Willingness is one of the “essentials of recovery,” according to the Big Book (p. 568). It is one of the “indispensable principles” of the 12-Step program, together with honesty and open-mindedness. The centrality of these three to our sobriety is aptly conveyed by the acronym we have coined out of them: HOW.
That honesty and open-mindedness should be given such prominence should not surprise us. After all, these are traditional, well-recognized virtues. That is far from being the case with willingness. Indeed, by putting it on a par with those two other virtues, AA gives willingness a significance it lacks outside our program. It raises it to the status of a virtue in its own right, and a pivotal one at that.
Why is this? Why is willingness so crucial to recovery? The reason is simple. Willingness is the natural corrective to one of our worst character defects as alcoholics. This is our inveterate willfulness. Dictionaries describe a willful person as one who is obstinately bent on having his way, who is deliberate, headstrong, and persistent in a self-determined course of action. That accurately describes us. Willfulness is all about self-will, and so are we. Thus the Big Book’s description of the alcoholic as an extreme example of “self-will run riot” (p. 62).
Willingness by contrast is a disposition away from self and toward others. It suggests an inclination to acquiesce, comply, or cooperate with the proposals or requirements of another. To be willing is to be ready to do something voluntarily, without being forced. Whereas willfulness is synonymous with contrariness, stubbornness, and intransigence, willingness suggests flexibility, agreeableness, and acceptance. To be willful is to resist, defy, and rebel; to be willing to yield, concede, and consent. Willingness is open to the good; willfulness is closed to it.
In AA, willingness is in the service of recovery. If we are not willing to concede that our way has not worked very well for us and that perhaps AA does have a better way, we don’t have the slightest chance of getting and staying sober. We will continue to do what we’ve been doing all along. The requisite willingness first comes when we hit bottom. “Then, and only then, do we become as open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be” (12&12, S1. p. 24).
Step 1 is where we make the initial adjustment from willfulness to willingness. The pain and the suffering we experience when everything falls apart has the effect of bending our will a little: “Each of us has had his own near-fatal encounter with the juggernaut of self-will, and has suffered enough under its weight to be willing to look for something better” (ibid., S3, p. 37). Ever so slightly, we begin to turn from self. Having been humbled, our ego deflated, we become receptive to the AA message. We become willing to listen, to learn, to ask for help, to accept direction. As our rebellion subsides, we become willing to admit what our pride would never let us acknowledge: that we are alcoholic and that our life has become unmanageable.
As this suggests, therefore, willingness is not a principle exclusive to Steps 6 and 8, as on first impression we might tend to believe. It is of the essence to Step 1 and just as indispensable to all the other Steps. Simply put, we won’t work any Step unless we are willing to. In this sense, willingness is a basic, foundational virtue. As with every other virtue, however, our goal is to grow in it. We do that as we work the Steps and in each one practice willingness in the way that is specific to that Step.
Willingness in Step 2 is an issue of faith at its most elementary level: are we “willing to believe.” For “We found that as soon as we were able to lay prejudice aside and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results” (Big Book, p. 46). Here too, as in Step 1, the force of circumstance may facilitate the initial willingness, as the story of “Our Southern Friend” (Fitz M.) in “We Agnostics” relates (pp. 55-57).
Step 3 calls for a greater level of willingness, for it involves a greater level of faith. This is where we become willing to let go of the reins, to get off the driver’s seat and entrust our will and our lives to the care of God. “Practicing Step Three is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still closed and locked. All we need is a key, and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key, and it is called willingness. Once unlocked by willingness, the door opens almost of itself, and looking through it, we shall see a pathway beside which is an inscription. It reads: ‘This is the way to a faith that works'” (12&12, S3, p. 34).
The very same key opens the door to the practice of the remaining Steps, for they are all built on the foundations of the decision to surrender that we make in Step 3.
