The 12 Step Stoic: General Wisdom

Acceptance of what is. Self-Examination. Right Thought. Right Action.

The central tenets of 12 Step recovery are similar, if not identical, to the central tenets of Stoicism. In this series of articles, we shall compare the words of the Stoic Masters with those drawn from 12 Step literature.

“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

—MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.7

Big Book: I spend a great deal of time passing on what I learned to others who want and need it badly. I do it for four reasons: 1. Sense of duty. 2. It is a pleasure. 3. Because in so doing I am paying my debt to the man who took time to pass it on to me. 4. Because every time I do it I take out a little more insurance for myself against a possible slip.

12 Step Stoic: Recovery is a team sport. Stick with the winners, assist those who are currently losing badly in the game of life. What is a winner? A person who takes action to honour and protect their recovery on a daily basis. A person who for whom service to others is a way of life.

Above all, keep a close watch on this—that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined. . . . You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends . . . if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had. — EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.2.1; 4–5

Big Book: Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did – then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen – Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair.

 From good people you’ll learn good, but if you mingle with the bad you’ll destroy such soul as you had. —MUSONIUSRUFUS, QUOTING THEOGNIS OF MEGARA, LECTURES, 11.53.21–22

Big Book: Our rule is not to avoid a place where there is drinking, if we have a legitimate reason for being there. That includes bars, nightclubs, dances, receptions, weddings, even plain ordinary whoopee parties. To a person who has had experience with an alcoholic, this may seem like tempting Providence, but it isn’t.

You will note that we made an important qualification. Therefore, ask yourself on each occasion, “Have I any good social, business, or personal reason for going to this place? Or am I expecting to steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places?” If you answer these questions satisfactorily, you need have no apprehension. Go or stay away, whichever seems best. But be sure you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good. Do not think of what you will get out of the occasion. Think of what you can bring to it.

12 Step Stoic: Your real friends will be more than happy to meet you for a coffee and a chat at 10AM on Saturday morning. If a person insists on meeting in a pub, club or a place where cannabis is being smoked or other drugs are being taken. You might wish to re-evaluate the particular relationship.

“Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.17.1

Big Book: Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely. Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful!

Is not our age characterized by the ease with which we discard old ideas for new, by the complete readiness with which we throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does?

“Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 5.9

Big Book: We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the desperation of drowning men.

12 Step Stoic: “Come with me if you want to live.” (Catchphrase from the Terminator franchise)

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“What’s the point of having countless books and libraries, whose titles could hardly be read through in a lifetime. The learner is not taught, but burdened by the sheer volume, and it’s better to plant the seeds of a few authors than to be scattered about by many.” —SENECA, ON TRANQUILITY OF MIND, 9.4

“When the problem arose for us whether habit or theory was better for getting virtue—if by theory is meant what teaches us correct conduct, and by habit we mean being accustomed to act according to this theory—Musonius thought habit to be more effective.” —MUSONIUS RUFUS, LECTURES, 5.17.31–32, 5.19.1–2

Big Book: The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.

We read wordy books and indulge in windy arguments…

If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly.

12 Step Stoic: I have an impressive library of books devoted to personal development, spirituality, philosophy and self-help. I have often sought and found inspiration from within their pages. But reading is just that: reading. Thinking is just that: thinking. Like a child with a new fact I often confuse the acquiral of a new, stimulating piece of information with moral and spiritual progress. It is, of course, the practical application of the new piece of information that leads to progress.

“For it’s disgraceful for an old person, or one in sight of old age, to have only the knowledge carried in their notebooks. Zeno said this . . . what do you say? Cleanthes said that . . . what do you say? How long will you be compelled by the claims of another? Take charge and stake your own claim—something posterity will carry in its notebook.”

—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 33.7

Big Book: Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with God. These give a fair cross section of our membership and a clear-cut idea of what has actually happened in their lives.

12 Step Stoic: Whenever I share a passage from the Big Book in a meeting, I always try to preface it with an anecdote from my own experience. A quote in isolation perhaps does not illustrate the message I wish to convey. I have often fallen into the ‘My Sponsor says…’ trap. Never mind what your sponsor says. What do YOU say?

“What assistance can we find in the fight against habit? Try the opposite!”

—EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 1.27.4

Big Book: Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

12 Step Stoic: Practice opposites.

“Enough of this miserable, whining life. Stop monkeying around! Why are you troubled? What’s new here? What’s so confounding? The one responsible? Take a good look. Or just the matter itself? Then look at that. There’s nothing else to look at. And as far as the gods go, by now you could try being more straightforward and kind. It’s the same, whether you’ve examined these things for a hundred years, or only three.”

—MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 9.37

Big Book: The rule is we must be hard on ourself, but always considerate of others.

“You must stop blaming God, and not blame any person. You must completely control your desire and shift your avoidance to what lies within your reasoned choice. You must no longer feel anger, resentment, envy, or regret.”

—EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.22.13

Big Book: 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.

So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!

“We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.”

—EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 1.2.37b

Big Book: No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

“Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.”

—ZENO, QUOTED IN DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, 7.1.26

12 & 12: Nothing pays off like restraint of tongue and pen. We must avoid quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven arguments. The same goes for sulking or silent scorn. These are emotional booby traps baited with pride and vengefulness. Our first job is to sidestep the traps. When we are tempted by the bait, we should train ourselves to step back and think. For we can neither think nor act to good purpose until the habit of self-restraint has become automatic.

“Some people with exceptional minds quickly grasp virtue, or produce it within themselves. But other dim and lazy types, hindered by bad habits, must have their rusty souls constantly scrubbed down. . . . The weaker sorts will be helped and lifted from their bad opinions if we put them in the care of philosophy’s principles.”

—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 95.36–37

Big Book: It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.

Carry this message.

“Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.”

—MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.59

Big Book: We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.

“This is the very thing which makes up the virtue of the happy person and a well-flowing life—when the affairs of life are in every way tuned to the harmony between the individual divine spirit and the will of the director of the universe.”

—CHRYSIPPUS, QUOTED IN DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, 7.1.88

“Remember that you are an actor in a play, playing a character according to the will of the playwright—if a short play, then it’s short; if long, long. If he wishes you to play the beggar, play even that role well, just as you would if it were a cripple, a honcho, or an everyday person. For this is your duty, to perform well the character assigned you. That selection belongs to another.”

—EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 17

Big Book: Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful.

“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.”

—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 103.4b–5a

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

Big Book: Referring to our list again. Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? The inventory was ours, not the other man’s. When we saw our faults we listed them. We placed them before us in black and white. We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight.

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