People and Principles
By Mel B.
Personalities Change and People are Often Wrong,
but Principles Remain Constant
Volume 28 Issue 5
OUR FELLOWSHIP would not be where it is today if we had not benefited from the influence of some wonderful personalities–fine men and women who launched our groups and set the tone for everything that AA was to become.
We are doubly fortunate, however, that these strong personalities usually took themselves out of the picture when principle was involved, thus giving their assent to the idea of “principle before personality.” Perhaps the best example of this was a noted lady member who has done significant work in a related field of alcoholism, yet decided early to retain her anonymity at the public level in the interest of protecting AA.
The motto “principle before personality” has a much broader application than in the safeguarding of anonymity, though this is where it is often applied in AA. The fact is, it really can be a spiritual guideline for every human activity.
There is a good reason why that is so. A principle is a fundamental truth, something that never changes and always works in the same way under similar conditions. It is a principle, for example, that causes water to boil at 212Â° F. at a certain elevation. The principle is not affected by the attitudes and opinions of human beings. Water boils just as well for the sinner as it does for the saint.
But a personality is something quite different. A personality is a human being as he happens to be at a particular time, usually the sum total of his attitudes, opinions, experiences, expectations, and other feelings. Personality changes from year to year, even from moment to moment. It is often unreliable, and it is certainly unpredictable. A personality may be pleasing and positive for a period of time, then suddenly become ugly and destructive. Personality is still one of the most difficult fields of study, and much has to be learned before it becomes an “exact” science. Psychologists and sociologists have trouble agreeing on terms primarily because they always must deal with the variables and caprices of the human personality.
But this does not make personality less interesting to most of us. Principles often leave us cold and indifferent, while personalities give life its color and magic. Albert Einstein discovered great principles, but most of us would find the man himself more interesting than his discoveries.
This attraction to personality is both a strength and a weakness. We can be led to great heights by the right kind of person–the individual who believes in the truth and practices it. Or we can be swept to the depths by following the wrong kind of person–the mistaken or selfish individual who encourages us to do something that is fundamentally wrong.
We will always be attracted to strong personalities, and we will always seek out people who seem to have answers for us. How can we balance this tendency with the wiser inclination to follow principle?
AA’s guideline is very simple, yet it never fails to work. It is this: People can help us by carrying the truth to us, but they cannot cause it to become effective in our lives. Only we can do that, by accepting the truth and applying it. What then happens will be determined by our own diligence and sincerity in applying the principle, not by the personalities of those people.
Likewise, nobody can own a principle. A brilliant personality may discover a principle and pass it along to others, but he cannot later keep the principle from working for them. Once a principle is learned, it can easily be applied by anybody who cares to test it out. It is no respecter of persons, and never will be.
It was our good fortune, as sick alcoholics, to find a set of principles that can work very well in our recovery. We call these principles the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, but they are not the exclusive property of AA. They would work for any person who wanted to apply them in his life.
Wonderful as people are, none of them can serve as an absolutely reliable guide for our own actions. We can use others as models for our own behavior, and we can go to them for advice. But we are in trouble if we do not base our own actions on truths that we know to be right. We need to understand such truths and use them, for the time may come when we will no longer have others to lean on, and will have to use our own understanding to get through a difficult situation.
In our AA lives, there is no personality who can serve as a substitute for such practices as turning our problems over to a Higher Power, taking our own inventories, and working with others. If somebody tells us that these actions are not necessary and can be sidestepped in some way, we should not take his word for it, but should check the matter out to our own satisfaction.
In our everyday living, we will be no less successful if we try to follow good principles. A businessman got into trouble, for example, because he accepted a questionable business contract from a group with shaky credit and credentials. He would have refused the contract had it not been recommended by several prominent men. His failure to heed good business principles and his willingness to listen to the siren call of personality resulted in the loss of several thousand dollars.
In another case with a far greater potential for tragedy, a beginning pilot took off with his wife and young daughter on a cross-country trip with a flying club. Visibility was marginal, with low mountains on the flight path, but the other members had laughed at the newcomer’s doubts. The fog closed in shortly after takeoff, and the plane crashed into a mountain. Fortunately, all three aboard were rescued, but the experience made the man a much wiser pilot, willing to follow the principles of good flying rather than the opinions of others, who may have been willing to take foolish risks.
A third case concerned an amateur arts group which came under the sway of a dominant but opinionated board member. Largely at his insistence, the board finally dismissed a director who had been quite popular and had kept the group on a sound financial basis. This ill-advised decision, based on emotion rather than objective reasoning, plunged the group into near bankruptcy.
The lesson in all this is that people are often wrong, through either malice or ignorance. If we listen to their counsel when it goes against what we know to be right, we are placing personalities ahead of principles. We are asking for trouble, and we will be lucky if we avoid it.
Some people think that all principles, whether physical or moral in nature, come from God. Human personality also comes from God, but it is distorted by being caught up in the mixture we call “truth and error.” Human beings come and go, and are constantly changing, but principles go on and on, and do not change. When we put principles first, we are really putting God first. Perhaps that is why the two great commandments suggest loving God first and then our neighbor. Our neighbor is a great guy, but he is not worthy of being our guide in all things. If we put God and His principles first, we will have things in proper order. What’s more, we’ll even be finer personalities!