains undisturbed and that our function can go on. Now, then, a couple of the Traditions or more deal with this matter of functioning, as groups, as areas, as a whole. And again we have devised a specialized application of the Twelve points in the Twelve Traditions to this matter of world service, a structure and edifice of service.
And, in order to be prudent, we have carefully defined our relations, one with the other and are still in the process of perfecting those definitions, with the groups, with the GSR5, with the Assemblies, with the committees, Delegates, Delegates with the Trustees, Trustees with the Service Office.
And we feel that if we can define these relations carefully, that there will be nothing more to fear from the deviations of individuals in these services at whatever level than we have under the Twelve Steps and the Traditions to fear the deviations in groups.
In other words, it is a prudent arrangement under which world services may be worthy of the grace of God.
Now, then, this is the ninth of our conferences. We will soon be hitting the landmark of its first decade. And to my way of thinking the result has been magnificent. And it has been founded upon fear turning into prudence and now slowly into trust and confident faith that this structure of service will be able to bear any pain or pressure which the future might thrust upon it.
Actually, one central thought over the years in those of us who have been very active in devising this structure has been this: this structure must be capable of functioning when conditions are at their worst and when we are at our worst. Will the structure of service be able to survive under those conditions? Now, I have no doubt that there are some of you who have been around three, four, five, six, seven years who may have got an exaggerated idea of the personal virtues and worth of those who serve you down here actively.
You come down here and you find that the drunks in the services here act much like the drunks in Texas and Montana sometimes. And this is a profound shocker. You say: “My God, is this altitude pretty low!”
My longer experience tells me: “No, it isn’t like that at all.” It was those very experiences, those observations of each others’ weakness, that themselves have slowly evolved these relationships that tend to take out the insurance policy carrying the theme of the future. And not the least of these observations were ones made upon me by my fellows and sometimes reluctantly by me myself.
I suppose the great central defect out of which a lot of others have grown—the pattern which has characterized me since childhood—has been a terrific craving for approval but particularly for power and prestige. I not only wanted to be approved; in all matters I wished to dominate and I wished to rule. The same forces that are tearing the world outside are the ones that tore me apart.
And when I appeared in this Society, and when I was given by our Blessed Lord the gift of sobriety, that pattern was not ended. My drinking has been, but not that pattern. And in my remaining paranoia, which was great, I was heard to exclaim right away: “I am going to sober up all the drunks in the world.”
And little by little you people began to gather around me and I began collide with people who were geared just like me. And a struggle began. Who could dominate this early A.A. scene? And, consciously to a degree, but unconsciously completely, I thought: This is for me; this is where I will distinguish myself; This is where I can at last rule. So I began to carry the message, animated in part by that destructive motive and also I hope by the grace with which I have been endowed as a gift.
So the Society began to take form. And presently the Society began to give me a whole lot of ‘thou shalt nots.’ First of all, it said: You are not going to rule; the interests of this whole fellowship are greater than any of your interests, whether they be power, money, prestige, and what have you. Survival of this group is even more important than your own survival. Oh, they didn’t articulate this so clearly but then it was there even from the beginning. “You can’t rule this Society. It can’t be run from New York City. You are in the money—making business; you are not going to make a fortune out of this, nor anyone else.”
In other words the society had begun to be prudent. . . and say: “These things are too great temptations, even for the outside world, let alone for us.”
So, as I look at the A.A. Tradition, they are for me to a large degree pretty much what they are for you. They are deflationary expressions of prudence, running counter to all of these very natural and sometimes terrible forces which would rend us apart.
So, after a few years, when the ecstasy of the first success has worn off and when these and other pressures began to increase upon me, I found myself a very sick man, emotionally.
My life became, for a good many years, a neurotic shambles. And meanwhile this Society went on developing its Traditions and my illness forced me to stay home and say: What is going to happen to Alcoholics Anonymous? And, quite naturally, what’s going to become of me? Which was quite a change, was it not, from these early and insensate ambitions.
So I was obliged to look at your experience and my experience and finally a friend came and he said: Can’t we now codify this experience not into rules and regulations but into Traditions? So, the Traditions were evolved. Out of the deflation of thousands; out of the stark necessity of the situation, these Traditions which spell out prudence, which spell out trust, which spell out brotherhood, which spell out faith, were evolved.
