Wednesday, 13 January 2016
Principles and rules
Someone emailed me about the last post and asked about the difference between principles and rules.
Here are two rules that some people in AA express:
‘Amends have to be made face to face, or they don't count.’
‘Never say no to an AA request.’
These are rules, because no judgement is involved: if you have an amend, it must be made face to face; if someone in AA asks you to do something, you must.
Principles are invariably applied alongside other principles picked from a constellation of principles.
The suggested rule that amends must be 'direct'. In 1939, when the Big Book was written, the concept of 'face to face' was available and expressed as it is in now with the phrases 'face to face' and 'in person'. The fact that the Book says 'direct' not 'face to face' is telling and deliberate. Face to face is often better and clearer and there are many amends I would not dream of making in writing or in some alternative way. The Book clearly suggests face to face as the best way of making amends in many cases but concedes other options.
Another couple of pieces of background information: Bill is extremely sketchy, frankly, on whether he made amends and, if so, how. One might expect a little bit of detail somewhere in his 36-year career in AA on how he actually made them, but we have almost nothing. Bob made them all in one day, by driving around Akron. We learn nothing from Bill about how to make amends other than being told general principles and how others he knew made amends. We know from Bob's amends, which were completed in one day, that he did not make amends to anyone outside Akron and that he made amends only to as many people as he could see in one day.
I got to AA when I was 21 (compared to Bob, who was much older), and I had amends to make all over the world, by then; people in different cities, people in different countries. If I had lined them up, I could have made the top ten to fifteen amends in one day. No way could I have made all of them. I did a second round of amends when I was around 36. I had 78 names. Again, if you added up the time these took, it was way more than one day. My friend N had around 270 amends. Many people I know have over 100.
My conclusion: the amends process as described in the Big Book set the threshold very, very high indeed for making amends; only the most egregious crimes made the list.
Given the scrupulousness with which we draw up complete amends lists these days, covering every little theft and every broken relationship, however minor, we have to conclude, I believe, that we do a far better job of this than the founders. If Bob could complete his amends in one day, he was either saintly for having so few people to see or was applying different criteria. I presume the latter was the case.
Now, all of my top amends (basically the closest friends and family members) absolutely had to be seen in person. What about the rest?
Here's where other principles come into play: tact, consideration, proportionality, decorum, respect, efficacy.
There are many amends that are best made in writing (with a phone call and/or a face-to-face meeting offered as a follow-up if the recipient would like). These include (but are not limited to): people who live a long way away where trekking across the city, country, or world would appear to the recipient utterly disproportionate and self-aggrandising; amends where the recipient is so reactive and domineering that the only way a clear message can be conveyed without being rebutted, garbled, or diverted is in writing; amends where the difference in status is such that demanding or even requesting the person's time would be quite disrespectful or presumptuous; amends where what you did was so creepy the last thing the recipient wants to do is see your leering face; exes where there is the risk of re-igniting romantic feelings; amends that must necessarily remain anonymous; there are scores of such examples.
Get this wrong, and you'll get sub-optimal results; I know, because sponsees have reported great reluctance on the part of potential recipients to meet and the attempt to meet actually hampered the amend; good judgement in advance often means approaching certain people in writing instead.
Here, the principles must be applied in concert and with plenty of prayer and contemplation.
Let's turn to the other question: never saying 'no' to an AA request.
The only way I could comply with this would be to neglect my immediate and extended family and to give up work. This is insane. We're supposed to rely on God for guidance, not develop a one-off rule so we don't have to rely on God. That's the whole point of rules: they're a way of manifesting self-reliance, as you rely on the rule you've chosen not on the relationship with God.
Do I do a lot for AA? Well, frankly, yes. So, yes, I do say 'yes' to a lot of AA requests. Most days I spend about three hours sponsoring. Sometimes more, occasionally up to five. Often a lot less at weekends, perhaps an hour or two on each day. I redirect about two-thirds of people who ask me for sponsorship to sponsees or friends of mine in AA, and I reserve the ‘yes’s for people I am uniquely positioned to help; we are responsible for ensuring the hand of AA is there to help, not to be that hand in all circumstances. The same principles apply in saying ‘yes’ to service opportunities, whether in the service structure or in groups.
What we do in AA is an avocation not a vocation. When, in the past, I neglected my family, work, friends, and other interests (which the Big Book enjoins us to engage in!), I was not more helpful, honestly, and was not a good example to others. To be a good sponsor you need successful relationships in your life and a worthy occupation, because otherwise there is nothing to attract people with; the subject matter of my life is my life, not AA: my career(s), family relationship, close relationship with my partner, and friendships are the worked examples of how to work the programme. If I were to sacrifice my life for the sake of never saying 'no' to an AA request, I would destroy my ability to be useful.
To sum up: the only rule is to be cautious about rules; principles and God-reliance offer a much safer course.