Models of the Twelve Steps

Grade school through high school

In the early days of AA in Ohio--and, perhaps, in some meetings still today--newcomers were led through the first three steps before they were allowed to attend their first meeting. They took the third step on their knees, with someone else leading them in the prayer of surrender.

There are many sponsors who insist, with good reason, that newcomers must work the steps "in order." This is a great help. It is normal for us to resist the fourth and fifth step. We cannot experience the benefit of these two steps by thinking about them; the results come from actually taking the inventory and admitting "to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." We balk at these steps, and would rather find "an easier, softer way."

This approach to the steps is natural, and it shows how one step builds on others. Everything we learn in an "earlier grade" makes it possible for us to advance in the "higher grades."

Grade school
1 "Admitted we were powerless" is the first great lesson we have to learn. Everything else depends on this admission. The consequence of admitting powerlessness is that we give up our addictive behavior, whether it is a substance or a pleasurable activity that has become our god.
2 We "come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity." It is healthy to admit that we are insane; it is insane to deny the evidence that reveals we are sick and in need of a doctor.
3 "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him." Angels can do this in a single moment. We are not angels. The third step is like signing a mortgage. Payments must be made regularly in order to remain in the house in which we live.
4 We strive to find out what went wrong.
5 We share the fruits of our investigation.
6 We prepare ourselves to be changed by GOD.
7 We ask GOD to act decisively in our lives.
8 We consider how we have broken relationships in our lives.
High school
9 We do what we can to repair the damage we have done.
10 We maintain "a fit spiritual condition" by cleaning up our messes as soon as possible
11 We feast on God's love for us.
12 We try to tell others what marvels GOD has done for us by sharing "experience, strength, and hope."

The downside of looking at the steps on the model of progression through "grades" is that we feel as though we have "flunked out" when we discover that we need a refresher course in some earlier steps, most notably the first three and steps six and seven.

Shame is useless.

We cannot shame ourselves into loving ourselves.

We cannot shame ourselves into loving God.

The Twelfth Step describes the other steps as "principles that we practice in all our affairs."

There is no shame in practicing the principles of the steps "out of order."

We should use whatever principle we need when we need it, no matter where we are in the great task of working the steps "in order."

We need to "pray and meditate" (step 11) and seek "spiritual awakening" (step 12) in order to grow in the principles of powerlessness, belief, and surrender (steps 1-2-3). We need to be "ready to have GOD remove all these defects of character" and "humbly" ask Him to do (steps 6-7) so in order to endure "an accurate and unsparing survey" of the mess we have made of our lives (step 4). GOD is at work in us in all of the steps. "It is not that we have loved God; it is that He has loved us" (1 Jn 4:10). Each of the steps is a focus for "prayer and meditation" (step 11); each of the steps is an opportunity for "spiritual awakening" (step 12).

Similar imagery

Game boards

- Monopoly goes around in circles. There is a reward for each time we "pass Go," and punishment if we end up in "Jail."
- Others have boards on which "the first one to reach the end wins."

Flights of stairs

People love to point out the fact that there are twelve steps in front of Dr. Bob's house. While this is a very literal image of the steps, it, too, conveys the message that "going back" means that we are failures.

"Living in 10, 11, and 12"

I have heard people describe their program in these terms.

I am glad that they find this sufficient for their purposes.

More power to them!

To my taste, this is not an expression that I find in the literature.

This approach doesn't square with what step 12 says about the other steps.

I don't like the idea that our destination is to neglect the spiritual principles of the first nine steps or the thought that we can "live in" just the last three steps.

Nevertheless, I don't fight with these people. If we can have a "God of our understanding," it seems fair to suppose that we can have "steps of our understanding." If this works for them, it works. They have "the glorious freedom of the children of God" to conduct their life according to their conscience.

Clock face

Twenty-Minutes-Before-Five.svg

I love the fact that this image puts the twelfth step at the summit, right next to the first step.

There is a sense in which the twelfth step came first.

Ebby T. brought the message to Bill; Bill carried the message to Dr. Bob; they brought it to all of the rest of us.

The hands of the clock can be thought of us bringing two steps into contact with each other.

This gets ridiculous fast. There are 78 unique pairs of steps marked out by the movement of the two hands on the face of the dial:

1 and 1 1 and 2 1 and 3 1 and 4 1 and 5 1 and 6 1 and 7 1 and 8 1 and 9 1 and 10 1 and 11 1 and 12
2 and 2 2 and 3 2 and 4 2 and 5 2 and 6 2 and 7 2 and 8 2 and 9 2 and 10 2 and 11 2 and 12
3 and 3 3 and 4 3 and 5 3 and 6 3 and 7 3 and 8 3 and 9 3 and 10 3 and 11 3 and 12
4 and 4 4 and 5 4 and 6 4 and 7 4 and 8 4 and 9 4 and 10 4 and 11 4 and 12
5 and 5 5 and 6 5 and 7 5 and 8 5 and 9 5 and 10 5 and 11 5 and 12
6 and 6 6 and 7 6 and 8 6 and 9 6 and 10 6 and 11 6 and 12
7 and 7 7 and 8 7 and 9 7 and 10 7 and 11 7 and 12
8 and 8 8 and 9 8 and 10 8 and 11 8 and 12
9 and 9 9 and 10 9 and 11 9 and 12
10 and 10 10 and 11 10 and 12
11 and 11 11 and 12
12 and 12

The basic idea of fooling around with these combinations is to realize that the steps interact with each other.

