Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Sponsorship—do I just listen to my sponsor, or can I listen to other people too? What does the Big Book say?

Sometimes, in recovery, people suggest that one listen only to one's sponsor, and ignore everything everyone else says, unless it's identical to what one's sponsor says, in case this causes confusion.

Fortunately, the Big Book does not state anywhere that one should listen to one person and one person only (save for those who are totally ad idem with that person!) It does not even talk about sponsors, although in Chapter Seven it does talk about the tone of the relationship between you and the man you are trying to show this programme:

'Having had the experience yourself, you can give him much practical advice. Let him know you are available if he wishes to make a decision and tell his story, but do not insist upon it if he prefers to consult someone else.' (Page 96)

There is no sense of exclusivity here.

If one examines the early days of AA, one does not find this 'single-source' sponsorship. Page 263 of the Big Book says that, in Cleveland in 1941, the twelfth-stepping process required the individual to be talked to 'by at least five members'.

What the Big Book does talk about is meetings. 'The very practical approach to his problems, the absence of intolerance of any kind, the informality, the genuine democracy, the uncanny understanding which these people had were irresistible.' (Page 160)

I would propose that the reason we have meetings, rather than AA consisting solely of one-to-one relationships, is that the experience of a group is more valuable than the experience of one person. It would not make much sense to have a group but then to have to fill one's ears with wax to prevent the experience of anyone but one's sponsor penetrating one's intracranial gloom lest irretrievable muddle be the result.

Even in very strong, rigorous parts of AA where there is real singleness of purpose and agreement about method, what is shared at meetings typically makes clear sometimes significant interindividual differences. All sorts of people who use the Big Book as the basic text and follow its instructions will follow those instructions in slightly different ways. For instance, some people see eight questions to answer on page 67; others see four. Some people see the reference at the top of page 74 to 'person or persons' with whom to take Step Five as indication that one may or even should take Step Five with more than one person; others are appalled at this. Listen to the 'Primary Purpose' crowd, then compare this to the 'Big Book Step Study' crowd. Boy, is there variation amongst the true believers!

Over the last 20 years in AA, I am glad I have listened to more than one person, and learned from the experience of many people rather than the experience of just one. I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that God saw fit to create a fellowship so that we would learn from the many, not the one.

There is obviously a risk of sponsor-shopping or advice-shopping, but self-honesty will reveal whether one is shopping around to avoid painful truths or actions or whether listening widely has as its purpose the enrichment of one's recovery.

The real question to ask when listening to advice or experience of people other than one's sponsor is this: is what this person is saying consistent with the principles set out in the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous'? Is this coming from experience or is this opinion? How is this working for the person in question?

If I can answer these questions satisfactorily and the advice or experience is not inconsistent with my sponsor's approach, then full steam ahead to its application. If there is inconsistency, a chat with my sponsor is worthwhile.

Sometimes there is a terror that, if the instructions are not followed in a particular, very narrowly defined way, one will drink, even though whole swathes of the AA world are staying sober permanently and living happy, productive lives by approaching the Twelve Steps in a slightly or even radically different way.

But surely our founders would disagree with variation between how different people apply the principles? Actually, the truth is this: the man who wrote most of the Book did not himself originally take Twelve Steps, certainly not precisely as he later outlined in 1939, back in 1934/1935, although the substance is very similar. He was most definitely following the Oxford Group approach, and an examination of the first draft of Bill's Story indicates that what is described on pages 63 to 88 is sometimes quite different to what his initial experience was in 1934/1935.

Page 263 indicates how Dr Bob took someone through the Steps:

'The day before I was due to go back to Chicago, a Wednesday and Dr Bob's afternoon off, he had me down to the office and we spent three or four hours formally going through the Six-Step program as it was at that time. The six steps were:
      1. Complete deflation.
      2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.
      3. Moral inventory.
      4. Confession.
      5. Restitution.
      6. Continued work with other alcoholics.
      Dr Bob led me through all of these steps. At the moral inventory, he brought up some of my bad personality traits or character defects, such as selfishness, conceit, jealousy, carelessness, intolerance, ill-temper, sarcasm and resentments. We went over these at great length and then he finally asked me if I wanted these defects of character removed. When I said yes, we both knelt at his desk and prayed, each of us asking to have these defects taken away.'

And yet … Bill was the man who took Dr Bob through the Steps. Sounds like both men applied a degree of adaptation in how they then sought to carry the message and then how the fellowship wrote about this.

It is clear from these three sources: the first draft of Bill's Story, the programme 'as set out', and Dr Bob's method, that the authors of the Book themselves did not subscribe to the belief that there is only one way to work this programme, with all other methods being heretical or inviting immediate doom.

What I see in the Big Book is a programme that is organic, not set in stone for evermore. Having said that, I do personally try to stick as close as possible to the basic text, but it is not so much a straight-jacket as a torch-lit path through the dark woods.


kesavan chakravarthy said...

Thank You For Sharing!!!

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly: the inventory I'm writing with the aid of some of the excellent worksheets found here is very different from the one I took in 1995: that one turns out to have been less thorough than I thought.
With this current inventory my defensiveness against the truth seems to be giving way.