*A Word Whose Meaning Causes Arguments, but a

Quality We All Aspire to when We Understand It*


FOLLOWING a recent noon AA meeting, a member I scarcely knew said that he wanted a word with me. He appeared very agitated as we stepped into the privacy of an adjoining room. Naturally, I thought he wanted my advice on a serious personal problem. But I was in for a rude shock.

It turned out that I was the problem!

More specifically, the language I had used during the closed meeting was the problem. He said that it was offensive to his wife and several other members. He had apparently monitored my discussions for some time, and had finally decided to say something.

I accepted the criticism with as much grace as possible. But inwardly I began to boil. For one thing, this noon group was known for raunchy discussions and highly colorful language, so why was I being singled out? And who was this fellow to set himself up as an arbiter of AA talk? Beyond that, why did he have to be so cutting and belittling in the way he talked to me? For a moment, I felt like dragging him back into the meeting room and demanding a verdict from the group on the entire matter of off-color language.

But sanity prevailed. It usually does, despite my inner feelings. I mumbled a lame apology and moved away. As I reviewed the incident later, I began to realize that it contained some valuable lessons for me. I had to admit that I wasn’t really carrying the AA message effectively if the nature of my discussions offended people who were seeking help. It was also likely that I had said other things which this member resented, and that more care and thought would improve the quality of my contributions at discussion meetings. I could also see that to accept such criticism without hitting back was a useful exercise in self-control.

But the most valuable lesson contained in the incident was this: It showed me how far I really need to go in the search for humility. It didn’t take much reflection to realize that I resented the criticism because my pride had been hurt. Pride is at the root of many of my personal problems, and when my pride is injured, I can feel a certain type of anger connected with it. The most common effect of hurt pride is to make me almost unable to talk or to think rationally. I have not progressed to the point of being able to turn off such feelings, but I have worked out a way of stalling off additional trouble when pride is attacking me. It consists of reminding myself that only my pride is being injured, and that I cannot really evaluate the current problem until cool off. I also remind myself that some day I hope to find the humility to rise above such conditions. But, as most AA members readily admit, humility is a difficult thing to find.

I have heard humility defined as a state of being teachable. In that sense, most of us who are able to stay sober have acquired at least a smattering of it, or we never would have learned how to stay away from the first drink. AA’s good friend of our early years, the late Father Edward Dowling, said that the shortest cut to humility is via humiliations, which active alcoholism offers in abundance. This tells me that all of us in AA are humble in certain areas, though we dare not boast of it.

Humility is also characterized by the absence of aggressive self-assertion, the sort of arrogant behavior that many of us displayed when we were riding high in our drinking days. AA co-founder Bill W. seemed to have a strong feeling for this aspect of humility. He admitted to colossal pride, both before and after finding sobriety. It is likely that if Bill had not been able to make terms with his fierce pride, Alcoholics Anonymous might have been damaged or destroyed in its formative years. And it is obvious that Bill conquered pride in the way that he conquered alcohol–by first admitting that he was powerless over it.

There are also signs that humility may be closely related to honesty. Perhaps this is what we’re talking about in AA when we present the triad of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness as conditions necessary for success in the program. If a person practices self-honesty, is open-minded about the need for change, and is willing to seek improvement, he certainly has become teachable.

I suppose the reason I have made such slow progress in becoming “teachable in all things” is that pride is intimately associated with my meager self-esteem. Time and again, I have stubbornly clung to false ideas and positions because I really feared that I would be left defenseless and annihilated if I admitted having been wrong. Anything that hints of “backing down” or “surrendering” seems distasteful to many of us. But. I have always found later that my self-esteem actually soared when I was able to push pride into the background and truly face the facts of a problem. I suspect that people with true humility have more genuine self-esteem than those of us who are repeatedly victimized by pride. And this, undoubtedly, is a function of the self-honesty that goes hand in hand with humility. A person who rigorously practices self-honesty tends to have a fairly accurate understanding of himself and his personal qualifications. Unfair criticism docs not reach his heart, because he knows it is not true. At the same time, he does not have a neurotic need for constant praise and reassurance, and he is willing to accept himself for what he really is and to work patiently for improvement.

In my opinion, Alcoholics Anonymous has three great humility Steps in the twelve-point program. These are Steps One, Five, and Ten. The First Step–admitting that one is powerless over alcohol–is the newcomer’s task, and without it nobody ever gets far in AA. The Fifth Step–admitting the nature of one’s wrongs to another person–is the short-timer’s task, something that usually should be completed during the first several years of sobriety. But the Tenth Step is the task all of us have in our search for humility, because it suggests that we always need to continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it. This puts the admission and inventory Steps on a daily basis, and is usually our answer when things go wrong even after years of sobriety.

Pride has devious ways of diverting me from thorough and continuing attention to the Tenth Step. The first temptation is to focus exclusively on wrongs of the drinking past. It is comfortable and convenient to talk about the way I used to be, rather than about what I am doing today that is wrong. Nobody in or out of AA is going to hold it against me that I behaved badly and used obscene language when I was drinking. Many people are even beguiled into thinking that I am showing unusual honesty in talking about those hideous sins of the past. Actually, this is really nothing more than “the pride which apes humility.” It is possible to obtain considerable approval while relating the wrongs of a spectacular drinking career. The before-and-after contrast can be so marked that nobody thinks to ask what I am doing about my current shortcomings.

I am also swayed from good Tenth Step work by the temptation to call attention to the wrongs of my critics. In the case of the AA member who objected to my language, I started to sputter something about his obvious defect of cherishing resentment. But of what benefit is that to me? If I am wrong, it makes no difference whether my shortcomings are pointed out by saints in pure linen or by sinners in fouled burlap. My shortcomings are my own burden and responsibility. It is futile to use the shortcomings of others as an excuse for not facing my own faults. This is akin to the alcoholic’s refusal to admit his own drinking problem because he sees others who are apparently worse.

I also find that progress slows down when I resort to the “Haven’t I done well enough?” excuse. I am now in my twenty-fourth year of sobriety and may soon be able to say that I have spent half a lifetime in AA. I have fought and won savage battles with mental depressions, resentments, self-pity, immaturity, job difficulties, and human relations. In overcoming some of the more severe problems of my life, I have been able to make wonderful and rewarding progress. It is certainly tempting to demand the opportunity to rest at the oars and put this inventory business in the background.

But there is something in our natures that requires us to go forward if we do not want to slip back into the problems of yesterday. That something is pride, I suppose. Almost every step of the way, I find that pride is nipping at my heels. Moreover, I suspect that my victories over personal problems are much like the victory over drinking. They are merely daily victories and depend on my willingness to practice self-honesty, whether I like it or not.

I usually don’t like it, just as I didn’t like it very well when my use of had language was criticized. But in AA, all of us should continue to be students as well as teachers. We can always learn if we remain teachable, and we will be teachable if we refuse to let pride interfere with the learning process. Humility–whether it is called teachability or self-honesty–is the pathway to continued improvement in the quality of our sobriety, and all of us want that.

M. D. B.

Toledo, Ohio

Copyright © AA Grapevine, Inc. April 1974. Reprinted with permission.

Humility By Mel B.