In some of the AA meetings I attend, an irritating habit has developed. It is usually near the start or the end of the meeting. Beginning with the marginal AA idea that it is necessary to publicly recite the “I am responsible” passage (From somewhere. It is so destructive that I have never sought to research its source.) it is followed with a “show of hands” of “all those willing to sponsor.”
Of course, it can be defended with the following explanation. The new members in the meeting may not understand the normal AA process of getting a sponsor. My personal experience suggests a more reasonable approach. The new member needs to listen to what is said in the meetings, and, as the new man hears different AA members sharing, he will, hopefully, begin to notice that certain ones among them are describing a sobriety that really fits his personal case.
The new man might think, “If I wound up being sober like that guy, it would be a pretty good deal.” If the meetings he has attended have been good places to learn about AA, the new member will know at this point the next steps required to get a sponsor. The “five word approach” will just about always do the trick. Which five words?
“ 1. Will 2. you 3. be 4. my 5. sponsor?”This, as we remember it, is a magnificent moment in the road to sobriety! There is nothing impersonal going on here! The mind of the new man is filled with all sorts of ridiculous alcoholic concerns. “What if he says no?” “What if he just laughs and walks off?”
The most important element, however, is that the new member, at this juncture, has taken it on himself to do something about his sobriety! Further, that something he has decided to do is extremely personal. He has begun to be responsible for his own commitment to the AA program and his recovery!
Now back to the public display at the meeting. Hopefully, this tasteless episode amounts to nothing more than an unthinking expression of self-seeking. What member present at this moment wouldn’t want to openly demonstrate to all of his fellows what a strong and dedicated member of AA he is? After all our book has said concerning self-will, this isn’t really so shocking. Alcoholics love to show off (self-seeking).
So, I suppose that we must be realistic. I also know that we had better be spiritual. The spiritual side of our sobriety will perpetually coexist with our imperfect side, but that is no reason to ever accept the “realistic” as a measure of how good it can get!
However, there might be some other sides to this which really are suspect. Those of us who enjoy sobriety have, after all, agreed to do whatever is possible to help our fellow alcoholics achieve sobriety. Considering it this way, we need to ask exactly what message is being presented to those new members by this public display of “willingness to sponsor?”
It is a destructive message. It suggests that nothing personal will be required from the new member to move ahead in our program. It is all “comfortably impersonal” even “automatic.” Just walk up to one of these “willing to be a sponsor” individuals and go from there. No need to consider the nature of your own sobriety. No need to overcome all the alcoholic reluctance about asking for help. No need to have a personal ambition to do something for yourself. Nope. There is nothing to it.
Actually, we know that there is a great deal to it. Any alcoholic who has been beaten down enough to attend AA can sit invisibly in a meeting, especially in those back seats. He can clam up, saying nothing, no matter how many times he is called to share. Selecting a sponsor based on his own desire to accomplish his recovery is quite different from that passive meeting attendance! We know this! Why are we willing to suggest that the mindless automatic approach is the right one? Where did an idea like this originate?
Well, the answer to that question is even more troubling than the rest of this. The origin of that idea probably came from outside AA! Perhaps a well intentioned probation officer told this new man “to get a sponsor.” Although there is nothing essentially wrong about that, aren’t we committed to spreading such ideas inside our meetings? What better place to present our experience about the AA program?
The nonalcoholic probation officer has no way of knowing the spiritual importance of this personal commitment on the part of the new member. In his understanding, sponsorship really is a sort of automatic process inside AA, one which seems to be statistically necessary for success in reaching sobriety. There is nothing wrong with this probation officer. What’s off the mark here is that we in AA have somehow accepted such an idea. We can definitely do better.
This “willingness to sponsor” doesn’t really communicate much. Every sober alcoholic in that meeting, whether he raises his hand or not, is willing (anxious) to sponsor. That is who all those people are!
If someone refuses a request for sponsorship, we have returned to the question of the different natures of “sobriety” and “recovery.” Something similar happens when the sober AA who is asked to sponsor believes that somehow he can do it without much thought or involvement. That is not who all those people are!
There is nothing mechanical about staying sober. There is nothing mechanical about being spiritual. There is nothing mechanical about being a sponsor. Only living, breathing, personal, thoughtful humans have a chance to do these things.
There is a fascinating link between the sponsor’s Step Three and the new man’s Step Three. An account of this connection is so valuable for the new man that no sponsor would want to exclude it. It has everything to do with why the “I am responsible.” idea is such a bad approach and why the AA (traditional) idea is so much more effective.
In sponsorship, I explain this in the following manner. “Long ago I wound up in AA after literally decades of alcoholic drinking. The spiritual ideas of the program were discussed very often and very freely in the meetings I attended. As is the case with most new members in our program, I immediately started to insinuate all sorts of things into Step Three.”
“While working Step Three with my first sponsor, especially when we considered the Third Step Prayer, it became clear that I was agreeing to carry the message of AA freely and energetically as a sort of price for my sobriety. After all, it was God’s work. That meant speaking with new members, sponsoring people when I was ready and being constantly ready to assist anyone who came to the AA program in any way I could.”
“Both the words of my sponsor and the message presented in meetings repeatedly emphasized the idea that ‘The only way I could keep it was to give it away.’ I continue to strongly agree with this idea today.”
“However, there is the question about exactly why I would be so intent on ‘giving it away.’ Are the words of the Third Step Prayer some sort of ‘deal’ I made to stay sober? Further, if that were the case, wasn’t I making some sort of definition of my Higher Power that would support such a commitment, one made as a price to stay sober? This sort of an idea would be fairly reasonable if my Higher Power were something I could simply define to suit my needs, perhaps, 'a God I could do business with.' Isn’t there some serious self-will at play with an idea like that?"
The “I am responsible.” idea contains more concepts from the Christian religion than one might imagine at first. Aside from its “pay as you go” deal to negotiate ongoing sobriety, the idea supposes a very limited scope of recovery from alcoholism along with a strictly Christian idea of the inevitable weakness and sinful nature of man. The “daily reprieve” suggests a continuing struggle to not drink, all quite contradictory to the “quit fighting everyone and everything” idea.
When we indulge our self-will in an image of being able to win a “daily battle” against drinking, we have crossed into very dangerous territory. Somehow, we have forgotten that we “lost every battle” before we finally got sober and stayed sober.
The statement of accepting “responsibility” suggests that the better behavior of sobriety receives a central value from being “judged,” possibly by a very Biblical version of a Higher Power but certainly by all the other AA members who eagerly hold up their hands while they look around the room to see who didn’t.
Now to the important account of the sponsor’s Step Three. Hopefully, this sponsor doesn’t consider sponsorship as a negotiated payment, enforced by the “threat” of getting drunk. He sponsors because he made a decision. For himself. No supernatural threat was required. As long as he remained who he was, he had little interest in helping and little to offer if he did. As a new man, one made possible by Step Three’s decision, he sponsors based entirely on his new values. It is his nature to sponsor as a sober man who has embarked upon a spiritual path. How could he do otherwise? Wouldn’t that be acting in a way other than his nature?
An honest and understandable account of this point is an entirely reasonable thing to share with the new member as he encounters Step Three in his own step work. Another Step Three did its work for this alcoholic sponsor years ago. That old Step Three and this current Step Three are as branches from the same root. When the new man finds himself in sponsorship, the same miraculous thing will happen again.