Well, half way through, of course the need was seen that we would have to function as a whole. There were successive delegations of responsibilities to a Board of Trustees. Then the relation of the Board of Trustees to us working in the Office was defined through agonizing steps, steps which cost me the friendship of one of my best-loved associates, even the death of another. You who fear trouble in the services really make me smile when I consider the troubles that we have passed through here and now no longer fear. Because, just like the Traditions, these structural relationships within which we now work, were formed out of pain. And therefore, as I said a few minutes ago, we hope and believe that by borrowing from the structural forms that man throughout the ages have tried, even from the anarchy to the democracy, the republic, the hierarchy—even the maligned dictatorship of Barleycorn and the benign dictatorship of our Father—borrowing from all those things, we can hope and believe that we have created a synthesis of principles and of relationships in which we can be just as supremely confident as this group was when it laughed—because there was no fear of a thief. And I’ll warrant you that the word thief never occurred to us as we sat here laughing.
So, we are coming to the age in the services of fear being translated into prudence, and prudence into trust—trust of each other and trust of our leadership. And we in the world service group are no small entity—some thousands of GSR5, some hundreds of committeemen, Delegates now approaching a hundred, and a couple of score of us around here—or less. This is the total group. And I think the time will soon come when the members of this group will laugh at the fears that are sometimes current about the collapse of our services due to the aberrations of individuals or so—called cliques.
Will we feel just as secure in the destiny of these services as we are in the destiny of our group, the only condition being that we shall maintain our prudence – the kind of diligence and industry show here—and our confident faith in each other and in God.
Now, then, about this matter of leadership. As I think I have observed, we are apt to veer from one extreme to another in our concept of what it should be. A leader is sometimes pictured by us as a meek soul, the really egotistical soul if you look more closely, who goes around and says to everybody: Now I just want to do exactly as you people want. And on the other side we have the fellow, no more egotistical, who says: I know what’s good for you, and this is it.
Of course, leadership has to be in a sort of a waving line going up through the middle between these extremes. And leadership at all levels—And I mean personal leadership—of the right kind—is absolutely indispensable to our future security. It is in the seeking out of the right people for the right assignments, no matter what the level, that we shall express the prudence of the future.
Our problems of the future won’t be the problems of re—creating Alcoholics Anonymous, or taking those great long chances or heavy risks. Our problem will be primarily the presentation of—the preservation of, the protection and the slow perfecting of what we have. And leadership, too, in all levels may have to face some day this society’s bout with crisis.
If the world is full of crisis, even with our special advantages, would it not be a conceit to suppose that we’re going to be let off entirely? No, we shall probably have these crisis; just exactly as we have had them as individuals and as groups and as areas, so may we have them as a whole. Therefore this Conference assembled here, this most placid one of all in which some say, “My God, I believe the Serenity Prayer has taken hold at last”—this Conference is really here as a bulwark against a future day which may bring peril and crisis. And this is a conditioning process, a discipline and an assurance that the day will be met and transcended, a thing of which I am supremely confident.
Therefore, in this writing which I am fussing with, of which there can be drafts of a dozen points of service, this is on my own part just an attempt at prudence, definition, interpretation. As you know, our manual of service is largely a procedural thing; it tells “how.” Scattered through it and in its charter, you can find a great deal of “why.” But the idea occurred to some of us that if the “how” and the “why” were pulled together and codified again in twelve characteristic points, that this would clear up the relationships between us, might convey some warnings as to the areas in which we should exercise special prudence and could be a broad basis on which the structure could operate, shored up by the history of our experience, saying not only “how” but “here is why.” So I’m going to drop my little contribution in the hopper and will shop it around here and it will be sent out to you people some time this year—I can say that it’s in a tentative draft now—I expect that in some aspects of it, it’s going to get one hell of a kicking around.
And I only ask that after it’s kicked, and it’s been digested and redigested, that even though there may be still differences as to its worth, questions as to the validity of some of the claims and statements, even if those are still residuary after two or three years, I would like to ask this Society just for one favor. Even if you happen to disagree with me, would you mind just printing those steps over into the back of that service manual in case some of them should turn out to be right.
I have no more to say. God speed, safe journey, happy hunting, God bless you.