Rituals are an important part of human society. They are comforting, and give us a sense of stability: the way we do it is the same way they do it everywhere else; we’re part of the Big Picture; we belong; we’re at home. They often have social significance on a wider scale: baptisms, marriages, handfastings, graduations, inductions and many other things that we take for granted are imbued with their own specific rituals that have, in many cases, evolved over centuries. Funerals are probably the most obvious examples: the wake or other pre-interment ceremonies and gatherings, the procession, the prayers, the means of interment or other disposition of the body, all are part of a larger ritual that bonds those members of that society or subgroup with the bereaved and each other, and makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Our Twelve Step groups are no exception. We greet people at the door, sometimes offer them food (a powerful ritual in itself), say certain prayers, read certain readings, and the rest of the meeting proceeds in a particular order and style as well. How comfortable would we feel at any meeting, not just our recovery fellowships, if people just wandered in, sat down, and then some random person said, “Well, what shall we talk about today?” We like our gatherings to be familiar, and ritual serves that purpose.
One of the most important things about ritual is that it provides structure. Everyone knows what to do, when to do it, and how — mostly without being told, although some direction may be offered. If I walk into an AA meeting in California, three thousand miles from the part of Florida where I first encountered it, some of the details may vary but I’ll still feel right at home — because of ritual. I’ll know right off that those are “my people.”
We also have personal rituals. For example, our mornings usually start in the same ways. Do our morning reading and meditation, eat at a particular time and place, read our email, shower, shave or do our hair (or both), and often dress in a particular order. We pick up our “stuff” from particular places where we always leave it, put it in specific pockets in our trousers or purse, and prepare our home for departure by turning off lights, appliances, feeding the cat, and so forth. The last thing we do is leave and lock the door. And if we interrupt our rituals at critical times, things probably won’t get done and our day will start off with considerable disruption and irritation.
So rituals are important, which gets me to the point of this article. A couple of the younger members of one of my recovery fellowships have embarked on a crusade to tighten things up and get it operating like all the other 12-step organizations. They want all the “t’s” crossed, and all the “i’s” dotted, with everything on paper so that their idea of the “right” way to do things is written in inkjet and encased in lamination.
I understand that zeal to organize. I was them a couple of decades ago. At one point, I even started “modernizing” the AA Big Book. Fortunately, at that time in my recovery I wasn’t able to stick to much of anything for very long at a stretch, or I’d most likely have wasted a bunch of time and made myself a laughing-stock among some of the less understanding members of the fellowship. Inertia prevailed, and today I’m really glad.
My zeal to organize AA according to my vision faded after a while, and I came to realize that it, like most things on this planet, has evolved by a process of what amounts to natural selection: changes have occurred slowly, and those that benefited the continuity of the organization tended to last, the others fading away after proving unnecessary or counterproductive. This, in my observation, has been true of the other 12-step fellowships as well.
The particular fellowship to which I’m referring here is a pretty casual one. The nature of the addiction requires a good deal of flexibility in approach, and carries enough shame with it to make just coming through the doors and having a seat pretty hard on newcomers. Because of that, it has evolved its own set of rituals. You must identify as a member of the fellowship in order to attend, for the comfort and safety of all. There are no open meetings. There is no cross-talk, and no direct reference to what others have shared. Specific places and things are not referred to at all, for fear of triggering someone else’s addiction. Beginners are strongly encouraged to attend orientation meetings in order that they may understand these and other conventions, and some of the specialized terminology.
The rest of the meeting is pretty much like any other: prayer, readings, a 7th Step collection, chips, and so forth, and it’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere. People are encouraged to feel comfortable. There are enough do’s and don’ts already that no one worries much about whether you forget the Serenity Prayer, or whether someone substitutes one reading for another. When we goof up, we laugh at ourselves and get on with recovery. It works for a lot of us, and not for some others, just like the other outfits. In my opinion, it doesn’t need to be any more complicated in the name of trying to keep it simple, with everything written down and done a certain way.
But I’m only one member, and a relatively new one at that. I learned from my years in other fellowships that I’m just “another bozo on the bus,” and I do not govern. I try to guide things gently by providing my experience, strength and hope, and avoid mentioning the ego involved in trying to reinvent the wheel. The purpose of any recovery, in the long run, is to learn patience and eventually grow up.
At least I’m becoming more patient.