Future Shock 2035: Stewardship in the 21st Century

Like any newcomer, someone getting clean and sober today will wonder two things: A) Do I want to stay around here in the rooms and hang out with this motley crew, clean and sober for the rest of my life, and B) Can I, if I want to, be one of the few, with so many people falling off the wagon and/or dying from addiction? “Rarely have we seen a person fail, who has thoroughly followed out path…”, aside, success is not guaranteed.

Let us imagine that today’s new process or substance addict has used for the last time and they recover. Also, let us assume that they stay around. Not everyone does. Twelve Step culture becomes a way of life for some of us while for others it is a leg up into a clean and sober productive life outside being a loyal member of a regular meeting home group. So, for the purposes of this mental exercise, we are assuming that today’s newcomer (it could be you or it could be someone you stayed up until midnight talking with last night) has had their last drunk, high or acting out experience and it is onward and upward for this now shaky woman or man.

While we are exercising our imagination, why not also imagine the year 2035 and that this newcomer is tomorrow’s long-timer. The history of Twelve Step fellowships will then be 100 years old and today’s newcomer will be 22 years sober at the centennial of the first AA member’s last drink. Damn few of today’s 22 year sober members imagined being a power of example or steward of the Traditions and fellowship back when they “put the plug in the jug” for the last time. It would be hard to imagine for today’s newcomer, too.

One more assumption we are making of course is that Twelve Step/Twelve Tradition fellowships are still around in 2035 and they haven’t gone extinct, giving way to some new means of peer-to-peer methodology. I am sure many experimental scientists today are hopeful that addiction will be a thing of the past in 2035. Someone in a lab coat somewhere or several someones in several labs are invested in something that they hope will medically relieve the physical, emotional and mental experience that is addiction.

So if AA is still here for its centennial birthday and/or many of the Twelve Step models that followed are still kicking, what will have changed and what will have stayed the same? All of today’s old-timers will be dead. Fellowships will be run by people who are just getting or are not yet sober. For those of you that are waning, maybe thinking, “That’s enough Joe—what’s the point of playing ‘what-if’ so far out into the future?” I ask you to bear with me for two more minutes. Today’s decisions that are made at the group level and at the world level for each fellowship are, as they have always been, done for the benefit of those of us here in the program and those yet to come. I don’t think it is folly or grandiose to stretch our imagination and ask how we can preserve and prepare our fellowship for the next generation (or two) of those who need us.

Through history, all organizations and societies grapple with the poles of preserving the message vs. widening the gateway. I was emailing briefly with an AA member who has served at General Service Office. He started there before there was an aa.org or a fourth edition of the Big Book and he has seen many things change and many things stay the same. He cares about the fellowship and has been there for many of our critical crossroads. He also has been studying other, older spiritual societies who struggle with growth and reification. I have been thinking a lot about what he told me and because I haven’t asked him if I could splatter the internet with his intimate thoughts, I will keep the member anonymous. Here’s is what he shared with me this weekend:

My exploration of the early history of various spiritual movements suggests there's always a tension between the "Integrity-of-the-Message" types and the "Big-Tent" types. This occurs in most movements no matter what the nature of the movement. The tension seems to intensify after the founder or founders pass from the scene and are no longer there to directly re-interpret what THEY meant, or otherwise arbitrate the dispute. That part of it seems fairly normal. My observation, though, is that sooner or later the "Integrity-of-the-Message" types tend to gain the upper hand in most movements, since they're usually more determined regarding their position (or more arrogant, as the case may be). They then either put the movement out of business entirely by their exclusivity, or they push it forward as a more cohesive group, but they can accomplish the latter only if in the meantime the movement has secured another power base to sustain itself, like money (lots of it), political power or governmental imprimatur. That's generally the sad part.

In AA's case, where money and power are thought not to be a part of the equation, the issue may be a bit more balanced in the long run. There's also the fact that AA has always denied being a "generalized" spiritual movement directed at a universal world view, but one directed—with a "singleness of purpose"—only at a specific medical condition. I think Bill W. always relied on this rationale to favor the "Big—Tent" view. He assuredly did so with respect to issues of race, color and sexual orientation. From a personal basis he also stretched the "creed" part in the case of Catholics and Jews to broaden the AA universe. The circle was always enlarged to include, rather than exclude, on the basis that none should be denied access to a potential cure for a disease or malady. The cure wasn't to be withheld because "the doctor" had personal objections to the patient's personal beliefs, or even to the lack thereof. Bill never lost sight of this one overriding goal in AA's formative years—get the sufferer the help he needs. I'd hate to see AA (lose sight of this) now.

In my book of daily reflections, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life I focus on the day to day realities of addiction, recovery and the journey of both. Also, I do invite the reader to honor and understand the past, as well as look to the future. If we think the future just happens, there is no “someone” or committee driving the train of our fellowship(s). The groups direct the fellowship and the members direct the groups. The future of Twelve and Twelve life will be decided where members meet—not around board room tables. If we believe in a guiding force that guides group conscience, let’s not forget that this guiding force was present to witness many monuments rise majestically, only to erode back into dust. Fate isn’t on our side if leaving a legacy is our plan. An old saying goes something like this: “Man makes plans and Allah laughs.”

This blog is not intended to be fatalistic. I am not saying let’s stand on the deck of our Titanic, wait for the iceberg and say, “I knew it.” There is much to accept that I cannot change. But there is much to rise to the occasion of to facilitate, preserve and prepare. The question for me is where will I invest my thoughts and actions? Will I throw my hands in the air and declare, “What will be, will be,” or will I do my part to preserve and prepare our fellowship for the needs of tomorrow’s suffering addict?

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