The principle of powerlessness (step 1) enters into every other step.

We can do a "personal inventory" (step 10) of how well we are working any of the steps.

Every step provides material for "prayer and meditation" (step 11).

Each step contributes to our "spiritual awakening" (step 12).

The steps are the message that we try to "carry to others" (step 12).

Arch of Freedom

Arch of freedom.png

An arch cannot stand until all of the pieces are in their proper place.

Building an arch requires a scaffolding to support it from underneath until all of the stones are placed in their proper relationship. Then the scaffolding can be removed, and the arch will support itself.

Sponsors and others who enjoy the sober life provide the scaffolding we need in our early days of recovery. Like the picture on top of a jigsaw puzzle, they show us how all the pieces fit together coherently, and they support us in our efforts to construct our own arch.

One problem with this picture is that it is static.

It may make us think that we do the work once and that it will keep standing without any further maintenance.

We have to remember that this is only a picture; the spiritual reality is much more complex.

We have "a daily reprieve" from our addiction so long as we maintain "a fit spiritual condition."

The arch can fall apart if we do not continue to "work the steps" every day.

In this picture, the tenth step appears as the keystone for the arch: "We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it."

Arc by night, Paris 27 June 2012.jpg

Another problem is that this archway, as drawn, doesn't go anywhere. What difference does it make to build an arch over a road or out in an open field?

In Western civilization, conquerors have often built triumphal arches to celebrate notable victories, but triumphalism is not good for the souls of recovering addicts. "Pride goeth before the fall."

There is ambivalence in the literature and in our meetings about how much confidence we can place in our recovery. There are two truths in tension:

- Every day that we live free from our self-destructive compulsions is a day on which we can say, "I have recovered today." If it were not for the grace of God and the gift of this spirituality, this day would have been lost to our addiction.
- No amount of recovery guarantees that we will not collapse tomorrow. Right now, I am a recovered person. I hope and pray to remain in recovery tomorrow, but I can't make tomorrow's choices today. This is now; that is then.

God steps

Six of the steps explicitly mention our higher power: 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11.

I can understand why some people call these "the God steps."

When we are having trouble relating to God, a tenth step on "the God steps" may prove fruitful to uncover where we are stuck and to help get unstuck.

In my view, there aren't any steps at all that we can work by ourselves, without God's help. As I understand God, He is our creator and the source of our personal identity, intelligence, and freedom. "All is grace," beginning with the free gift of existence and the particular shape of my human being. I can't imagine any "spiritual awakening" (step 12) that is not a consequence of and response to God's presence and power at work in me. From this point of view, all of the steps seem like "God steps" to me.

Beginner's waltz

Waltzes are in 3/4 time: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

1. I can't.
2. He can.
3. I'll let him.

The first three steps are indeed, fundamental.

We can't work the rest of the steps if we have not incorporated these principles into our basic spiritual outlook on life.

Nevertheless, we should not fall into the trap of "spiritual perfection," putting off the hard work of steps 4 to 9 until we have perfected our surrender to "a power greater than ourselves" (steps 2 and 3).

We will improve our grasp of the first three steps by working the next six steps as best we can. "We claim spiritual progress, not perfection."

Don't dawdle.

Working the inventory steps helps us to understand our insanity (step 2).

Taking the inventory, sharing it, asking GOD to remove our shortcomings, and making "direct amends to those we have harmed" is a way of allowing GOD to care for us (step 3).

Nothing else can do for us what the inventory steps do for us.

Inventory Steps

Step 10 says that we "continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it."

The step itself does not define what "personal inventory" means, so we are free to give it various meanings according to "our own understanding."

I take it to mean that we apply the "principles" of steps 4 to 9 "in all of our affairs" (step 12).

If there were nothing more to life than drinking or not drinking, then when we stopped drinking, we would be perfect. Bill Wilson called this the Two Step Program:

- I stopped drinking.
- I bragged about it.

Alcoholism is a bodily and mental condition that catalyzes and amplifies many spiritual maladies. Steps 4 to 9 help us to make an "accurate and unsparing" survey of the damage we have done to ourselves and to those who are in relationship with us. It is not enough just to stop our addictive behavior; we need to repair the damage that our addiction has done in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others.

Sandy Beach used to say at the beginning of all of his lectures on the Steps that our problem is not "not drinking." "Our problem is being happy when we are not drinking." The inventory steps are the path to "a new happiness and a new freedom" in all of our love life. They are power tools for the reconstruction of our hearts. The more we use them, the more powerful they become in reshaping our spiritual life.

Helper steps

Some of the steps clearly come in pairs. Going back to an earlier step or an earlier pair of steps can help us to make progress with later steps, so long as we don't fall into the trap of perfectionism and postpone the hard work that the later steps require.

