This week I attended a memorial service for a friend in recovery, J, who died of cancer at a tragically young age.
Although a member of a different twelve-step fellowship, J epitomised the spirit of AA. In his contact with me, whom he consulted for some years as a sponsor, his primary concern was the welfare of others, as illustrated by these three quotations:
'scarce an evening passed that someone’s home did not shelter a little gathering of men and women, happy in their release, and constantly thinking how they might present their discovery to some newcomer.'
'Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs.'
'Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. "How can I best serve Thee—Thy will (not mine) be done." These are thoughts which must go with us constantly.'
(All quotations from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book)
His concern certainly operated at an individual level; he was keen to maximise his usefulness to the individuals that he himself sponsored. His concern, however, was also for the fellowship as a whole of which he has been a central figure for a number of years. He wanted to ensure the growth of this fellowship, harmony and fruitful cooperation amongst its diverse parts, and the establishment of a structure that would ensure its survival and flourishing as time passed, even should its primary founders in the UK themselves pass off the scene. This has been achieved, and the fellowship he helped kick-start is indeed thriving, and I hope that those left behind will take up the gauntlet and allow God to inspire them with the vision with which J was so richly supplied.
He has also been a key figure in arranging 'Big Book Days', which bring together people from multiple fellowships, and indeed around the world, who are united in their conviction of the efficacy of the programme of action laid out in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It is hoped also that the momentum generated by these highly successful events will continue through the efforts of those left behind, not just in J's memory, but fuelled by the greater purpose that drove him.
On a personal level, J was huge fun, and it was this irrepressible enthusiasm that was key to his ability to attract others not just into the world of recovery but into the closer-knit community of those who have adopted the twelve-step programme as a way of life, not out of dogma but out of recognition that, for alcoholics and addicts like ourselves, it is the last, best hope not just for escape from active addiction but for maximising the potential placed within us to contribute to the world around us.
Another point: J was flawed. No one who knows him will deny this, but, then again, he was no more flawed than me, or anyone else I know, and these flaws were more than counterbalanced and offset by manifold virtues: active kindness, forgiveness, and industry being chief amongst them.
An interesting point is this: anyone who gains prominence within a twelve-step fellowship (not necessary welcoming it but recognising it at an inevitable consequence of sticking one's head above the parapet, daring to push boundaries and think outside existing paradigms, taking risks, and, most simply, helping large numbers of people) is going to attract some negative attention. AAs (and this is surely true of members of all twelve-step fellowships) can have a tiny habit of looking for the negative. The more one stands for ideals, the greater the scrutiny one is placed under. The question: is the individual living up to the ideals he or she espouses?
This question is rarely fair. The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and the Big Book itself make clear that we never achieve the ideals we set but are willing to work towards them.
Furthermore, it is this spirit that we must judge ourselves against: not 'am I perfect?' but 'am I willing to grow along spiritual lines?' Moreover, one might note, it should only be ourselves that we judge coldly against this criterion.
J, for the few but rewarding years I knew him, amply and consistently demonstrated this desire for growth.
J's last year presented challenges that mercifully few of us will have to face, and it is rightly said that no one should ever judge a person unless he has walked in that person's shoes. To expand that idea, one never walks in anyone's shoes but one's own; therefore, one can never judge. One never knows for sure 'how someone feels' or 'what someone is going through'.
What matters, ultimately, is the love that an individual leaves behind, in the hearts, minds, and vision of those whose lives he has touched.
Alone the number of people at J's memorial service is testament to J's phenomenal achievement, and many people owe their lives to him, directly or indirectly. What is marvellous and heartening in this otherwise bleak situation is that the fire that was started by J's individual flame will continue burning through the darkness and devastation of lives wrecked by addiction, and people who will never know his name or that he even existed will be touched by the power he accessed and channelled into other people's lives.
Greatness is often measured not by big-ticket, one-off events or achievements but by the thousand small tasks powered by the life and light within a person's soul.
As George Eliot said: 'The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'
And it is this that provides some degree of comfort and hope. J will be sorely missed.