Eighty-five years ago, an alcoholic who was trying to stay sober stood outside a hotel bar, trying to decide whether to drink or not. He knew he had to find another alcoholic to help if he was going to make it. He made some calls and tracked down a man who reluctantly agreed to meet with him. They hit it off. The conversation between Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith lasted for hours that night and resulted in a friendship, which led to the formation of a few small groups of alcoholics in the U.S. trying to stay sober. These groups spread into a worldwide fellowship, known as Alcoholics Anonymous, which now includes an estimated 2,000,000 people across 175 countries.
To commemorate and continue the fellowship that began in Dr. Bob’s house, every five years, tens of thousands of alcoholics from around the world gather in a designated city for the A.A. International Convention. The first of these conventions took place in 1950 in Cleveland, Ohio, to celebrate 15 years of the A.A. fellowship. The most recent convention celebrating 80 years of A.A. was held in Atlanta on July 2-5, 2015, with approximately 57,000 members in attendance from 94 nations across the globe, including Argentina, Egypt, China, Ghana, and India, to name a few.
This year’s 2020 A.A. International Convention was a highly anticipated event, scheduled to be held in Detroit, Michigan. It was also going to prominently feature a very special member of the MARR family. Representatives of A.A.’s World Service Board had invited MARR’s very own Paul Thim, one of MARR’s beloved and now retired counselors, to speak as a non-alcoholic friend of A.A.
It is hard to overstate the significance and honor of this invitation both for Paul Thim and MARR. His service to MARR is so highly regarded that he was invited to speak at the A.A. fellowship’s most celebrated gathering in front of tens of thousands of A.A. members.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 changed everyone’s plans, and the convention was called off, at least in its physical form. But like many A.A. meetings worldwide, the 2020 International Convention moved into a virtual format. The A.A. World Service Board asked Paul to record a video for their virtual convention experience. Below is the video, which is available on the A.A. website, as well as a transcript of Paul’s remarks.
Paul Thim’s Remarks
Until I retired in July of 2019, I worked for 20 years in the field of substance abuse treatment. For the last 11 of those years, I worked at MARR Addiction Treatment Centers in Atlanta. The programs of MARR are very much based on Twelve Step Recovery. The principles of Alcoholics Anonymous are woven throughout all parts of the program.
Before I came to MARR, I already knew about A.A., and I had a very positive view of it. I knew about the Steps, but in those years at MARR, I came to develop a much deeper understanding of A.A. About half of the counseling staff members at MARR are people who are in recovery from substance abuse, and the other half are people like me, who are not in recovery from alcoholism or addiction.
As my understanding of A.A. developed during my years working at MARR, two words in particular kept coming to my mind: Acceptance and Accountability.
When someone comes to an A.A. meeting for the first time, that person is accepted. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. I use the word “acceptance,” but what I mean by that is what many other people simply call love.
I have frequently said that I had never seen and heard as many men say to other men “I love you” until I started spending time around men who were in Twelve Step Recovery. It’s not just a sentimental idea of love. It’s not just a warm feeling. All of that’s part of it, but it involves thinking and acting.
It involves thinking: “What does it actually mean in this case to be loving towards this person? Is what I’m thinking of doing for this person actually going to help that person or perhaps enable that person?”
So that gets to the second aspect of love: accountability. Accountability has to do with taking responsibility for our actions. It has to do with right and wrong. Anybody who knows about the steps knows that A.A. emphasizes that I start withholding myself accountable and also being open to other people holding me accountable.
If someone wants to try to hold me accountable, I’m at least going to take seriously and listen seriously to what they have to say. So, I hold myself accountable. Other people hold me accountable, but also, I hold others accountable. And in some ways, for me, I think maybe the genius or the secret of A.A. is it combines both of those things: the acceptance and the accountability.
Along with working in substance abuse treatment, I’m a minister and Episcopal priest. And for me, that combination of acceptance and accountability is also at the heart of what the Christian faith is about, what it means to live out the Christian faith and to apply it. I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on that. I know many people from other faith traditions who also have an understanding of what that means. And for that matter, I know many people who would consider themselves not to be religious at all, who have a deep appreciation of what it means to put those two words into practice.
I will always be grateful for the fact that I had the opportunity to be a part of the way in which A.A. applies faith to life, and I am grateful to you for listening to this talk.