Understanding AA’s Third Legacy

The Twelve Concepts of AA were a mystery to me for a long time in recovery. They were not a very compelling mystery since they were seldom referred to at meetings I attended. An oversimplified notion of service was part of my early training in sobriety; concepts of world service that provide principles like “the right of decision,” the importance of hearing minority opinions, and “the right of appeal” were not brought to my attention. Only gradually did I notice how the third side of the triangle of recovery, unity, and service was overlooked.

It is not surprising that I have been a slow learner in recovery. Even those window shades with AA’s Steps and Traditions were off-putting to me at my first meetings. This drunk had eschewed belief systems any more subtle than the Ten Commandments. I was raised in a nonreligious household and developed a strong sense of self-sufficiency and independence. So, it was not surprising then that, for me, a practical sense of what produces instant gratification provided a system adequate for living. Or so it seemed, for a couple of decades of serious drinking.

Full of negative attitudes, distorted instincts, distrust, superstitions, and low self-esteem doing nearly constant battle with inflated self-worth, I was primed for a harsh bottoming out from years of daily drinking. Fortunately, my resistance to help had only a few days to fortify itself before I was dragged to my first meeting. As I sat there quaking in dread and confusion, listening to three speakers share their stories, one after another, of how it was, what happened, and what it was like now, I underwent a spiritual transformation. Hope was instilled where before there had been only an empty place deep within. By the end of the meeting, the outlines on the window shade, the brightly-lit room, and the many strangers were no longer threatening. They held the promise of support in whatever might lie ahead. They held the promise of recovery.

In the next few weeks, while coming out of the fog of long-term addiction, I heard many speakers tell of recovery in the narrative of their stories. When I heard reference made to Steps as they were functioning in sober living, I would look at the shade to ponder the spiritual principles involved. Soon I was familiar with the phrase “these are the Steps we took to recover” and I looked at recent experience to see if the Step referred to was working yet in my new life. Often it was and I came to know the Steps of recovery.

Now and then, in the first few years of attending meetings, I found myself in a meeting whose focus was not on recovery but concerned with matters of running the meeting, housekeeping, and all sorts of details that evoked discussions–sometimes heated. There had been ample opportunity to notice that those who attended meetings had little in common other than their addiction to alcohol and a desire not to drink by sharing experience, strength, and hope. With such incredible racial, educational, ethnic, and cultural diversity, not to mention the variety of temperaments and individual neuroses, we should never have been able to sit together and peacefully mediate so broad a range of opinions as we brought to bear on each topic on the agenda. And yet, at each of these meetings, a group conscience emerged that addressed our common welfare. When the meeting would come to logger-heads, someone with experience would focus attention on the Tradition whose principles applied to the matter at hand. I came to see that when two or more people were involved and affected, AA has Traditions of unity.

From my first encounter with AA, I was encouraged to pick up after myself and to assist in making the meetings possible. It was the rare meeting that had hired help, so it was essential that each member contribute service to ensure the smooth running of the meeting. And as I gained familiarity with the Steps of recovery, the principle of carrying the message and, eventually, of the many ways of doing this in a spirit of anonymity, became an important service that enriched and insured my own sobriety.

Since volunteer service had not been a part of my life in active alcoholism, chairing meetings, answering telephones at our Intergroup office, and keeping commitments to go outside of AA to do public information speaking when asked–these were a major change in my priorities and provided important exercises in character building. I was beginning to understand AA’s third legacy of service.

Not until I was sober for a decade, with considerable experience in AA service, did I become General Service Representative (GSR) for my home group. It was then that I began to notice the Twelve Concepts for World Service. If the Steps and Traditions had been off-putting to me when I was first sober, the Concepts were doubly so now. The spiritual principles that I saw embodied in them were familiar and to some degree already functioning in my sobriety. It was the formal, business-like sound of them that seemed to place them outside of day-to-day sober living. Bill W. wrote them out of his long experience as an analyst of business structures and his nearly twenty-five years of involvement in various capacities with the running of the corporate structure of AA. Then in 1962, the General Service Conference accepted the Concepts as part of the Third Legacy of Service. But AA as a whole has never really gotten that message. While recovery and unity are conscious elements in the process of living sober, the Concepts remain the domain of trusted servants in the general service structure. Many members, however, are curious about this important omission and are ready to add this leg of the triangle to their program. Although Bill entitled his writings Twelve Concepts for World Service, many of us have found the Concepts essential in our service activities whether we think them world in scale or not.

Concept I contains the notion of the collective conscience of our Fellowship to augment our group conscience and our common welfare. These are essential to assuming final responsibility for and ultimate authority in making support available to groups through publishing and other services necessary to passing our message on.

In Concept II, we AAs entrust the actual voice and effective conscience of our whole society to the General Service Conference through our elected area delegates.

The traditional right of decision is outlined in Concept III as a spiritual principle to assume the means of creating and maintaining a working relationship amongst us members. We cannot force anyone to participate actively in the decision-making process, but the right must be there or we fail to work together. This right of participation assumes that minority opinions are heard and considered, that a majority will not dictate decisions, and that voting blocks will be discouraged. And when all is said and done, the right of appeal, as described in Concept V, ought to prevail with personal grievances carefully considered.

Concepts VI through VIII describe the corporate structure and relationship amongst the Trustees, the General Service Board, and the General Service Conference, which should operate in such a way that the business of AA and the spirit-led work of our members inform one another at each step of any activity of our Society.

In a fellowship that has an actual spirit of democracy, where all members are peers, and there is no authority, Concept IX reminds us of the necessity of good service leadership at all levels. Our sound and appropriate ways of choosing leaders and adhering to timely rotation have served us well.

Concept X challenges our ability to match service responsibility with equal authority so that a trusted servant can fulfill the well-defined tasks expected of that member. It is always important to carefully select members of committees, elected officers, or any other doing the work of AA so that we have the best qualified.

Our Twelfth Step speaks of practicing these principles in all our affairs while our Twelfth Tradition reminds us to place principles before personalities. In the one case, the principles referred to are those of recovery as outlined in the Steps; in the other the principles of unity, as presented in the Traditions. Yet, in pondering both practicing the principles and principles before personalities, there emerges a further set that are outlined in Concept XII in the very specific form referred to as warranties. They have proved to be spirit-inspired standards that are evident in most service activities in the Fellowship. We should maintain the spirit of AA tradition: by avoiding the concentration of perilous wealth or power; by maintaining sufficient operating funds and prudent reserves; by declining to create positions of unqualified authority over others; by reaching decisions through discussion, vote, and substantial unanimity; by refusing to engage in personal punishment or incitement to personal controversy; by avoiding acts of government; by always remaining democratic in thought and action.

As symbolized by the triangle in the circle of Fellowship, the gifts bestowed on us recovering alcoholics known as the three Legacies–the Steps of recovery, the Traditions of unity and the Concepts of service–have proved to be invaluable. For these I’m grateful.

— Boyce B.

Brooklyn, New York