Singleness of purpose

Singleness of purpose – a vital issue in AA

A presentation by: Doug R., Director of Staff Services, GSO, New York,
at the Asia Oceania Service Meeting in Chandigarh, India, July 24, 2011 

This topic often sparks lively debate. We AAs can be creatures of extremes and you mention the subject of singleness of purpose and those extremes seem to boil to the surface.

In a February 1958 Grapevine article, Bill W. wrote, “Many early AAs had the almost comical notion that they were pure alcoholics — guzzlers only, no other serious problems at all. When alcoholic ex-cons and drug users first turned up, there was much pious indignation. ‘What will people think?’ chanted the pure alcoholics. Happily, this foolishness has long since evaporated.”

The article was titled “Problems Other Than Alcohol” and nine years later the General Service Conference of the U.S. and Canada asked the AA Grapevine for permission to produce that article as a pamphlet. It is still widely circulated and translated. It stands the test of time as one of our more definitive pieces on singleness of purpose. Also, in this pamphlet, there is a very clear definition of the purpose of an AA group and I quote Bill: “Sobriety, freedom from alcohol, through the teaching and practice of the Twelve Steps is the sole purpose of an AA group.”

The sole purpose – there is no equivocation indicating that the AA group has any other purpose. The phrase, “Sobriety – freedom from alcohol” is clear as to what AA addresses.

When I first came to AA, I believed myself to be very unique. No one had experienced the same things I had experienced; no one was as sensitive or as deep and special as me. I didn’t really understand that I was an alcoholic or what that word meant. I came to AA because I suspected alcohol played a role in how badly I felt, and I just wanted to stop hurting. It was a great relief to learn that AA was for people like me who had a problem with alcohol.

It is interesting to note that nowhere do we say our program is for people whose only problem is alcohol but alcoholism is the common bond that all of us as AA members share. For me, one of the most profound things about the AA program is that it is a program of identification. If you say that you are an alcoholic and are an AA member – I identify with you. I know you. Oh, I may know nothing about the individual details of your life but I know you have been to alcoholic hell and survived to tell your story.

I know that, like me, you are more than likely self-centered in the extreme; I know you are striving like me to place your life and your will into the care of a higher power no matter what that power is for you. I know that your primary purpose in life is to stay sober and help another alcoholic achieve sobriety – all this I know about you and I may not even know your name. I identify with your alcoholism, and I identify with your recovery utilizing the principles of the AA program.

Bill W. often said that one of AA’s greatest strengths is its single-minded focus on one thing and one thing only. By limiting our primary purpose to carrying the message to alcoholics and avoiding all other activities, AA is able to do one thing supremely well. The atmosphere of identification is preserved by that purity of focus, and alcoholics get help.

Tradition Five states that, “Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers”. Isn’t this also a very clear statement? It tells us to whom we carry the AA message of hope. Not the world – not to those who are addicted to anything, be it drugs, food, sex or gambling etc. We carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

Not everyone needs Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics may indeed struggle with any number of other addictions, but all addicts are not alcoholics; all overeaters or gamblers are not alcoholics. Only alcoholics need Alcoholics Anonymous.

Because we concern ourselves with one problem there are no distractions, and we are free to work at carrying the message of recovery from alcoholism to the best of our ability. In another of our pamphlets, “The AA Group,” it states that, “It is misleading to hint or give the impression that Alcoholics Anonymous solves other problems or knows what to do about addiction to drugs.”

Referring back to the pamphlet, “Problems Other Than Alcohol,” Bill writes, “Groups have repeatedly tried other activities, and they have always failed. It has also been learned that that there is no way to make non-alcoholics into AA members. We have to confine our membership to alcoholics, and we have to confine our AA groups to a single purpose. If we don’t stick to these principles, we shall almost certainly collapse. And if we collapse, we cannot help anyone.”

A past, non-alcoholic trustee on our General Service Board, U.S./Canada, Dr. Vincent Dole, who was an eminent pioneer in the field of methadone maintenance, was quoted in our newsletter for professionals, “About AA,” he said: “The source of strength in AA is its single-mindedness. The mission of AA is to help alcoholics. AA limits what it is demanding, of itself and its associates, and the program’s success lies in its limited target. To believe that the process that is successful in one line guarantees success for another would be a very serious mistake.”

