Written By: Fiona Stockard

The Big Book Broken Down – Part Five

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who help each other to recover from alcohol and drug addiction. It was founded in June of 1935, just celebrated its seventy-ninth anniversary, and boasts over two million members.

AA’s central text is the Big Book. With a sponsor and a Big Book, AA members work the twelve steps, and “recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body” (title page).

Big Book

Today, I’ll be breaking down chapter five, How It Works.


How It Works

This chapter opens with one of the most famous lines from The Big Book. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program…” (58).

Starting out with a bang! I love this quote. I also love the story behind it. Rumor has it that Bill W. was asked, years after writing The Big Book, if there was anything he’d have changed. He responded by saying he wanted to change “rarely” to “never.” That’s been my experience. If you’re committed to working the twelve-steps, you don’t fail. I didn’t and I was as big a f**k up as they come!


The Third Step

How It Works then talks about Step Three. They use a wonderful metaphor comparing alcoholics to directors. We want to direct this play (or movie!) called life. We want everyone to do exactly what we say. Wouldn’t life be wonderful then?

The problem here is that people don’t do what we want. Guess what? They don’t have to! In fact, it’s pretty selfish for us alcoholics to want them to! How It Works addresses this selfishness. The chapter states,

“Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt” (62).

That’s one of my favorite passages from The Big Book. It describes exactly how I lived life! I was driven by fear and other negative emotions/needs. I hurt people. I hurt people and they hurt me back. I thought they hurt me for no reason. I couldn’t see my part in anything!

The twelve-steps, including steps three and four, showed me my part. They showed me how selfish I really was. Guess what? I was pretty damn selfish! Luckily, there were more steps and these (specifically eight and nine) helped me to change.

But back to step three. My sponsor explained the third step very simply. She told me it was just a decision to complete the rest of the steps. She told me that by working the remaining steps, I’d have turned my life and will over to God as I understand God.

Simple enough. How It Works then moves on to step four.


The Fourth Step

“Next we launched out on a course of vigorous action, the first step of which is a personal housecleaning…” (63).

The important words here are “vigorous action.” My sponsor explained that the first three steps weren’t action oriented. They were two conclusions (I’m an alcoholic. I can’t get better on my own) and a decision (going through with the remaining steps). But step four? Step four was about action.

How It Works describes how to properly write a fourth step. It’s not an autobiography. It’s four charts: my resentments, my fears, my sexual and romantic history, and the harms I’ve caused others. Simple as that.

There’s an example chart, breaking down how my charts should look, on page 65. I highly recommend checking it out! It shows how to write the cause of various resentments, fears, etc. It then shows how to list and examine my part in these fears, harms, etc.

Remember, us alcoholics are selfish! We need to be exposed to exactly how we’ve triggered resentments and the like, if we’re going to understand our part in the suffering of others.

How It Works continues, to the end of the chapter, with information and tips for writing out your fourth step. Pages 64 to 71 of The Big Book are, hands down, some of the most informative writing I’ve ever read. They explain the weird inner workings of alcoholics. They explain things I thought no one would ever understand.

One of these, and one of my favorite quotes, comes towards the end of the chapter:

“Suppose we fall short of the chosen ideal and stumble? Does this mean we are going to get drunk? Some people tell us so. But this is only a half-truth. It depends on us and on our motives. If we are sorry for what we have done, and have the honest desire to let God take us to better things, we believe we will be forgiven and will have learned our lesson. If we are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, we are quite sure to drink” (70).

That’s deep! That passage explains the real meaning of “progress not perfect.” It says guess what, I’m never going to be perfect. I’m going to fall short of who I want to be, and who God wants me to be, but that doesn’t mean I have to drink or drug.

No, just because I fall short doesn’t mean I’m a failure. As long as I keep trying to do better, I’ll be okay. As long as I keep trying to grow as a person, I’ll be okay. As long as I keep trying to put God as I understand God first, I’ll be okay.

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