Simplicity is a basic operating principle of the program and of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without it neither would work. Hence Dr. Bob’s last words to Bill, quoted below.
The need for simplicity arises from the fact that what we are dealing with is not simple. Life is not simple. People and relationships are not simple. God is not simple.
So when we say that AA is a simple program, we need to be clear on what we are saying. AA is a simple program in that it gives us a set of simple tools to deal with what are in fact complicated matters. We use those tools to work our way through the real complexities of life and in the process simplify it and come out on the other side of those complexities.
The program’s simplicity is written into the very concept of steps. The 12 Steps represent a gradual process of growth one step and one principle at a time. From a simple admission of powerlessness we move to a minimal belief in a Higher Power to a plain willingness to let that Power help us.
Simplicity extends to the rest of the Steps. Step 4 may look very complicated, for we are taking inventory of our entire lives. But we do it one emotion, one defect, one relationship, one situation at a time. Prayer may seem to present all kinds of difficulties, but we can start by simply asking for help in the morning and giving thanks at night. Meditation may sound even harder, but we can begin by reflecting on a simple daily reading, or even just a phrase from that reading.
Always aiming for the greatest simplicity possible, we come up with all kinds of maxims and slogans which make the abstract concrete and the conceptual practical. The first three Steps are distilled into three succinct sentences: “I can’t. He can. I’ll let Him.” The “how” of the program is explained with a handy acronym which spells out the bottom-line, essential, indispensable principles: honesty, open-mindedness, willingness (HOW). Indeed, the whole program is summed up in a straightforward formula: “Don’t drink. Clean house. Help another alcoholic.”
“First things first,” “Live and let live,” “Easy does it,” “One day at a Time,” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “Do what’s in front of you,” “Put one foot in front of another,” and “Utilize, don’t analyze” are among the other sayings which seek to simplify the process of recovery.
Simplicity is also written into the very concept of traditions, which are handed down to us for the very simple reason that they work. As with the Steps, the simplicity of the Traditions also was achieved by working our way through a lot of complications, in this case the task of trying to get a bunch of self-seeking and generally disorderly drunks to work together for the common good. Out of that experience came such policies as sticking to one primary purpose, having but one membership requirement, acknowledging one sole Authority, and other policies which sought to avoid all the complexities intrinsic to organizations and keep the alcoholic ego at bay.
As we can gather from these few examples, simplicity seeks to dispense with the extraneous and the superfluous, the unnecessary and the unessential. It favors the plain, the minimal, the ordinary, the unassuming, that which is down-to-earth. It is the opposite of duplicity, complexity, and multiplicity. It works together with such virtues as humility and modesty, and stands against such defects as pride. Pride or ego is among the biggest obstacles to simplicity, for it conflates it with simple-mindedness and sees complexity as a sign of superiority.
Yet keeping it simple does not mean being simplistic or simple-minded, shallow or superficial. It does not mean we avoid exploring, inquiring, and digging deeper into things. Simplicity is not opposed to thinking. It is opposed to “stinking” thinking. Our ability to think is a gift from God and a grateful response implies treasuring that gift and using it to serve and to honor him.
When we say that AA is a simple program, we sometimes add “for complicated people.” Of course, we drunks are no more complicated than anybody else. But when we drank, we had a definite tendency to complicate our lives. That’s why they became unmanageable. Drinking exacerbated our defects and thus compounded our difficulties. We were naturally predisposed to excess, and excess creates chaos and disorder.
As we grow in recovery, it becomes increasingly evident to us that the good life is the simple life. We work toward it by working on the defects of character and emotion which complicate it. Where before we wanted more, we are now content with less. We appreciate the little things. We make fewer demands on people. We don’t seek the limelight. We avoid excess. We keep it simple.
[Image: Dr. Bob, AA co-founder and author of "Dr. Bob's Nightmare." The words quoted below were his last to Bill W. before passing away. He died November 16, 1950 at Akron City Hospital. For photos of his grave, audio of his story, and Q&A about it, please click on links.]