The Slogans of Step 3

Reflections in Recovery

First International AA Convention, Cleveland, 1950
Samuel Johnson once remarked that we need to be reminded more frequently than we need to be instructed. Unless sufficiently repeated, much information is not assimilated and transformed into knowledge. Still more repetition, reminding, and related processes like reflection are necessary to translate knowledge into understanding, and more still to translate understanding into acquired skills and habits that can have a consistent practical impact on what we do with what we’ve learned.

This is no less true for those of us in recovery. We go to meetings to keep the memory green because like everybody else we tend to forget—except that in our case we can’t afford to forget. We go to meetings to remind ourselves of what it was like and what happened because we need to hear over and over again what it means to be an alcoholic. And we go to meetings to remind ourselves of the ideas that got us sober and that can keep us growing in sobriety if we keep putting them to work in more and more areas of our lives.

These ideas are essentially in the nature of principles, and just as they are embedded in the Steps, we will find many of them also embedded in another set of tools closely linked to the Steps. These are the slogans, sometimes also referred to as sayings, aphorisms, maxims, and mottoes. In AA, more of these sayings are built around Step 3 than around all the other Steps combined. This in itself is indicative of the pivotal role of this Step. These slogans help to remind us of our decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, and to put it into practice in concrete ways as we face the challenges of daily living.   

We have come across some of these slogans in our discussion of the Step in Practice These Principles. They all have surrender and humility as their foundational principles, with the other principles of Step 3 more operational in some than in others. Thus trust, acceptance, and serenity, are at the heart of such slogans as “Turn it over,” “Let go and let God,” and “Take the action and let go of the results.” Slogans such as “This too shall pass,” “No pain, no gain,” and “Live and let live” stress acceptance in particular. Similar principles underlie such sayings as “God will never give you more than you can handle,” “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be,” and “You get what you need, not what you want.”

How the principles of Step 3 are at work in a few other slogans may be less obvious. “Easy does it,” “One day at a time,” and “Put one foot in front of another,” are calls for slowing down, being patient, and waiting on God, rather than acting on impulse or being driven by anxiety or by a sense of urgency or passionate intensity to grab the bull by the horns, impose our will, and force things to happen. This is in no way to sanction passivity, sloth, or procrastination, as the slogans “Easy does it but do it” and “Easy does it does it best” remind us: we are practicing a faith that works; we have to trust and act. 

Slogans such as “Act as if,” “Take the action and the feelings will follow,” and “Bring your body and the mind will follow,” serve to remind us that our recovery is a joint enterprise with God: if we humble and surrender ourselves and sincerely seek to do his will, God will bring our feelings in line with our actions, renew our mind, and transform our character.

The saying “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a call to simplicity, but it also tells us to let things be and not try to control and change them to suit our perfectionist and self-serving specifications.  “Compare and despair” tells us to accept ourselves as we are and other people as they are, lest we succumb to pride, at times feeling superior and at times inferior to others.

“But for the grace of God” serves to foster the emotion of gratitude and to practice it as a virtue, but as regards Step 3 it is also a reminder of our humble dependence on God’s providence. “Without God I can’t; without me He won’t” contains in its simplicity the paradox of our relationship with God and goes to the heart of Step 3. We are dependent but not determined. God will not impose. Grace is freely given and freely received. We open ourselves to receive it by becoming willing.

We use these slogans when under emotional stress much the same way we use the Serenity Prayer, reminding ourselves of the principles we want to practice and asking for help to do it. Calling a slogan to mind can instantly effectuate an attitude adjustment in such situations, enabling us to adopt a spiritual perspective, put the brakes on a reflexive fight-or-flight response, and fend off our natural tendency toward self-centeredness and self-will.

When we feel overwhelmed by a task that seems beyond our capacity to accomplish, it helps to remind ourselves to take it one day at a time and to put one foot in front of another, so that we keep moving in the right direction rather than quit or allow ourselves to become paralyzed. If we are obsessing over a problem we can’t solve at the moment, reminding ourselves to turn it over will allow for an answer to present itself in due course. When defeat and failure seem too heavy to bear, we can remember that this too shall pass, because that is in fact the way the world works: everything passes. When anger, fear, and resentment rob us of the joy of living, reminding ourselves to let go and let God can help us to surrender our will and in so doing regain our own lives.

Some might thumb their nose at the slogans, but Samuel Johnson would approve. They are catchy and easy to remember and as such good reminders. Yet they are not vacuous. They embody life-changing principles. And they work.  

[Posted 10/23/12. Image: First International AA Convention, Cleveland, 1950.]

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