On Tradition One

“Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.”

“Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. A.A. must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterward.”

Our whole A.A. program is securely founded on the principle of humility–that is to say, perspective. Which implies, among other things, that we relate ourselves rightly to God and to our fellows; that we each see ourselves as we really are–“a small part of a great whole.” Seeing our fellows thus, we shall enjoy group harmony. That is why A.A. Tradition can confidently state, “Our common welfare comes first.”

“Does this mean,” some will ask, “that in A.A. the individual doesn’t count too much? Is he to be swallowed up, dominated by the group?”

No, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Perhaps there is no society on earth more solicitous of personal welfare, more careful to grant the individual the greatest possible liberty of belief and action. Alcoholics Anonymous has no “musts.” Few A.A. groups impose penalties on anyone for non-conformity. We do suggest, but we don’t discipline. Instead, compliance or non-compliance with any principle of A.A. is a matter for the conscience of the individual; he is the judge of his own conduct. Those words of old time, “Judge not,” we observe most literally.

“But,” some will argue, “if A.A. has no authority to govern its individual members or groups, how shall it ever be sure that the common welfare does come first? How is it possible to be governed without a government? If everyone can do as he pleases, how can you have aught but anarchy?”

The answer seems to be that we A.A.s cannot really do as we please, though there is no constituted human authority to restrain us. Actually, our common welfare is protected by powerful safeguards. The moment any action seriously threatens the common welfare, group opinion mobilizes to remind us; our conscience begins to complain. If one persists, he may become so disturbed as to get drunk; alcohol gives him a beating. Group opinion shows him that he is off the beam, his own conscience tells him that he is dead wrong, and, if he goes too far, Barleycorn brings him real conviction.

So it is we learn that in matters deeply affecting the group as a whole, “our common welfare comes first.” Rebellion ceases and cooperation begins because it must; we have disciplined ourselves.

Eventually, of course, we cooperate because we really wish to; we see that without substantial unity there can be no A.A., and that without A.A. there can be little lasting recovery for anyone. We gladly set aside personal ambitions whenever these might harm A.A. We humbly confess that we are but “a small part of a great whole.”


~ Bill W.


Reprinted with permission from
 The A.A. Grapevine, December, 1947



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