Over the last three years of twelve step meetings, I’ve seen countless discussions of Step 7: “Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.” Although I’ve never seen too much pushback with the five words in the middle - "asked him to remove our" - alcoholics typically take issue with those two bookends: “humbly” and “shortcomings.”
(Well, to be fair, "him" hasn't been problem-free either.)
I, for one, am most disturbed by "humbly." It’s easy enough for me to list my shortcomings. I can be neurotic, impatient, resentful, to name a few. The real trouble is that, if I’m being honest, I'm not always convinced that these shortcomings really have me "coming up short.” Step 6 is clear on this attachment to our own defects: "We exult in some of our defects. We really love them" (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Pg. 66).
At yesterday’s meeting, we revisited Step 7. At hearing the word “humbly,” I became fully aware of my own pissy thoughts. Ok, Anna. What’s so wrong with humility?
I'll tell you what's wrong, I shot back. In the middle of the meeting, I whipped out my journal and started to write.
“Humility reminds me of being small, self-erasing, caring only about being of service, defining my worth by how diligently I serve others.”
In retrospect, maybe this isn't so tragic. In fact, what I wrote sort of reminds me of being a good Christian. Sure, most Christians would allow that our worth is not earned but rather intrinsic to being a child of God, but “service” as the reason for existence is not unheard of.
When I was 16, I participated in a “Servant Leadership Program.” We spent six weeks at a rather luxurious Quaker camp on the Oregon coast. We washed the dishes, cleaned dormitories, did yard work, and counseled campers. But don’t be deceived: it was camp for us, too. Sure, it was packaged as service, but I was there because I wanted to go to camp for six weeks.
A year later, I went on an evangelical missions trip to Cambodia. Again, we called it service. Sleeping in our mosquito nets and sweating through our oppressively modest clothes, I could almost buy it. Maybe I’m being of service? Those sleepless nights certainly sucked like service. But if I’m being honest, I really just wanted to go to Cambodia.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to travel or attending summer camp. But to me, it feels a little disingenuous to say these choices were motivated by my humble sensibilities.
I continued to rant about humility:
“To me, this sounds boring, replaceable - doing something others could do equally well.”
“Humility - well, I picture weakness, bowing, docility, taking orders, trusting others’ judgement over my own.”
In short, humility sounds to me like doing what I’m asked. Doing what I’m asked, when I know damn well people won’t ask me to do something fun. Ok, maybe it is kinda tragic.
No one asks me to devote 10 hours a week to writing or 6 hours to working out. No one asks me to dive obsessively down YouTube rabbit holes, where I actually learn a lot and am endlessly entertained, but am doing no one any good. No one asks me to spend the weekend with my girlfriend in Seattle, or to spend my money on perfume and protein bars, or to settle the score on Words with Friends every night before I fall asleep. No one asks me to do any of that, and it certainly doesn’t count as service. I do it because I want to.
“I don’t want to wash the di-”
The dishes. I was about to write that I don't want to wash the dishes. Sure, I’ll wash the dishes if the alternative is watching my aging grandmother wash the dishes. I’ll wash them if I think it would restore the balance, make me feel a little less lazy or guilty for taking up space in my parents’ house. But if you think I get joy out of doing something I know damn well any able-bodied person could do (and realistically, do better), you’ve got another think coming.
In part, my aversion to humility, to its self-erasing connotations, is very Four. As you might remember, Enneagram Fours are terrified of being irrelevant. They are loathe to play the worker bee. They are reticent to accept instruction from anyone but their inner goddess. They want environments in which their uniqueness can be more fully expressed, expressed at length, expressed ad nauseum. They want special arrangements. They want blogs, people. Blogs.
As I write, I realize I’m postponing the solution here. You know my style: I’m a little formulaic. I start by establishing the tension, and after about 600 words I resolve it. Twice a week. That’s my thing. And yet, I’m currently at word 797, and all I’ve done is lament how damn hard it is to be helpful. If it makes you feel better - I know it does me - I had fun doing it.
I didn’t have a chance to finish the sentence about the dishes, because that’s when the leader of the meeting called on me to share. My head snapped up: “Well, I really don’t like this ‘humbly’ word.”
As always happens in seventh step meetings, people were quick to reframe it. “Don’t like ‘humbly? Try humility.” “Don’t like humility? Try humbleness.” “Don’t like humbleness? Try just not being an asshole.”
That last person was speaking my language.
When I was training to be a therapist, I learned a certain solution-focused technique meant to corner the client into defining better behavior. (They do not call it “cornering the client,” but make no mistake: that’s what we're doing.) The therapist asks questions like, “What could you do to make your day 10% better?” “What would it look like for your happiness to go from a 3 to a 4?” The point of these questions is to show clients that, while they might not know how to put an end to their own misery, they can probably take a reasonable stab at the next right action.
Remembering this strategy, I challenged myself. Ok, Anna. What would it look like to be 10% more humble? To have 10% more humility? To be 10% less of an asshole?
The answers came quickly, and were not altogether undoable.
Accepting imperfect writing. Apologizing when I’m being selfish. Acknowledging that my sponsor might know something I don’t, as might the people who talk too long in AA. It would look like doing my best, and not just in order to be the best.
So that’s what I came up with. I was cornered.
What about you? How can you be 10% less of an asshole today?