ON MY FOURTH SOBER AA DAY, I was sitting alone in one of our musty old meeting rooms, very sad and very broke. All the AAs had seemed very kind in their desire to help, but none of them had mentioned money. And, like thousands of other new members, I believed my biggest problems were financial. Yet not one person had offered a loan.
Then, suddenly, one of those big, handsome, gray templed, well-dressed old-timers strode in with a friendly smile widening his face. He stuck out his hand and squeezed mine. "If I can help you any way at all, just say so, and I'll do it!" he declared heartily. Trying to sound as if I were merely asking for a match, I said, "I hope so. You see, I need to borrow two thousand dollars."
His silence was total.
But finally he spoke. "You're in the wrong place," he said firmly. "We don't lend money here, my friend. That's not what this place is for."
I froze, but he went on and on. "We won't help you with a money problem. We won't help you with a family problem or a job or clothes or a medical problem or food or a place to spend the night. All we will do in AA is help you stay sober," he explained. "Then you can take care of these other problems yourself. You can take care of yourself, can't you, if you're sober?"
I hated that word "sober?" But what could I say? "Certainly," I snapped, humiliated that, in my ignorance of AA folkways, I had been caught in a faux pas, as if someone had found me eating peas with my fingers.
What the man had said made perfectly good sense. I had been sober a few days and could take care of things. So I put my gradually clearing mind to it, remembered a cousin I had not tapped for months, sent a wire, and got some dough.
To my astonishment and sorrow, I almost instantly found myself drunk.
Within a few hours, my new AA benefactor had given me in very blunt words a sharp summary of Traditions Five, Six, and Seven. And, by getting drunk, I had illustrated perfectly the special sense behind Five. What I needed most was not money, obviously. After getting it, I still had the drinking problem that had made me think of approaching AA in the first place.
This happened in January 1945, and the first hint of the Twelve Traditions was not to appear anywhere in AA until the July 1945 issue of the Grapevine, when Bill W. wrote, "I would like to discuss in coming issues such topics as anonymity, leadership, public relations, the use of money in AA, and the like."
Therefore, what I encountered in AA during my first few months, before the Traditions were formalized, were customs of AA behavior followed by members who had learned that some AA ways would work and others would not.
That is the authority of the Traditions in my personal life. I honor them, not solely because of their authorship or their having the mystical number twelve or their being adopted by the Fellowship at the First International Convention in Cleveland in 1950. I cherish them because they work. They enable me and my fellow AAs to stay sober, together, and to carry our message to other alcoholics.
But I did not like the Traditions at first, especially when they conflicted with what I wanted. I was a suspicious character, often turning phony operator to get what I wanted. During those first weeks, I kept wondering what "those AAs" were really up to or out for, and what I could get out of them.
The real miracle is that most of them acted with extraordinary kindness. No matter what I tried to maneuver out of them, they tried just to give me the message.
In subsequent years, I tried to misuse AA in two ways; that is, I tried to get more out of it than the sobriety message. Once I wangled a part-time job from a fellow member, then took advantage of him. Coming in late, I would excuse myself by thinking, "After all, we're both alcoholics; he ought to excuse my little weaknesses." He exploited me, too, expecting long hours of unpaid work simply because I was a fellow AA. We began to concentrate on what we were owed, not on what we as AAs owed each other. Neither of us got drunk, but our friendship did not survive. Another time I tried to use AA for romance, and really did find balm for a lonely heart with an AA partner. We found romance, all right, but we lost our sobriety.
Years have gone by since I had my infancy in AA as an excuse for my "gimme" tendencies. Today I try to look at the Fifth Tradition as a giver, not as a taker. But the picture is not pretty enough to brag about. It isn't always easy, even now, to keep my personal wants out of the way when I try to carry the message. I want applause as an AA speaker, compliments as a Grapevine writer. I want to be a "success" as a sponsor - that is, I want to be the one who sobered somebody up!
I have found I prefer to carry the message to pleasant, attractive, grateful alcoholics who do what I say and give me full credit for their sobriety. Sometimes I wish I did not even have to carry the message at all; I wish I could just wait where I am for people to come and pick it up.
On the other hand, I rejoice that I can now participate in so many good ways of fulfilling our primary purpose. I can help put on public meetings and other public information activities to carry the message to the alcoholics who are still out there drinking sick, scared, completely unaware that we want them, and completely wrong in their notion of what our sober life is like. I can be on our hospital and jail visiting committees. I can serve on my group's hospitality committee, to welcome the ill at ease newcomer. I can attend or lead beginners meetings. I can help support our local intergroup office and the AA General Service Office, which reach drunks in places I cannot get to. I can have coffee with the new AA after the meeting, instead of running off to chin and gossip with my old friends.
Yes, my group (made up of individual AAs, including me) has improved a lot in its respect for our Fifth Tradition - in its ways of carrying the message. My own AA history has lengthened considerably since I first caught glimpses of the sobriety-preserving wisdom in the AA way of doing things, summed up in our Traditions. But I have recently discovered something else quite wonderful about the Fifth: It does not say that AAs should help only newcomers.
I do not agree that the newcomer is the most important member at any meeting. In my opinion, equally important are those old-timers who showed me the way, and any middle-timer who may today be suffering. If newcomers are indeed the lifeblood of AA, old and middle-timers are its skin and backbone. What a bewildered mess we would be in without them!
So in your next meeting, when that Tradition about carrying the message "to the alcoholic who still suffers" is mentioned, please give a thought, not only to newcomers, but also to the alcoholics older in AA who are sitting there. One of them might be me. I still suffer, sometimes. I still need to hear the message, always.
B. L., Manhattan, N. Y.
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., June 1970