The 7th Step of the 12 Step Process of Recovery: What is Humility?

The seventh step of Alcoholics Anonymous urges us to embrace pursuit of humility as a fundamental aspect of staying sober. Humility is equally vital on the path towards a useful, happy life. Yet AA and NA meeting participants often struggle when trying to define humility. The modern world tends to associate humility with weakness, or at the least, an almost passive mode of existence. But is humility the way of weakness?In the opening paragraphs of the chapter devoted to step seven in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson emphatically states, “the attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of AA’s twelve steps.” The legendary alcoholic goes on to claim that, “…without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all.” So even if humility is for sissies and lame ducks, if I don’t have it, I’m not going to be sober long. Same goes for any alcoholic or drug addict reading this humble article.

Another problem with today’s concept of humility lies in its association with punishment. How many times have we heard how a situation involved a dose of humble pie? Punishment, however, is not synonymous with this misunderstood virtue. We can chalk up this misguided notion to the advent of American exceptionalism.At the time the big book of Alcoholic Anonymous was published (1935), and later when The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditionswas published (1952), the quality of humility referred to a “reasonable perspective of oneself.” Bill Wilson expanded this definition when he wrote that humility was, “the clear recognition of what and who we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to be what we can be.”

I’m not sure about you, but I had no idea who I was with a belly full of booze and drugs. You were likely to see a variety of personas on me, depending on the quantity and mixture of intoxicants. There was out-of-my-mind me, incoherently rambling about a variety of topics which I knew nothing about. There was also the pitiful drunk sitting at the bar while sobbing over the somber cards life had dealt. Substance abuse brought out more faces on me than Medusa. 

In postwar America, sincere recognition of a necessary reliance upon a Higher Power was expected of any social or political leader. This spiritual relationship helped mold the core of American culture. Unfortunately today, spirituality has lost its luster. In walked iPods, cell phones, pop music and social media. Out walked genuine compassion, service and self-sacrifice.  

Even in 1952, however, the idea that “character building and spiritual values had to come first” and “material satisfactions were not the purpose of living” was no easy task for the authors of 12 step recovery to sell.  Visions of fortunes and modern convenience burned bright in the United States, and pursuit of wealth tended to prevail over personal character development. So while today’s problems of power and prestige aren’t fresh news, I think it’s safe to say the scope of our culture’s spiritual sickness continues to grow.

Humility in Sobriety

So what does a humble person look like today? How does a person who has genuine humility walk and talk today? How can we recognize the precious sobriety sustaining quality of “humility” that Bill Wilson was trying to convey when he pointed to it “as the foundation of each of AA’s 12 steps?”

According to several dictionaries, the definition of a person displaying humility is one who acts “stable, steady, calm, patient, open-minded, nonjudgmental, temperate and realistic.” Certainly, no one can reasonably argue with this long litany of desirable character traits. All of these demonstrations of humility possess great merit. Yet none of these descriptions of a humble person mention the “essential ingredient” or “essence” of all humility, which Bill Wilson carefully points out, is “the desire to seek and do God’s will.”

In the 12 steps, “…the desire to seek and do God’s will” is the essential ingredient. Over time, unless the word humility is enlarged in Alcoholics Anonymous’ lexicon, the essential, sobriety sustaining notion that seeking the will of God is the most important ingredient in the 12 step recipe for recovery may be lost. Unless, the essential concept of “humility” is clarified and enlarged in modern AA culture, this vital glue will become lost in translation. In a nutshell, humility is the honest desire to seek and do God’s will; nothing more and nothing less.

Your Conception of Humility

Words are symbols to express ideas normally larger than the word itself. Consequently, many of our biggest and most important ideas are represented by several words that surround a complex notion.  It seems the concept of humility might be best expressed today by a group of words rather than just one word.  Word Clouds, popular on the internet today, work well to express an idea that is bigger than just one word.

What would your word cloud for humility look like? Would it contain only the visible attributes of humility like “stable, calm, patient, open minded, nonjudgmental, temperate and realistic” or would your word cloud also contain the all-important, historic essence of the concept of humility: the desire to seek and do God’s will?

Ultimately, the seventh step teaches us a useful, happy life is only attainable if we spend our lives seeking and doing God’s will. Humility is merely a natural demonstration of a fulfilling, spiritual life.


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