The Big Book – How It Works

Fifty years, twenty five sober, my birthday is near, and here I am, all full of reflection.

Continuing the theme of influential books, and these books are all about power…

Bill-W-Dr-Bob-artwork-1-300x159The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is like the Bible; I have internalized its principles, incorporating them into my breath. When I say “like the Bible,” I mean that I haven’t read the Big Book the way most Christians haven’t read the Bible: not often enough, not fully enough, and without as much mindfulness. The book is too historically specific and cumbersome to make it all the way through, so I cherry pick. Nonetheless, it remains essential to my core.  So you see how apt the analogy is.

The twelve steps and their elaboration throughout the Big Book operate on a fascinating logic that encouraged new conceptual and spiritual understanding for me: a logic of infinite deferral.  Inhering in this logic is the practice of clean living with yourself and those around you. Practice is a key word, a Zen word of lived deferral. Lived deferral is an oxymoron. This logic is lived in that it is daily, ritualized, an imperfect being in the present. It is also a deferred becoming, one actively sought after yet never attained. This being and becoming, often the gristle and grind of many a philosophical tome, is humbly expressed in the AA aphorism: Progress, not perfection; being and becoming. In AA, you are recovering, never recovered.

The steps and principles are about the play of power and control found in the moment of perpetual surrender. They are about the relationality of give and take in the right living with others, yourself, and your higher power.

The Big Book shows how to turn the self into a lifelong project, something that is best accomplished by storytelling the self in the company of others. The book is best understood as a frame tale, a collection of some stories within a larger metanarrative, hence a model for “how it works.” The individual exemplars that grow dated over time are cast, recast, and made contemporary to each individual by exegesis in study groups, or they are simply replaced with stories told and retold in meetings.  Reading the book is irrelevant because the text is truly an an oral form told around the tribal campfires “in the rooms.”

“How it works” is through a storied power exchange. That’s why you start recovery on your knees, and you get your power back when you stay there humbly. It’s rather beautifully curious if you think about it in those terms. When power is defined relationally, in that light, the world cracks open, because you see that it’s never something anyone has, it’s only something given. Christ, Foucault, Saul Alinsky, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, they got it. That’s how it works.

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