I attended a birthday meeting the other day. These are meetings at which we celebrate our length of service in the program. In a sense, our mental sobriety.
At this meeting, the last person to share was celebrating 12 years. He began by saying that people make much out of 10 years or 15, but to him, 12 was a more significant milestone.
After all, he pointed out, we have 12 steps, 12 traditions, 12 Just for Todays. There are 12 months in the year. Our clock is divided into two blocks of 12 hours, and we have to live through every one of them.
It all got me to wondering. Why 12?
So I went home and did a search on the number 12. It seemed promising. A website about numerology said: “Twelve is … an indicator of great understanding and wisdom. Much of its knowledge is gleaned from life experiences, which enables a sense of calm to prevail in even the most turbulent of situations.”
That seemed perfectly in keeping with the spiritual enlightenment of the 12th step.
Twelve is also considered to be the ancient number of completion. It signals the end of childhood and the beginning stages of adulthood. (Still works. Wasn’t Bill W. clever?)
The website went on to note that ancient numbering and measuring systems are based on the number 12. There is a dozen, of course, and a gross (12x12). There are 12 pence in a shilling and 12 inches in a foot. It also appears many, many times in the sacred texts of several religions.
Then I started looking for something more specific that tied the 12 steps to the number 12. I found one reference that said AA’s founders chose the number 12 because there were 12 apostles. But that sounded suspect.
Eventually, I found this link that reproduces an article from the July 1953 issue of the AA Grapevine in which Bill W. explains the origins of the 12 steps.
The original steps were based upon the principles of the Oxford Groups, an evangelical movement of the 1920s and ’30s. Bill W. wrote, “The moral backbone of the ‘O.G.’ was absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love. They also practiced a type of confession, which they called ‘sharing;’ the making of amends they called ‘restitution.’ They believed deeply in their ‘quiet time,’ a meditation practiced by groups and individuals alike, in which the guidance of God was sought for every detail of living…”
The second influence came from Dr. William D. Silkworth of the Charles B. Towns Hospital, a sanatorium in New York City, who pioneered the idea that alcoholism was a disease. Finally, from William James came the idea that a spiritual awakening could make people saner. That it could “transform men and women so they could do, feel and believe what had hitherto been impossible to them.”
The original “steps” evolved over a three-year period as a way to offer a specific program of recovery. There were six:
1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol.
2. We got honest with ourselves.
3. We got honest with another person, in confidence.
4. We made amends for harms done others.
5. We worked with other alcoholics without demand for prestige or money.
6. We prayed to God to help us do these things as best we could.
That was the program until 1939. Bill W. was working on the book “Alcoholics Anonymous.” When he came to Chapter 5, he decided it was “high time to state what our program really was.”
Bill W. expanded on the steps. “Knowing the alcoholic’s ability to rationalize, something airtight would have to be written. We couldn’t let the reader wiggle out anywhere.”
Working on a “cheap yellow tablet,” in about 30 minutes Bill W. wrote out “certain principles, which, on being counted, turned out to be twelve in number.”
And so now you know. The significance of the number 12 is… well, there isn’t any.
Isn’t that just like an Al-Anon to try to find the reason why when there is none?
Isn’t it just like an alcoholic to teach us that it simply is what it is?
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