The second step reveals our need for God's care (step 3).

The fourth step enables us to take the fifth step well.

The sixth step is wholly oriented to the seventh step.

The eighth step takes material from our fourth-step inventory and is a necessary prelude to the ninth step.

Practical Principles

The twelfth step teaches us that all of the steps are "principles we practice in all our affairs."

The rules of a game do not tell us what moves we need to make in the game itself.

The rules of chess give us choices.

They say that on our first move, we may only move a pawn forward one or two spaces or bring out one of our two knights. We cannot play the game without making a move, but it is up to us to decide which of the legal moves to make.

So, too, with the whole realm of sports. Some moves are allowed; others are prohibited; it is up to us to make a choice of what we will do within the rules of the game as the game unfolds.

All of the steps provide spiritual principles that we can apply to the choices we make in life.

There are many ways to win any game.

There are many ways to use the steps to make good choices in life.

Organic whole

Our spiritual life is like our bodily life. Just as there are many interacting systems in the body that are essential to sustain bodily health, so there are many interacting principles in the spiritual life.

Some of the features of animal life are:

- breathing
- eating
- hydrating
- circulating blood
- metabolizing nutrients
- building and rebuilding tissues
- preserving a dynamic balance of organic systems
- fighting infections and healing wounds
- receiving and responding to internal stimuli
- receiving and responding to external stimuli
- coordinating muscular behavior
- seeking to reproduce
- cleansing the systems and eliminating waste

As a general rule, all of these systems are operative and co-operative at all times.

We must breathe to live. Every other aspect of life depends on respiration. But while we breathe, other essential activities continue. Without the heart pumping blood through our lungs, breathing is useless. If our liver and kidneys fail, our bodies become poisoned. Our glands constantly monitor our bloodstream and produce the fluids and compounds necessary for life. All of the systems need to be up and running at all times or else, as in the case of open heart surgery or dialysis, must have some external mechanism functioning as a temporary replacement.

"Half measures availed us nothing." A body that is only half-alive will shortly be dead.

There is no simple picture of the body that we can use as a picture of how the steps interact with each other. Oxygen from respiration, nutrients from food, hormones, immune system cells, and water are carried to every living cell in the body by the circulatory system; waste is collected in the blood and purified in the kidneys and liver; nerve cells penetrate every organ and every other system. Every part relies on the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I'm not going to try to draw a correspondence between each step and some part of the body. The point I want to make is that even when we think we are working just one step at a time, the spiritual realities to which the other steps point are necessarily at work in the "tacit dimension" (Polanyi), beneath the surface of our conscious awareness, just as the digestive system plugs away at incorporating nutrients from our most recent meal while our mind is engaged in other things. There is more to us than meets the eye. Life happens!

First things first

Automobiles provide another systems analogy, even though they are not "organic" systems in the biological sense. For a car to work, we need:

- fuel in the tank or a charge in the batteries
- an engine or motor to convert the energy into power
- a transmission system to distribute the power to the wheels
- brakes
- a steering system

Without all systems functioning properly, the car is useless.

We have to stop periodically to replenish our energy reservoir. No car can run forever on one tank of gas, one charge, or one nuclear cell. Sooner or later, we must refuel.

There is no shame in stopping to get recharged. We always need the first step in order to open us to the spiritual power available in the other steps.

Only God is infinite and self-sufficient. I am "not God" (Ernest Kurz). If I think, speak, or act as if I am God, I am guilty of idolatry, and I'm not going to make any further progress in the spiritual life until I repent of that error and reconnect to the One who alone is the "source of life and goodness" (Fourth Eucharistic prayer, 1973 translation).

First things first. God is first. I'm second. That's the law. I don't have the power to rewrite this law. I can accept or reject the grace of "a power greater than myself." To accept it is the pathway to infinite happiness; to reject it is the pathway to death.

"Today I set before you life and death. Choose life!" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Dr. Bob's summary

I have heard it said that Dr. Bob's last words to Bill were, "Let's keep it super-simple" (KISS). He used to summarize the AA program in six words:

Trust God
Clean house
Help others

We can sort of sort the twelve steps out along these lines:

Trust God: 1, 2, 3; 11.
Clean house: 4 to 9; 10.
Help others: 12.

But that may not be "super-simple."

The steps are AWOL

An idea that appears repeatedly in AA literature is that we have found "a way of life."

There are many ways to be human.

There are many ways to "work the steps."

Listen empathetically to what others share about their "experience, strength, and hope."

Al-Anon suggests that we should "identify, not compare."

Try to find the similarities between others stories and your own.

Put yourself in their shoes as much as you can.

See what has worked for them.

Take what you like and heave the rest!

Not a self-help program!

I hate the fact that bookstores put Twelve Step literature in their "Self-Help" aisles.

The Twelve Steps are a GOD-help-me-help-others program.

I can't blame the shopkeepers for not understanding this.

I do want to remind myself, as often as necessary, that the steps are, first and last, God's gift to me, not my gift to God.