Beware the Sound of Blaring Trumpets
By Mel B.
The Spiritual Basis of Anonymity Gives Sense and Direction to Its Practice
Volume 34 Issue 12
SOME YEARS ago, I wrote an article for a small-circulation magazine, identifying myself as a recovered alcoholic but not mentioning AA. Nevertheless, I received letters from AA members and others who readily recognized that I belonged to the Fellowship. No great harm was done, but I did learn that anonymity can be technically maintained while it is being violated in spirit.
That can happen because anonymity is a guiding principle at both the practical and the spiritual levels. Observing anonymity at the practical level is a bit like following a rulebook; it covers most situations, but eventually something comes up that the rules don’t quite explain. I think we find the right answers, however, if we also have an understanding of the spirit of anonymity, the thing that’s summed up in AA’s Twelfth Tradition.
But first, what is practical anonymity? It’s largely covered by the Eleventh Tradition. Maintain anonymity at the public media level, and, of course, respect the other person’s anonymity at every level. Just don’t come out in the newspapers or on television as an AA member, and you’re observing anonymity at the practical level. And don’t tell anybody that your friend John Doe is an AA member, or reveal anything you know of his personal problems.
But I proved, to my own regret, that you can stay within the Eleventh Tradition and still let the printed message say that you belong to AA. It’s easy to play games with this Tradition. For example, I saw one member appear as a recovered alcoholic on a national television show presenting full face, full name, but no actual mention of AA affiliation. Then, this person went on to talk knowledgeably about the effectiveness and operations of AA, leaving no doubt about the AA connection. This was hardly a case of maintaining real anonymity.
On another occasion, I heard a member discuss another member’s sex problems in a talk at a large anniversary meeting. He did not give the other person’s name, but he revealed so many facts that I was able to identify the man. This was certainly a violation of confidence, as well as anonymity.
Both examples, in my opinion, were cases of coyly staying within the requirements of anonymity while distorting its purpose. Perhaps recognizing this problem, the authors of the AA Traditions went further. In Tradition Twelve, they talked about the spiritual practice of anonymity. It is the spiritual basis of anonymity that gives direction and sense to the practical side of it.
At the spiritual level, anonymity becomes a guiding principle for the AA way of life. Tradition Twelve makes the startling claim that “anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
What does that mean? Well, we talk a lot about putting “principles before personalities,” but it’s often only a defense against strong-willed individuals who attempt to dominate a group. Or it can be a way of putting down a person who has become a self-appointed authority. Used more wisely, it can be a reminder that one should never pose as a final AA authority or become too dependent on other members, because all of us have clay feet.
But what really stands out in this Tradition is the suggestion that anonymity is a “spiritual foundation.” According to AA co-founder Bill W., anonymity at the spiritual level demands the greatest discipline of which we are capable. It involves sacrifice, and the practice that must be sacrificed is using AA to obtain money, power, and prestige. This does not mean that AA members are not entitled to pursue any of these in their own ways; it suggests only that such pursuit can be harmful to the member and the Fellowship if one’s AA membership is exploited for this purpose.
Why should AA be one of the few societies to suggest such a discipline for its members? One reason is that AA is a society of very simplified purpose: As a society, we exist only to help the alcoholic recover, not to use AA as a means of becoming rich, famous, or powerful. We are best able to help the alcoholic when we do so out of genuine need and desire to help; but our efforts are blunted if we have self-seeking, base motives. An ancient book put the spiritual idea of anonymity very well: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. . . . When thou doest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee. . . . That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly.”
We don’t “do alms” in AA, but what’s meant here is doing good. We do good when we carry the AA message of recovery to alcoholics. If it’s done in the right way, this action of carrying the message brings an unusual reward that can be appreciated only by those who grasp its meaning. And it is really not a form of sacrifice at all; rather, it is a case of giving up a poorer thing in order to obtain something better. It is not sour grapes or rationalization to say that the thing we are seeking far surpasses wealth, power, or prestige. It is the pearl of great price. Remember, many alcoholics already have wealth and prestige but have not been able to attain sobriety. The thing we’re reaching for is no respecter of persons, and in this AA quest for spiritual understanding, the poor or obscure person has equal opportunity with everybody.
