Humility and Recovery
At CORE we think of humility as a noble virtue. In one sense, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”1 It’s a principal value in many ethical systems. Great thinkers from all ages have taught that it’s in our best interest to forget our self-interest. Our highest example of humility, moreover, is the Lord himself, who came to this earth to do God’s will2 and to serve rather than be served.3 The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous also finds value in humility, which is often called the “foundation principle” for each of the 12 Steps.
In contrast to those who believe that humility is worth having, there are others who think that we have too much of it.4 It’s not just the business types who think this. Some among the self-help recovery crowd are jumping on the hubris bandwagon too. There seems to be no limit on what these people are willing to say in order to make sales. The pride mongers can be found among individuals who market so-called “harm reduction” methods as if they were recovery programs. What they say is of interest to us, because CORE is a recovery program.
As an example, one of these persons tells his readers that “the more I learn—the more I hear and the more I see—the more arrogant I become.” His conceit supposedly keeps him sober. He’s so proud of his abstinence that he looks down on everyone who does drink, even those who are not alcoholics. Not only does he hope readers like this quality about him, “in fact, I hope you’re jealous,” he says. More than that, he hopes readers will become interested in the abstinence program that he developed. To pique their interest, he invites them to take a self-survey about alcohol. Taking the survey entitles them to a free gift, a 40 page pdf-book about the alleged shame caused not only by alcoholism but also by sobriety. Readers are then invited to enroll in the program, and this is where cash is exchanged.
He tells them that similar programs cost $1,000 or more, but he asks for only a $25 per month recurring donation, which “can be cancelled at any time.” Moreover, if one donates an additional $40 to help battle the stigma associated with alcohol, he sends them a signed copy of his published book. It sells for $9.99 on Amazon and was released two years ago. There are ten glowing reviews on the Amazon website, all posted within six days of the book’s release. One reviewer, who allegedly struggled “for years,” claims that this book was the “missing piece” that helped her find “permanent sobriety.” Her review is altogether startling because it was posted the same day that the book was released. The other reviews are similarly puzzling.
With all due respect to this person, and others who are trying to market and sell human pride, cavalierly urging people to model abstinence based on self-confidence seems like a losing proposition. People who are still wrapped up in themselves are unlikely to enjoy meaningful recovery. Arrogance is more often a reaction to low self-esteem. It may also indicate dry drunk syndrome, in which the sufferer lives under continual stress because they are full of unaddressed resentments and anger. This is a perilous approach to sobriety that we can’t recommend to anybody.
Humility is part of every real recovery program because addiction is the result of a self-centered ego. It is a natural and foreseeable consequence when someone with an attitude of entitlement decides to self-medicate. As addicts we saw ourselves not on this earth to serve our fellows but rather to have our own desires served and all of our wants and needs met. We were “like an actor who wants to run the whole show . . . forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in our own way.”5 We thought that the world owed us. When the show didn’t come off as we expected, we became angry, indignant, and self-pitying, and we felt deserving of relief. Confronted with hurtful, stressful, or emotional situations, we claimed the privilege of feeling better immediately through alcohol and drugs. This chronic practice of self-medicating and rationalizing our behavior resulted in alcoholism and addiction. The 12 Steps address this crippling self-centeredness through a program of ego deflation.
To help lay readers better appreciate how humility relates to this process, please consider the following summary of the 12 Steps:
I couldn’t control my drugs and alcohol anymore, and my life was a mess. God had a better plan for me, so I submitted myself to it. I thought of my personal faults and everybody I’ve harmed, and I admitted these to God and to another person. I was ready to have God remove these shortcomings, too, and humbly asked Him to do this. Moreover, I became willing to fix things with the people I’d harmed. I went to them and made amends. Since then, I’m ever watchful for my own faults and admit it when I’m wrong. I also maintain contact with God and pray to Him for the wisdom and power to live according to His will. This has become my plan for life, and I’m particularly mindful of helping others in distress as I once was.
This essentially is all 12 Steps. It’s a simple program. Some might quibble about details, but this sufficiently summarizes them for our discussion of humility, which is really about our orientation toward ourselves, our fellows, and God.
12 Step humility initially requires us to honestly assess our personal situations, become willing to admit faults, and to open ourselves to new possibilities. “To thine own self be true.”6 We invariably accept certain truths about ourselves that are common to all addicts, inter alia, that we are powerless over drugs and alcohol, cannot manage our own lives, have harmed others, and suffer character defects. The object is not to make us to think badly about ourselves, but rather to conduct an honest self-appraisal and begin change. This is indispensable if we are to “discard the old life — the one that did not work — for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever.”7
Owning up to others about errors and limitations is humbling too. We can’t claim a privileged role in this world anymore. “No man is an island.”8 We especially acknowledge those we’ve hurt, all of whom deserved better, and devote time and effort to repair the harm. In making amends to another: we acknowledge our wrong without making excuses or blaming others, show contrition, state our awareness of the harm we caused, and always right the wrong wherever possible. Showing that we hear and value those we’ve hurt helps rebuild broken relationships. The exercise also instills a sensitivity to and appreciation for everyone around us. We stop thinking so much about ourselves and begin to focus on the needs of others.
Finally, 12 Step humility also means having a right understanding before God. There is an order to reality and our place in the world, and trying to make up our own rules didn’t work. Running on our own power, we failed. “We had to have God’s help.”9 Thus, we accepted Him as our director, and as agents we committed ourselves to doing His will. “Thy will (not mine) be done,”10 is the rule, not the exception. God is with us when we come to Him with a humble spirit. He shows us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness, and love. Living the spiritual life reveals meaning and purpose in our daily activities. It instills strength and courage to persevere.
In sum, humility may not seem to be an obvious quality for recovery, but we doubt that anyone can maintain sobriety without cultivating it. One can learn humility the easy way, or the hard way. Refusing to admit that we are powerless, to acknowledge our failures to others, or to rely on God, are the very kinds of brash self-assurance that lead to misadventure in the next drink or drug. We’ve seen this repeated so many times that we accept it as axiomatic.
There is also a paradoxical quality to humility, because as seekers we never discover it within ourselves. The fact that we must forever trudge the “road of happy destiny,”11 however, does not deter us. We are content to place our faith in God and live by spiritual principles. With the strength of humility comes the gift of serenity. It allows us to flourish and to navigate even the most difficult waves of life.