Humility involves always being open to new learning.

[fa icon="calendar"] Oct 1, 2018 9:19:41 PM / by John MacDougall

When I was a boy, I eagerly read each issue of Mad Magazine. It’s fictional editor, Alfred E. Neuman, had a quote above the index of each issue. One of my favorites was “Some minds are like concrete: all mixed up and permanently set.” A Peanuts cartoon of that era had Lucy shouting “If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your voice.” I’m writing this newsletter during the Senate hearings on a Supreme Court nomination. It seems as if nearly everyone is sure that they know what happened at a high school party long ago: the nominee is guilty, or innocent, depending upon whom you ask. I’m not hearing the more humble opinion of “I don’t know, I wasn’t there.”


The Seventh Step of A.A. invites us to humbly as God to remove our shortcomings. Those of us who do the steps as a cycle of twelve, find that we continue to find new shortcomings as we complete each new cycle. As the “12 and 12” says, we claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.


I encounter people in A.A., as well as elsewhere, who have a fixed set of opinions, and are no longer open to new learning. Some are called “Big Book Thumpers” because they seem to use the Big Book as a weapon to win an argument rather as an invitation with which to offer hope to the still suffering alcoholic. They will argue that there is only one right way to do recovery, and, of course, they know the way.


Years ago, I went to a lecture on child psychiatry by a famous psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim. The lecture was very helpful. However, in the question and answer period, he didn’t answer most of the questions. The audience was getting restless about this. Finally, he said:


“If you ask me about children, I know nothing. But if you give me one child, and I spend time with that child, then I will know something.” That made a lot of sense to me.


At times I realize I sound a bit rigid about A.A. and recovery. I often say there is only one two-part question in A.A.: Have you decided that you want what we have and are you willing to go to any lengths to get it? Yes, there may be only one question, but there is an infinite variety of alcoholics and addicts. If you ask me about alcoholics and addicts, all I know is the neuro-biology of addiction. But if I meet one alcoholic or addict, and I spend some time with that person, then I will know something.


Every person is different. How they think is different, what they believe coming into recovery is different, their life experiences are different, their metaphors, hopes, fears, and beliefs are different.


If we approach the alcoholic who still suffers from a position of pride, based on the certainty that we know how to do A.A., we will be useless. If we approach the alcoholic who still suffers from a position of compassion, based on a desire to learn who they are and how they think and feel, we are more likely to be of service. This is the invitation of our Big Book:


“Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us. Ask Him in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others. This is the Great Fact for us.” ------Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 164.

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John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat.

His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from

He will be speaking at The Retreat’s Breakfast Club on October 18 at 7:15 am at the University Club in Saint Paul.

Topics: Alcoholics Anonymous, 12 step program, 12 steps of aa, AA Big Book, Recovery Program

John MacDougall

Written by John MacDougall

John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat.
His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from

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