The AA Traditions

General introduction

The 12 Traditions are a set of guidelines for the health of an AA group and, where applicable, for AA as a whole. They have been developed from the experiences of the first AA groups. No group is bound to conform to the Traditions, but those that do tend to flourish.

Most alcoholics in AA would say that when alcoholics get together to help each other to recover from alcoholism, there is something special about the power of a group that makes it more than just a collection of individuals. We would say that the ‘special ingredient’ is there because to the degree that the group conforms to the Traditions, a Higher Power is working through it. So, just as the 12 Steps represent the principles by which the individual can live in order to let a Higher Power into his life that will enable him to recover from alcoholism, so the 12 Traditions are a set of principles that the group can follow to allow the Higher Power to work through a group. Just as self-will can destroy the individual alcoholic, if AA is to decline in the future the problem will be through self-will of the very people whose lives it saves: the AA members – us!. The Traditions are here to save AA from us! They were first published in 1946, seven years after the publication of the first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The most important source of information on the Traditions is the appendix at the back of the Big Book called The AA Tradition. We have also found useful information in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, AA Comes of Age and The 12 Traditions Illustrated. Traditions exist in two forms: there is the short summary; and the full wording (the ‘long’ version) that can be found in the Big Book appendix. Usually we need to consider the ‘long’ version of the tradition to get a full understanding. Before considering specific traditions, it may be useful to consider what the Traditions are not. When they were written there was no suggestion that the Steps were in any way lacking as guidelines for our personal conduct. For us, the situation has not changed. We still consider the Steps are perfect in their conception. If we wish to improve our personal lives or happiness, our approach is to focus on better application of the principles of the Steps. We do not need to use the Traditions except in context for which they were specifically intended. Similarly, there was no intention that the Traditions could be used to benefit institutions other than Alcoholics Anonymous, such as the family, colleges or businesses. Just because something is good for AA, it doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s good for anything else. And we feel that at times it might even be presumptious of us think so. Institutions such as the family have existed happily and successfully for many years before AA was formed. Except where these institutions have to deal directly with individual alcoholics, as in The Family Afterward and To Employers, AA has nothing to say about how these institutions might like to run themselves; it is worth noting that even in these two chapters, AA tradition is not referred to at all.

Occasionally, some of the Traditions can appear to be usefully applied outside the context of AA. But we find such applications rather forced and artificial. They usually seem to stretch the meaning of the Tradition to the point of distortion. What is often described as an application of a Tradition in our personal lives is in fact an application of the underlying spiritual principle.

For example: we are told in Tradition 12 that humility is the spiritual foundation of all the traditions. It could be argued that in trying to practice humility, we are applying Tradition 12 in our lives. We say, no. The application of any spiritual principle in our affairs is simply the practice of Step 12 and humility is simply an example of such a principle. As a specific example: sometimes we hear it said that we should apply Tradition 7 in our lives and aim to be self-supporting (usually meaning that we shouldn’t accept state handouts when we are able to work). But, if we really did apply Tradition 7 to ourselves exactly as we apply it to an AA group and decline all outside contributions, most of us would starve to death because whether working or claiming unemployment benefit we are still accepting outside contributions. Certainly we should aim to work rather than scrounge of the state, but we don’t need Tradition Seven to tell us this: anyone who is practising Step 12 and so trying to be honest is not going to claim unemployment benefit when they could work. There is nothing wrong in principle with any individual accepting gifts from others. And if someone has an independent income, provided that there is no dishonesty involved, then let them live off it. It is not going to compromise their sobriety.

Similarly, it would not be helpful to apply Tradition 7 to organisations other than AA. All businesses and nearly all charities must accept outside contributions just to exist. In fact, if the purpose of an organisation is profit or fundraising, then this is the converse of Tradition 7. They want to solicit as many outside contributions as they can. And AA does not say there is anything wrong with that, in fact there is even a Tradition that says that it has no opinions on outside issues. Tradition 7 says that an AA group should be fully self-supporting and decline outside contributions. It does not say or even imply that anything else should too.

There is another reason why we are unwilling to get into such discussions. We feel that using the traditions outside the context of the AA distracts us from the ever-urgent consideration of the role that they uniquely and perfectly fulfil – that of keeping AA whole and functioning well. We consider that just as the Steps are the perfect set of principles to use for guidance in our personal lives, the Traditions are the perfect set of principles to use for guidance in our AA group and in the AA service structure.

For the most part we forget about the Traditions and only have to consider how the Traditions are important in AA when we see them broken. Once we observe the consequences of this, we start to understand how well they were working before. This is a reflection of the fact that, for the most part, groups are following the Traditions. The writer of these brief accounts of the Traditions has gained most, though not all of his experience in service in Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain. This is why many of the illustrative examples of contraventions of the Traditions refer to the Fellowship in Great Britain.