Last Saturday morning I went to an Al-Anon meeting. It was one of those moist gray mornings, chilly but not cold, and it was nice to go into the Methodist church not far from my house and sit in the quiet little anteroom the congregation makes available to us for our meetings. The Saturday meeting is a step study group, which means that we discuss whichever one of the twelve steps coincides with number of the month. On the last Saturday of every month we discuss one of the traditions by which Al-Anon is guided; since this was the last Saturday in January, we were discussing the first tradition, which says Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.
The conversation traveled around the circle as it always does, each person taking a turn to speak. A silent consensus developed as people added to and amplified upon each other’s remarks. Unity is not blind obedience, we agreed; real unity lies in finding common ground, in outgrowing both the need to always get one’s own way, and the willingness to be dominated by someone else’s need to get his or her own way.
The circle was nearly complete and the hour was nearly at an end when someone said “I actually never experienced unity before I came to Al-Anon.” All around the circle people nodded in recognition. “In the world I live in most of the time ‘personal progress’ depends on crushing someone else before you get crushed—I mean everywhere, at home, at work, everywhere. Then I come here and it’s different.” The speaker stopped and looked down at the floor. “I wish the real world could be like Al-Anon.”
It’s been four years now since I went to my first Al-Anon meeting, four years since my life went totally haywire. At that first meeting I sat on a wooden chair pushed up against the wall of a Sunday school room and felt out of place and resentful. I was creeped out by the way people repeated each other’s names around the circle (“I’m Liz.” “Hi Liz!”). I looked down the long list of twelve steps and found something to quibble with in each one. I felt stiff and uncomfortable with the hugs after the meeting. I ducked out to the parking lot as soon as I could.
But somehow I kept going back. This was in the frantic, exhilarating, terrifying first couple of years of my new life when, looking back on it, I was very much further out on the edge of my own endurance than I realized. I felt sometimes as though I were racing across a series of suspension bridges, pausing only long enough to kneel beside each one and set it on fire. I am not by nature a particularly adventuresome person, but the exoskeleton of comfortable middle-class American life that had held me up for so long had cracked to pieces under a variety of pressures, and in its absence I was making everything up as I went along, obeying some deep instinct because instinct seemed to be the only solid thing I had left. In those days I laughed harder than I had ever laughed before, I danced more often and in more unexpected places than I had ever danced before, I widened the margins of my personal map to include people and places I had never known before. And some mornings the tears began before I had even opened my eyes.
I don’t think I could do it again. The changes in my external life—the collective house, the dumpster diving, the kitchen dance parties–were only the visible landscape over a tectonic shift that was rearranging the deep geology of my heart and mind. All during this time I was reading constantly. I talked and listened and argued, I sat and thought and wrote in my journal, I read some more, I listened and watched more, and slowly, awkwardly, sometimes painfully, the pieces of my shattered life began to coalesce around a new set of ideas. What it came down to was this: I came to see that the world I had lived in all my life, the respectable, order-must-be-maintained, it-may-not-be-perfect-but-it’s-better-than-the-alternative hierarchical world of rigidly defined haves and have-nots—in other words, the dominant culture world—was predicated on the assumption that people are essentially greedy and antagonistic. Every storyline led back to Darwin.
But I was beginning to see the world in a different way. What, I began to ask myself, if people are essentially whole and healthy? What if people long for cooperation more than they long for competition? What if we live best in a web of relationships as complex and mutually supportive as any other ecosystem? What if the world I have lived in all my life is not the world, but just a world, an essentially flimsy and unstable world that is kept in place by violence and fear? I was introduced to the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, a nineteenth century naturalist who countered Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest with “survival of the most cooperative,” developed through his own observations of the natural world. Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince and an anarchist. It was Kropotkin who wrote the entry on anarchism in the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica; it was Kropotkin who introduced the term “mutual aid” into the language with his book of the same name. Anarchism is probably the most reviled, misunderstood and marginalized of all the left-leaning political philosophies, and I certainly didn’t set out to live in its borderlands, but like most of the anarchists I know I didn’t so much convert to anarchism as recognize a set of beliefs that had always been there. As I moved closer to the deep well of anarchist ideas and into a culture of anarchist actions the world started to make sense again.
And unrelated to all the internal and external changes I was making at that time—or maybe not—I was finally able to acknowledge that someone I loved very deeply was ebbing out of my life into a sea of alcoholism. That’s how I ended up at Al-Anon, looking around at all the respectably dressed, earnest, middle-aged people so much like me and so unlike me, and feeling both alien and at home. Here I was, a newly-minted anarchist living with a group of people half my age, feeling a swing of emotions I should have left behind in adolescence, eating out of dumpsters, living a noisy, messy, seat-of-the pants existence, and I didn’t know what they would think of me.
What I didn’t know at those first meetings was that, first of all, no one cared one way or the other who I was or how I lived, but even more important—and more startling—in joining Al-Anon I had, in fact, joined the largest and most successful anarchist movement in the world. At first I was simply struck by the curious similarities between the way Al-Anon worked and the way the anarchist enterprises I was involved in operated. No leaders, no rules, no experts, no accumulation of wealth. Now I recognize that the similarity between Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A is the basis for all other Twelve Step programs, including Al-Anon) and the Circle A is neither metaphorical nor hyperbolic: “When we come into A.A. we find a greater personal freedom than any other society knows.”—this is Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A., writing in a 1957 history of the movement—“We cannot be compelled to do anything. In that sense our society is a benign anarchy. The word ‘anarchy’ has a bad meaning to most of us. . . . But I think that the gentle Russian prince who so strongly advocated the idea felt that if men were granted absolute liberty, and were compelled to obey no one in person, they would voluntarily associate themselves in the common interest. A.A. is an association of the benign sort the prince envisioned.” So.
“I wish the real world could be like Al-Anon.”
It is. I see it every Monday night at my house when we sit down in the living room for our weekly house meeting. I see it at Food Not Bombs every time a group of people—some of them homeless, some of them not–take a couple of boxes of miscellaneous fruits and vegetables and turn them into a meal for thirty people. I see it lots of places. It’s not just the private precinct of anarchists, vowed or unavowed, it’s the way people behave when conditions are benign. It’s the real real world.
So why do those of us who have seen another, healthier way of doing things put up with the conditions of the unreal world? What would happen if we recognized our power, personal and collective, to reshape the community around us? What if we took the principles embodied in the Twelve Steps and in the writings of anarchist thinkers and used them not simply to heal ourselves and our families, but to heal our neighborhoods, our towns, our nations, our planet. We can! We don’t have to do it all at once, and no one of us has to do it alone, but I believe it’s the work that’s most worth doing. One day at a time—but starting now.
The Twelve Traditions of Al-Anon
1. Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.
2. For our group purpose there is but one authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants—they do not govern.
3. The relatives of alcoholics, when gathered together for mutual aid, may call themselves an Al-Anon Family group, provided that as a group, they have no other affiliation. The only requirement for membership is that there be a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend.
4. Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting another group or Al-Anon or AA as a whole.
5. Each Al-Anon Family Group has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps of AA ourselves, by encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives, and by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics.
6. Our Family Groups ought never endorse, finance or lend our name to any outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary spiritual aim. Although a separate entity, we should always co-operate with Alcoholics Anonymous.
7. Every group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
8. Al-Anon Twelfth Step work should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
9. Our groups, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
10. The Al-Anon Family Groups have no opinion on outside issues; hence our name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, films, and TV. We need guard with special care the anonymity of all AA members.
12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.