Thus the 12&12 tells us that “Taking inventory in Step 4 requires “great willingness even to begin" (p. 47). And yet, “Without a willing and persistent effort to do this, there can be little sobriety or contentment for us" (p. 43). But “Once we have a complete willingness to take inventory and exert ourselves to do the job thoroughly, a wonderful light falls upon this foggy scene" (p. 49), and the pride and the fear that stood in our way begin to dissipate. Putting pen to paper “will be the first tangible evidence of our complete willingness to move forward" (p. 54). With regards to sex, we read in the Big Book that “Whatever our ideal turns out to be, we must be willing to grow toward it" (p. 69). Having completed our inventory, “We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight" (p. 67). We “have listed the people we have hurt by our conduct, and are willing to straighten out the past if we can" (p.70).
Similarly, we are warned in Step 5 that we are not likely to stay sober unless we admit our defects to another human being, for “It seems plain that the grace of God will not enter to expel our destructive obsessions until we are willing to try this” (p. 57). Experience shows that “Only by discussing ourselves, holding back nothing, only by being willing to take advice and accept direction could we set foot on the road to straight thinking, solid honesty, and genuine humility" (p. 59). It is clear that “Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical” (p. 60).
As regards Step 6, the Big Book begins by noting that “We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable” (p. 76). Nowhere is this more true than in this Step. For to be “entirely ready” is in effect to be completely and utterly willing to have God remove our defects of character. That is obviously a very high ideal. It is the highest we will find in any of the Steps, for as the 12&12 says, it suggests that “we ought to become entirely willing to aim toward perfection” (p. 69). The ideal is prefigured in Step 3, the goal being to become the person God made us to be. “[A]ny person capable of enough willingness and honesty to try repeatedly Step Six on all his faults—without any reservations whatever—has indeed come a long way spiritually, and is therefore entitled to be called a man who is sincerely trying to grow in the image and likeness of his own Creator” (ibid., p. 63). This is something that “we are supposed to be willing to work toward ourselves” (p. 65), by working the Steps. Yet none of us is capable of such willingness, and thus the Big Book suggests that “If we still cling to something we will not let go, we ask God to help us be willing” (p. 76).
How can we possibly aim that high? “How can we possibly summon the resolution and the willingness to get rid of such overwhelming compulsions and desires?” asks the 12&12 (p. 73). By combining willingness with humility. “[W]hen we have taken a square look at some of these defects, have discussed them with another, and have become willing to have them removed, our thinking about humility commences to have a wider meaning" (p. 74). Step 7 “is really saying to us that we ought now to be willing to try humility in seeking the removal of our other shortcomings just as we did when we admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, and came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” (p. 76). Hence the humility that marks the 7th Step prayer in the Big Book: “I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad” (p. 76). Why do we pray for the removal of our character defects? Because they stand in the way of our usefulness to God and our fellows. Hence there is no prideful, self-seeking perfectionism in the ideal underlining Steps 6 and 7. The goal is to do God’s “bidding.”
Ultimately, willingness is about doing God’s will rather than our own. In Step 8 that means that we "became willing to make amends” (12&12, p. 77) to all the people we had harmed, having made our list and become willing to forgive any harms they may have done to us. In Step 9 it means that we have “a complete willingness to make amends as fast and as far as may be possible in a given set of conditions" (p. 87) and that we are “willing to reveal the very worst” if necessary (p. 84). We continue this process in Step 10, where “An honest regret for harms done, a genuine gratitude for blessings received, and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we seek” (p. 95). In Step 11 prayer and meditation become the primary tools through which we continue to grow in the willingness to know and to do God’s will for us. In Step 12 we become willing to carry the message of recovery to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
As a virtue, then, willingness involves a process of moving away from self-will toward God’s will for us. This process unfolds as we work the Steps and practice the principles they embody. That is why willingness is so central to the “how” of recovery. As we grow in this virtue we become increasingly willing participants in the process of “Attitude Adjustment” which a spiritual awakening makes possible in us.
Our ultimate goal, Bill W. writes, is “a full willingness, in all times and places, to find and to do the will of God” (ABSI, p. 106). He sees such willingness as the highest expression of humility, which is in turn “the foundation principle of each of A.A.’s Twelve Steps” (ASBI, p. 74).
[Image: Bill at his desk at Wit's End, Stepping Stones.]