Of course, some people will argue that AA’s own Traditions and literature opens the door for anyone, even those without an alcohol problem, to claim membership. For instance, the Short Form of the Third Tradition says that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. However, in the beginning of the Long Form of the Third Tradition is the statement: “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover.”

This statement is very inclusive. So long as an individual has a desire to deal with his drinking problem, it does not matter what other problems he suffers from. It does not matter what race, background or circumstances he comes from. AA welcomes him. The disputers also quote the line in the Twelve and Twelve that says, “You are an AA member if you say so,” not noting that the line before it states that it is talking to “every serious drinker.”

There are some parameters to membership in AA It is the effectiveness of our Traditions that binds us together. As we are all aware, our Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is one of love, sharing and caring. Someone with a serious drinking problem is a member of AA as long as they say they are a member of AA. And, in order to keep this loving Fellowship cohesive and functioning, we need the Traditions which are our guidelines. These Traditions provide for the unity of the group and, therefore, ultimately protect each individual member’s sobriety.

In AA, the common welfare of the group comes first. Our Traditions, rather than proclaiming an individual’s right to act in any way he or she pleases, confirm the spirit of self sacrifice— restraining our own desires when they conflict with the good of the group. Which leads me back to the purpose of an AA group – “Sobriety, freedom from alcohol, through the teaching and practice of the Twelve Steps is the sole purpose of an AA group.”

Singleness of purpose isn’t a drugs-versus-alcohol issue – a we-against-them matter. In our very real world, addicts of all kinds are visible to us and they are the ones that come to mind when we talk about singleness of purpose. I do not minimize any of the other problems. Our job as members of Alcoholics Anonymous is to keep the focus on the one thing we do well – staying sober ourselves and helping others to achieve sobriety – we do this through strong sponsorship, through Traditions’ workshops, in our group business meetings and AA service events and in our personal inventories.

I came to AA with a host of problems in addition to my alcoholism. There was only the slightest glimmer of hope left in me that the darkness that was my existence might be lifted. One of the first things I heard that sent a shiver down my spine was that I did not have to drink – my brain reeled – but-but-but – I went – look at how horrible this is – look at how bad that is – look at what a sorry human being I am – but-but-but. I have to say that no one argued with me about how bad things were – they simply repeated that no matter how awful my life was or appeared to be in my muddled brain, there was truly no real reason to take that first drink.

I was astounded that I understood what they were saying and a little light crept into the bleak landscape of my soul. Then someone asked me to hold out my hands – they asked me to imagine my alcoholism and AA in my right hand and all my other problems in my left hand – my left hand felt very heavy. Then, they said, that if I focused on my right hand – on vigilance with regard to staying away from one drink of alcohol, one day at a time, and I followed the suggestions made to me regarding the AA program – going to meetings on a weekly basis, getting and calling a sponsor, talking with other alcoholics, reading the literature and working the Steps – I would be in a position to take care of the problems weighing me down in my left hand.

That right hand/left hand demonstration has always been for me an example of the essence of AA’s single purpose – if I focus on recovery from my alcoholism and on the program of AA – I am in a position to deal with all my other problems. And as for my other problems, many of them were resolved as I moved through the 12 Steps and attended meetings but, with some, I needed additional help, and, for some, I was directed to other 12 Step programs that also had their own singleness of purpose.

In AA we make every effort to speak the language of the heart and to walk in the sunlight of the spirit – these are no mere clichés but spiritual goals that our founders set for themselves and for us. They evolved because of the clear focus the founders had on our singleness of purpose. The only similar thing we are guaranteed in AA to have in common is our alcoholism.

At one of our Conferences a few years ago, a delegate stated that, “If we focus on our similarities, we can stay strong as a Fellowship. If we focus on what makes us different, we run the risk of becoming fragile and divided – our common bond may then be broken.” All of us, I am certain, want to pass on this lifesaving torch of hope and recovery to others who suffer. We want the doors of AA to be as wide opened as possible; we want to be as inclusive as possible and as free as possible.

To achieve this, each of us has a responsibility to do our best to keep the focus on our primary purpose – our single purpose.