Friday, February 26, 2010

Inquiring Minds

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?


  1. Kathy,
    Thanks for doing the research on this...It is very interesting. I just recently saw the movie about Bill W's life. It was really good to see how he created AA.

    By the way, this is my new blog....Surprised by Joy.
    I had more to say....

    Would love it if you stopped by. :)

  2. This was very interesting..

    But honestly I read about Bill W. and though I adore the steps.. a lot of it from just basic religion too..fitted to this program.

    I really don't put too much by what he says.. he was still dishonest after he sobered up. He was unfaithful to LOIS many many times.. and to me he was far from simple..

    I feel very bad for LOIS that she was born in a time where women stayed married and had to continually put up with a husband cheating. (hugs to her) me she was totally codependent.. by staying with him and making him her whole world. (while he repeatedly slept with other women).

    The steps are wonderful... but I don't take much trust whatever he says or how he devised them. He obviously kept rationalizing it was okay to cheat.

    I, too, feel alcoholism is a Brain Disease..(but Co-dependence is too). My mentor said that many go from one form of this brain disease to another.. from alcohol to women.. (sex addicts) to whatever. He stopped drinking but than still had the Ego to be hurtful to his that was still a brain disease. Poor Lois.

  3. thanks for sharing this information. i love the ending thoughts there, kathy :) well said.

  4. A sense of calm even in the most turbulent situations. That is what I need. That is what anyone needs who is dealing with an addict!

  5. Appreciate you taking the time to post this. I learn quite a bit from things I had not clue about. Blessings Kathy to you and yours.

  6. The way you end this post . . . well, perfect.

  7. I have no experience with alcoholics, but I CAN appreciate the writerly research you put into this.

    Thanks for finding my blog and introducing yourself. A pleasure to meet you.


  8. Thanks for stopping by my blog today. I love meeting other bloggers and will back to visit again.

  9. Thanks for filling in some of the history of the Steps. Divinely inspired, no doubt! And yes, I have an insatiable need to know the "why" of things. I am better now at accepting each day as it comes.

    Have a lovely weekend!


  10. Great post!! Thanks for sharing this info that I didn't know. I am very much a Why person!