One of the things I love about the 12 Step Programs is the emphasis on humility that one finds there. One might think that it would not be difficult for the addict coming into recovery to be humble: after all, no one comes into AA, for example, on a winning streak. By the time an alcoholic comes into the rooms of recovery, he or she should realize that life has become unmanageable as a result of the disease of alcoholism, and should be teachable. As we say in the Program, “your best thinking got you here,” a polite way of saying, “well if you are so smart, tell me why you cannot manage your own life anymore.” Yet, strangely, the opposite is often true. An addict recently in the disease or even early in recovery is often full of self-will, false pride and that strange combination of deep insecurity and outsized egotism that seems to reside in most addicts.
This was surely true as I look back on my own journey into recovery. Twenty years ago, I had elements of both grandiosity and self-loathing: I was at the same time a professional success—having enjoyed a decade of accomplishment both as a lawyer and a legislator with nothing but promise on the horizon—and yet was a personal and spiritual mess, having sabotaged my young family life with hypocrisy and having spun out of control in an alcoholic meltdown, hurting many people I cared about and bringing shame and scandal upon myself. This combination of outward success and inward sickness left me deeply ambivalent about my worth and value as a man. Such a toxic duality in self-esteem is very common for addicts in the disease and even newly in recovery.
Still, fairly early on in the process of getting physically and emotionally healed through recovery, most addicts begin to learn how to take a realistic assessment of our strengths and weaknesses as people—which is not a bad definition of humility, and one that I hear regularly in meetings. For humility, properly understood, has nothing to do with self-devaluation or debasement, although such is a frequent misunderstanding of the term. In fact, the origins of the word are from the same Latin that gives us humus, soil. To be humble, then, has something to do with being grounded, having our feet in the soil, as opposed to being ungrounded, untethered, unmoored. So the 12 Step Programs teach us that a man or woman is humble when he or she has a realistic understanding of both his or her character virtues and defects, a grounded view of him or herself in relation to God and the world. This realistic understanding comes slowly but naturally and inevitably if one is painstaking about working the 12 Steps. Indeed, one can hardly avoid a fundamental psychic and spiritual conversion if one is systematically and intentionally working to become honest about one’s brokenness and addiction, to trust a Higher Power to restore one to sanity, to clean up the wreckage of the years of addiction, and to find ways to be of service to others suffering from the disease. So it is that, after a number of years working a good program, a recovering addict will become comfortable in his or her own skin, with a clear sense of who he or she is in relation to God, to other addicts and to the world.
And so, in a lesson that Christians would do well to learn, we see a spiritual transformation in our recovering brothers and sisters. For the addict, what used to be a kind of bi-polar self-image—alternatively either grandiosity or worthlessness—gradually becomes a peaceful paradox, a two-headed truth, where a man or woman can embrace that he or she is at the same time broken and deeply flawed person and yet also is a precious child of a loving God who is given a high calling to help save those still suffering. Many years ago I was given by my spiritual mentor a beautiful passage which embraces all this, in a note which said, “I know who I am and to Whom I belong, and having so known, life will not now press so close, and always I shall feel time spun thin about me, for once I stood in the white, windy presence of Eternity.” Knowing who I am and to Whom I belong is, for me, the starting point of humility.