Humility is the central subject of discussion in Step 7 of the 12&12. This leads some to believe that it is the one principle Step 7 represents. This is in line with a common understanding of the relationship between Steps and principles in the AA program. On this view, there are 12 Steps and 12 principles, with each Step having a single principle and each principle belonging to a single Step.
This is illustrated by a popular pocket card that matches Steps and principles as follows:
8. Brotherly Love
11. Spiritual Awareness
Yet, as we show in PTP, each Step actually represents a variety of spiritual principles. Some are practiced as systematic activities or disciplines (like prayer and meditation), and others as personal traits of character or virtues (like honesty and gratitude). Moreover, some principles are practiced in more than one Step, though in different ways according to the particular Step.
Thus, while humility takes center stage in Step 7, it is not exclusive to that Step. Indeed, of all the principles which represent character virtues, humility is the one principle that underlines each and every one of the 12 Steps.
Step 7 itself makes this quite clear: “The attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of AA’s Twelve Steps” (12&12, p. 70; our emphasis).
Humility is so fundamental an AA principle that it underpins all of the 12 Traditions as well. We’re told in Tradition 12 that, on the one hand, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions,” and that, on the other, “anonymity is real humility at work” (pp. 184 and 187; our emphasis in both). Anonymity is at the heart of all the Traditions, but at the heart of anonymity is humility. To practice anonymity as a spiritual discipline, we need to practice humility as a spiritual virtue.
Why is humility so essential to the Steps of recovery? Because “without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all.” (12&12, p.70). Furthermore, because “Nearly all A.A.’s have found, too, that unless they develop much more of this precious quality than may be required just for sobriety, they still haven’t much chance of becoming truly happy. Without it, they cannot live to much useful purpose, or, in adversity, be able to summon the faith that can meet any emergency" (ibid.).
Why is humility so crucial to the Traditions? Because it is “an all-pervading spiritual quality” that enables us to weave “a protective mantle which covers our whole Society and under which we may grow and work in unity.” Therefore, “humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that Alcoholics Anonymous can have” (p. 187).
In the Steps, humility is presented as wisdom’s response to the problem of powerlessness: our limitation, imperfection, defectiveness, insufficiency, and dependency, as human beings in general and as alcoholics in particular. Without humility, we are driven to despair or to overcompensating pride, both destructive. We practice it by surrendering the various defects of pride that prevent us from seeing and accepting the reality of our condition.
Thus, in Step 1, we surrender our pride and admit we lack the power over alcohol and over our lives that we pretended we had. “Until he so humbles himself,” explains the 12&12, “his sobriety—if any—will be precarious. Of real happiness he will find none at all” (pp. 21-22).
In Step 2, we humble ourselves and accept that we can’t fix ourselves, opening the way to a belief in a Power who is greater than ourselves and can restore us to sanity. “True humility and an open mind can lead us to faith,” the 12&12 affirms (p. 33) on the basis of AA experience.
In Step 3, we come to a humble acknowledgment of our total dependence on this Power and make a decision to completely surrender our will and our life.
In Steps 4 through 10, we effectuate this surrender and grow in humility as we take stock of specific defects of character and emotion, admit to them, become entirely ready to let them go, ask for their removal, and make amends.
In Step 11, we approach the highest form of humility as we develop “a full willingness, in all times and places, to find and to do the will of God." In Step 12, we seek to “walk humbly under the grace of God” with each and every step we take.
In the Traditions, humility is associated with the problem of self-importance: our desire to stand out, take the spotlight, elevate ourselves, dominate, rule, control, and generally exercise power as members of AA, all of which stand in the way of practicing the spiritual principles in the fellowship and threaten to tear it apart.
The process of surrendering this distorted need for self-importance is explained most clearly in Tradition 12, which as we showed links humility with anonymity. “Anonymity the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions,” we quote again, adding this time the rest of the sentence: “ever reminding us to place principles before personalities” (p. 184, our emphasis).
The link between humility and the lack of concern with self-importance is reaffirmed when we read further that, “Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction as A.A. members both among fellow alcoholics and before the general public” (our emphasis). The same link is made in Step 12, where we read that, as a result of our ongoing spiritual awakening, our “distorted drives have been restored to something like their true purpose and direction. We no longer strive to dominate or rule those about us in order to gain self-importance” (p. 124, our emphasis).
We have been freed from the pride that is “the chief block to true progress” (12&12, S4, p. 49). Being at the very core of the Steps and of the Traditions then, humility is also at the heart of our spiritual awakening which is their transcendent goal, for it is through such an awakening that we are transformed.
[Image: Henrietta B. Seiberling, Akron Oxford Group member who introduced Bill W. to Dr. Bob at her home, The Gate Lodge, Mother's Day, May 12, 1935. For a photo of the Lodge, please click on link.]