The twelve steps of AA interpreted

The Big Book tells us HOW to work the 12 steps to achieve sobriety, but not WHY. Here, Rabbi Shais Taub gives us his opinion on the twelve steps of AA, interpreted to help us understand WHY twelve step programs work (if you work them).

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Natural Law

It is my personal belief—and this is the theologian in me talking now—that the Steps work because they conform to certain basic, immutable laws of the universe. “You do this, you get that.” In other words, the Steps are not arbitrary any more than that which constitutes a healthy diet is arbitrary. Certain lifestyles promote health, and certain lifestyles do not. Just as there are laws of biology that determine what is healthy eating for the body, there are laws of spirituality that determine what is healthy living for the soul. One need not understand either of these types of laws to live in accordance with them.

For instance, you don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that if for some crazy reason you go off and eat nothing but waffles for every meal, you are going to ruin your health. You can believe others when they tell you this, or you can try it on your own, but one way or another, you will come to the same conclusion as all other normal people. And you don’t have to know why it is that way; you just know that it is.

If we look at recovery as a set of instructions for living according to the rules of life, I think it helps us also understand the challenge facing the addict. The addict is a person in desperate need of learning how to live.

Let’s go back to the universal law that says that if you eat waffles all day, you’ll get sick. A little kid who has a chance to eat nothing but waffles all day might actually try to do it. But that’s normal. A little kid still needs to test things out. A normal adult, on the other hand, won’t try it because a normal adult already knows, whether from personal experience, from watching others, or from logical deduction that the all-waffle diet won’t work.

Now, let’s apply this same concept to other areas of life besides eating. Certain emotional habits are unhealthy. Little kids need to experiment with unhealthy behaviors—like pouting, throwing tantrums, lying, and so forth—and try them on for size. As they grow up, however, they form conclusions and gradually cross certain behaviors off the list. By the time a person is mature, there are just certain routines that are no longer part of the repertoire. You don’t fall on the ground and cry anymore when someone else gets the last piece of cake.

For whatever reason, addicts usually have not learned these lessons. It’s not that addicts are unintelligent. To the contrary, they can be very smart and, indeed, prone to being unusually philosophical even if they are of average intelligence. If an addict had just two brain cells left, one would be trying to figure out how to kill the other one by getting wasted, while the other would be contemplating the meaning of life.

At any rate, addicts as a whole are not at all stupid. Yet, when it comes to living, they are inexplicably inept. There are certain life lessons that they have never grasped—the emotional equivalents of “don’t eat waffles all day unless you want to get sick.” As time goes by, rather than learning how to do what everyone else does, the addict increasingly overcompensates by developing an entire alternative set of life skills of dubious distinction such as a masterly knack for self-deception or an instinctive ability to manipulate others.

What the Twelve Steps seem to do is take grownups who are bad at life and train them to live as if they had learned the lessons we are all supposed to have learned from our early experiences. The Steps do not teach what the laws of the universe are. (As I said, I don’t think the authors of the program necessarily even knew what they were.) The Steps do train a person, however, to live in a way that is in harmony with these laws.

About the author
Rabbi Shais Taub is one of today's most respected young scholars of Jewish spirituality and practice. National Public Radio called him "an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Twelve Steps." He is the author of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction.
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