But why couldn’t AA serve many purposes for specific individuals and still carry out its mission of helping alcoholics? There are many useful movements that have also served as vehicles to make certain people rich and famous. Yet this has not destroyed the effectiveness of these organizations.
The answer, for me, is that AA probably could carry on for a time even if both the letter and the spirit of anonymity were lost, but we would gradually become less effective, and the high purposes of the Fellowship would be diluted. We are particularly sensitive to such problems as pride, resentment, and jealousy–all the character defects that flourish among competitive, self-serving people. From time to time, I have felt surges of resentment and jealousy toward the few people who have apparently reaped rather handsome rewards in money and publicity as a result of dropping their anonymity. I shudder to think what would happen to AA if this sort of thing became commonplace.
There is also another practical side to anonymity. Many of us, in our personal lives, do not live up to the ideals expressed in the AA program. Though sober, we often find ourselves short-tempered or wallowing in self-pity. At such times in my own life, I’ve been rather grateful that the community doesn’t know I’m on a dry drunk. Thanks to the anonymity Tradition, my personality quirks and opinions are held against me but not against the Fellowship of AA.
I am also inclined to think that anonymity breaks would be particularly troublesome in small communities. Most discussions of anonymity-breaking are about well-publicized individuals who have been identified as AA members in national publications or on network television. But anonymity breaks could be very harmful in small communities where individual AA members might be well known and would be under constant scrutiny. Who needs or can live up to the responsibility of being “Mister AA” in a small town?
If we choose to understand and practice anonymity, we should also face up to current practices that may tend to nibble away at it. Even seemingly harmless practices should be questioned. For example, many AA members use auto bumper stickers carrying the AA slogans “Easy Does It” and “One Day at a Time.” I confess that I purchased such a bumper sticker for our trip out to the 1975 AA International Convention in Denver. We took some pleasure in being noticed on the highways by other AA members en route to the same event. But we also discovered that non-AAs understand the significance of the bumper sticker–that it really says, “I belong to AA.” In thinking it over, I’ve decided that no useful purpose is served by carrying such a bumper sticker and that it violates the spirit of anonymity. One of the things we should sacrifice in AA is exhibitionism and showing off, so I’ve given up the bumper sticker habit. I do not really help myself or others stay sober by honking at them on the highway, and it’s not necessary or desirable to use a device that publicly identifies me as an AA member.
Still, it’s of little value to discuss such matters if individual AA members do not feel a great personal responsibility for the Fellowship, and do not sense the spirit of anonymity. AA is truly a fellowship that can never “give as the world giveth.” If the practice and spirit of anonymity fade, we will certainly be diverted from our primary purpose of helping alcoholics. Individual members who are ready to drop their own anonymity will, of course, declare that their purpose is to help alcoholics, for alcoholics are experts in self-justification. Nevertheless, the short-term benefits of power, prestige, and money–which will come only to the few–will bring a long-term liability for AA as a whole.
We should never believe that we have outgrown the need for anonymity or that changing times and conditions have made anonymity obsolete. Back in 1955, AA co-founder Bill W. observed that civilization was being torn apart by the struggle for power, importance, and wealth, man against man, family against family, group against group, nation against nation. The struggle was an appalling dry bender, he wrote, that was taking society down a dead-end road toward a stop sign marked “Disaster.”
Twenty-two years later, civilization is now almost within crashing distance of that stop sign. Nobody in pursuit of the gods of power, importance, and wealth is capable of showing the self-restraint and sacrificial spirit that could still save the day. We see all around us the clear evidence that the ways of the world don’t really work very well. All the more reason, then, to stay on the course that was so wisely chosen for us. AA sobriety is a pearl of great price that would be worth the exchange of any worldly position or possession. Those of us who inherited this blessing are under a debt of honor. We should pass it on, perfect and unblemished, to the oncoming generations of alcoholics who need and deserve AA at its best.
Why settle for less when we already have everything?