The word “surrender” appears nowhere in our two basic texts, the Big Book and the 12&12. The term was avoided primarily because of its negative association with the Oxford Group. There were two reasons for this. First, the Group had a membership requirement where one had to “make a surrender” on one’s knees in front of other members. The act was coerced, and to many alcoholics, it represented one of the most objectionable aspects of religion. That’s one of the factors which eventually led to the break with the Group and the formation of AA.
The second reason was that, at the time the Big Book was being written, the OG had gotten caught up in a serious political controversy involving Europe and the Second World War. Using a well-known OG term in the book might have drawn AA into that controversy. Moreover, at a time of war—which within a few months would ensnare the US as well—the idea of surrender seemed to be totally out of place.
As the war and the OG faded into memory, however, it became safe to use the term again. Thus, we’ll find as many as 21 pages of entries indexed as “surrender” in As Bill Sees It (ABSI), published in 1967. In Daily Reflections, published in 1990, we’ll find eight such pages. These later changes notwithstanding, surrender never became a familiar word in AA and is seldom used in the rooms. Moreover, it became confused with acceptance, which was sometimes used to replace it. The case is different in the other fellowships inspired by AA, which openly used the word surrender from their inception.
Most entries in ABSI are from the Big Book and the 12&12, and only one (from “A.A. Today”), mentions the word directly. Yet, they clearly show how central the idea of surrender is in the Steps and the whole program of recovery. Indeed, it is a foundational spiritual discipline, just as humility, with which it is intimately related, is a foundational spiritual virtue. The two principles are two sides of the same coin. Humility is the corrective to pride, and pride is the defect we alcoholics most need to surrender. It is at the very heart of our disease of selfishness and self-centeredness and the self-will by which we tend to live our lives.
Since they rub against our ego, both terms are intensely disliked. They smack of weakness, and nobody, least of all the alcoholic, wants to admit to weakness. Surrender in particular smacks of cowardice and defeat. Never give up, we are frequently counseled. Don’t quit. Never, ever surrender.
All of this militates against developing any reasonable understanding of the principle and being able to practice it as we work the Steps. Yet, as we read in one of the ABSI entries (p. 242), AA was founded on the idea of surrender. It arose out of the evidence that only a transforming spiritual experience could deliver us from our alcoholism, and that, as Bill W. learned from William James, such an experience was almost always founded on calamity and collapse. Defeat led to surrender, and surrender opened the door to change.
As we read in Step 12, all of the Steps are directed to bringing about such a spiritual experience or awakening. Therefore, surrender is essential to all of them. All of them involve a surrender of our pride and the defects of character and emotion which revolve around it. This takes different forms in different Steps, as a quick look at each will reveal.
In Step 1 we surrender our struggle for power and control, first over the bottle, and progressively over the rest of our lives. To admit that we are powerless over alcohol is to admit that we cannot control our drinking. It is because our drinking has gone out of control that our lives have spun out of control too and have become unmanageable. Alcohol has beaten us. To surrender is to admit and accept our defeat, throw in the towel, and stop fighting. When we do, our struggle is over.
In Step 2 we surrender the old ideas, prejudices, and conceits that kept us under the illusion that we were self-sufficient and had to rely only upon ourselves, ideas which kept us from seeking the help of a Power greater than ourselves and coming to believe that it could restore us to sanity and make us whole.
In Step 3 we surrender our will and our lives to that Power, or as the Step says using an alternative phrase, we turn them over. Here we are introduced to the idea of surrendering something to somebody, and that somebody is always that Higher Power, whom we come to understand as a caring and loving God. We never surrender to anybody else, not to any human being, and not to any institution.
In Step 4 we surrender the anger and the resentment that we may still harbor against those we perceive to have hurt us in the past and which may prevent us from examining our own defects and the harm we have caused. We may also have to surrender other defects, such as the self-centered fear that may keep us from inquiring into certain aspects of our past, or the dishonesty that may keep us from looking for the full truth about ourselves.
In Step 5 we may have to surrender the pride and the self-centered fear which may keep us from being entirely honest and admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, especially face to face to another human being. Here pride, fear, and dishonesty may interact with a distorted sense of guilt and of shame or just plain embarrassment.
In Step 6 we surrender all resistance and abandon ourselves to the process of letting go of all of our defects of character so that God may be able to remove them. We do this one day and one defect at a time. Though there may be times when we may not be entirely ready to give up a particular defect, says the 12&12 (p. 69), the key is not to slip back into our old attitude of rebellion, self-will, and defiance and insist we will never give it up. To surrender here is to remain open and receptive to the process.
In Step 7 we surrender our pride in all of its manifestations, and we humbly ask God to remove all of our defects, continuing the process of surrender we have started in Step 6.
In Step 8 we surrender any anger or resentment we may still hold and any unforgiveness we may still harbor, as we become willing to make amends to all of those we have harmed, including those who may have harmed us.
In Step 9 we surrender any lingering defect or desire that may stand in the way of a full and complete act of restitution. These may include pride, fear, dishonesty, insincerity, a distorted sense of shame or embarrassment, and guilt.
In Step 10 we continue to surrender our defects as we uncover them on a daily basis, and we practice the acts of surrender of Steps 5 through 9 as the particulars of the situation may call for.
In Step 11 we surrender totally to God’s will for us as revealed through conscious contact in prayer and meditation, fulfilling at its highest level the surrender intended in Step 3.
In Step 12 we extend our surrender to all areas of our life as we practice the principles of the program in all our affairs, one day and one situation at a time.
We conclude this little summary with a reflection from one of our earliest posts on this site. If we have trouble with the idea of surrender, we wrote, it might help us to reflect on the fact that we do it all the time. When we hold a grudge against someone, we are surrendering to a character defect and diseased emotion in us. The choice is between surrendering resentment, and surrendering to resentment.
We are frequently faced with such a choice: surrendering to a flaw in us or surrendering that flaw, giving in to one form or another of our disease or giving it up, holding on to it, or letting it go. We can yield to anger, fear, dishonesty, intolerance, and our self-centered passions and desires, or we can turn them over.
One form of surrender perpetuates our disease and keeps us in bondage to conflict and contention; the other releases us and sets us free to live in peace with ourselves and with the world.
[Image: Charles R. Towns Hospital, 293 Central Park West, NYC, where Bill W. surrendered and had the spiritual experience that freed him from alcohol. NY AA #2, Hank P., and #3, Fitz M., also got sober at Towns, whose director was William D. Silkworth, author of "The Doctor's Opinion" in the Big Book.]