We are considering these two Traditions because they are the ‘bookends’ that support all the others. One tells us why we have the Traditions, and the second tells us how they work. Consider now the full version of Tradition One from the back of the Big Book: Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. AA must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterwards.
Tradition One tells us why we have Traditions at all – because we want to protect AA. Its summary on the scroll defines it as the goal of all the Traditions: AA unity. Without AA most of us will die. The most important thing in AA, therefore, is not the newcomer; it is the group. The newcomer is important, but not as important as the group. We will ensure the existence of the AA group by putting aside our personal desires and putting the group first in some key areas. It is the other Traditions that define for us what those key areas are and how that unity is to be achieved. It is worth noting that they do so based upon the assumption that AA members are full of greed, pride, arrogance, self-centerdness and all the rest of the defects of character. The Traditions are intended to contain those tendencies. If they required us first to become uniformly good, pleasant, selfless individuals in order to be effective they would be doomed to failure. (Although we hope that some of us will gradually become better people through practice of the Steps).
As mentioned, most of the examples of where the primacy of the group is enforced occur through the practice of the other Traditions. But here is an example related to Tradition One alone: it can be the case that when a group exceeds the stated capacity of the hall that it rents, it is breaking the insurance stipulations (and so the law). Therefore, in the past, groups have had to shut their doors when they reach the limit, and stop anyone else coming in, including newcomers. If they did not, the group would be breaking the law and ultimately, could be closed down. Groups faced with this dilemma usually have either to split into two (through a number of people leaving and setting up a new one), or move to a bigger hall.
Similarly we cannot let one individual bring down the whole group. This is why we must throw the disruptive drunk out of the meeting. The Twelve Traditions Illustrated states in connection with Tradition 1: “Our brother the noisy drunk affords the simplest illustration of this Tradition. If he insists on disrupting the meeting, we ‘invite’ him to leave, and we bring him back when he’s in better shape to hear the message. We are putting our ‘common welfare’ first. But it is his welfare too; if he’s ever going to get sober, the group must go on functioning, ready for him.” This is referred to also in our discussion of Traditions 3 and 5. Let us now consider the long form of Tradition 12: And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us.
This tradition gives us the one spiritual principle that we must practice in the group if we are to achieve our goal of unity. That is humility. It explains that despite that fact that we are a collection of wilful, flawed individuals, if we try to conform to all these traditions we will be taking actions that are humble.
Many of us talk about how the group did the job of sponsoring us and keeping us sober in those very early days before we could get a sponsor and make a start in a structured way on the steps. If the groups we attended were conforming to the traditions and if as newcomers we cooperated with the format, we were making a small contribution to the combined acts of humility made by the group. Humility, like love, is expressed in action rather than emotion. Perhaps this is the mechanism that for many of us lets the Higher Power into our lives, even before we acknowledge Him, so that He can give us that first period of sobriety, a period of grace. The principle of anonymity, it tells us, is enshrined in AA Tradition, not just to protect peoples’ identities, but as a persistent reminder of this principle of humility. It runs through each Tradition. In Traditions 1-5, it is there to counter most especially the alcoholics’ arrogance and intolerance, describing how the disagreements can be resolved and how we put personal preferences aside in favor of the greater good. In Traditions 6, 7 & 8 it counters our tendency to greed and dishonesty. And in Traditions 9, 10 and 11 it counters our desire for power, attention and publicity.
Let us recall that last phrase: “This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us.” The language used contrasts with the down-to-earth practicality of much of the AA literature. It almost has a mystical quality as it describes the bliss that is offered in AA as a result of practicing the program. We are told categorically that if we do these things, we will remain forever in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us. We can experience joy, without interruption and without end, to the degree that we follow these things. If we commit to a home group that is following the traditions, we are continually reminded that without Him we have nothing, for we are powerless over alcohol. How many of us, when we start to receive the material benefits of sobriety – health, money and attention – forget that it comes through our practice of the steps? If our group, through the repeated reminders of the message its members carry, does not lead us back to the program., the thought might occur that we don’t need AA meetings at all. We have seen friends follow this path out of AA and drink; some have died. We can enjoy these benefits indefinitely if we remember that we have been given them as demonstrations to others of the Power and Love of God, as we understand Him.