If open-mindedness is one of the essentials of recovery, as we read in the Big Book, then it follows that narrow-mindedness is one of its chief stumbling blocks. Yet few of us would see it that way. As it applies to us, that is. We are more than ready to identify the defect in others—to take their inventory rather than ours. How many of us have given any serious thought to the possibility we might be affected by the same ailment? How many of us have included it in the list of defects to examine in ourselves when working Steps 4 and 10?
Like pride, narrow-mindedness seems to be intrinsic to the self. It is, we might say, a built-in form of self-centeredness. Narrow-mindedness disposes me to see the world in terms of the constituent elements of my individual self, the conglomeration of factors that define me and make me who I am: my sex, race, nationality, ethnicity, class, culture, language, religion, and politics, to name the most significant.
These color my experience and go to make up the mode through which I receive the world. They become the filters—the necessarily narrow filters—through which I view and value things. With time, I develop a natural, unconscious resistance to ideas, views, beliefs, or ways of life simply because they are new, different, or unfamiliar, or because they challenge or conflict with those to which I am already accustomed.
This makes of narrow-mindedness a cognitively or intellectually limiting defect: it restricts my ability to learn, acquire knowledge, and gain understanding. In short, it keeps me from growing.
It is for this reason that narrow-mindedness is a stumbling block to recovery. AA is about growth, and especially about spiritual growth. “When the spiritual malady is overcome,” says the Big Book, “we straighten out mentally and physically" (p. 64). Yet it is precisely the spiritual “angle” of the program to which narrow-mindedness makes us resistant.
This is true of all of us. Believer, ex-believer, unbeliever, we all come to AA with set ideas about God and religion, ideas which not infrequently clash with 12-Step spirituality. AA asks us to set those ideas aside and to open ourselves to a message we have never heard before, to an experience we have never had. The goal is a spiritual awakening that can deliver us from the obsession to drink and bring about a complete transformation in us.
Narrow-mindedness stands in the way of this process. It affects the way we work all the Steps, but it becomes a major problem with the more obviously God Steps: Steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11. How open are we really to the idea that God can restore us to sanity, that he really cares about us, that he can remove our defects of character? How receptive are we to the proposition that we can make conscious contact with him, that he has a will for us, and that he can give us the knowledge and the power to carry it out?
These are of course questions of faith. But AA tells us that faith is a gift, and that our job is to open up and make ourselves ready to receive it. We do that, says AA, by practicing a faith that works. Such faith involves effort, and narrow-mindedness is averse to effort. It fosters and is fostered by related work-aversive defects such as apathy, complacency, self-satisfaction, and sloth, all of which conspire to keep us in a state of blissful ignorance.
Blissful because, as a product of narrow-mindedness, ignorance self-conveniently simplifies everything—whether about God, the world, or other people. It allows us to be happily insular, provincial, parochial. It makes it easy for us to deal in stereotypes and indulge biases and prejudices. We can be self-righteous, doctrinaire, dogmatic, sectarian, petty, partisan or one-sided and be totally oblivious to the fact.
Indeed, narrow-mindedness is one of the hardest defects to detect in ourselves. By its very nature, it impairs our ability to conduct an objective self-appraisal. The necessary degree of detachment, of self-distancing, is lacking. Moreover, in causing moral harm, narrow-mindedness works behind the scenes. It functions as a contributing factor in situations involving other, more glaring defects, such as resentment, impatience and intolerance. We may be able to see these particular defects and not see the larger defect abetting them—in which case they will continue to crop up.
Narrow-mindedness is the problem to which open-mindedness is the solution. As a virtue, open-mindedness requires practice. An enquiring mind and a passion for truth are necessary, but we all carry the seeds of such qualities in us. They will grow if we cultivate them. An honest admission of our fundamental ignorance, a humble recognition of how little we know, of how little we really understand about things, will also help. So will a willingness to listen, to give a fair hearing where we would rather turn a deaf ear, to withhold judgment, to reach conclusions slowly and tentatively, our minds always open to the possibility that, as “A Vision for You” tells us, more will be disclosed (Big Book, p. 164). Such practices will ensure that, when it is, we will have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
[Image: 30 Vesey Street in downtown Manhattan, second headquarters of AA and Works Publishing (1940–1944) after Bill split with Hank and moved office from Newark. For Ruth Hoch’s recollections of this move, please click on link. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]