“Keep it simple” – meaning

Keep it simple - meaning

January 3, 2023

By Andy F

Categories: Alcoholics Anonymous

keep it simple

A Popular AA slogan

The slogan “Keep it simple” is displayed at AA meetings worldwide. In terms of recovery from alcoholism, what does it mean? Keep what simple? What is the “it” that alcoholics are supposed to keep simple? When you think about it, the meaning of this well-known AA expression is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Perhaps we must go back to AA’s grassroots for a more understandable definition. An excellent place to start is with Dr Bob, AA’s co-founder. Three and a half months before he passed away, Dr. Bob spoke at the first international AA convention in Cleveland, Ohio. It became known as Dr Bob’s farewell talk.

Dr. Bob’s farewell talk

“My good friends in A.A. and of A.A.,
     … I get a big thrill out of looking over a vast sea of faces like this with a feeling that possibly some small thing I did a number of years ago played an infinitely small part in making this meeting possible. I also get quite a thrill when I think we all have
the same problem. We all did the same things. We all get the same results in proportion to our zeal, enthusiasm, and stick-to-itiveness. If you pardon the injection of a personal note at this time, let me say that I have been in bed for five of the last seven months, and my strength hasn’t returned as I would like, so my remarks of necessity will be very brief.

      There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis.  One is the simplicity of our program. Let’s not louse it all up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind but have little to do with our actual A.A. work. When simmered down to the last, our Twelve Steps resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.” We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let’s bear those two things in mind.

Let us also remember to guard that erring member the tongue, and if we must use it, let’s use it with kindness, consideration, and tolerance.
      And one more thing: None of us would be here today if somebody hadn’t taken time to explain things to us, to give us a little pat on the back, to take us to a meeting or two, to do numerous little kind and thoughtful acts on our behalf. So let us never get such a degree of smug complacency that we’re not willing to extend, or attempt to extend, to our less fortunate brothers that help which has been so beneficial to us.
 Thank you very much.”

* From Dr Bob’s brief remarks on Sunday, July 30, 1950, at the First International A.A. Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

Reprinted with the permission of Alcoholics Anonymous

A personal interpretation of Dr Bob’s final remarks

According to the General Service Office (GSO) of AA, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is open to personal interpretation, as is, of course, Dr Bob’s farewell talk. It has a special meaning for me and had a profound effect on my recovery from alcoholism. In his last words to AA, he encapsulated the purpose of the twelve steps. His brief remarks offer us the pure, undiluted AA message.

Firstly, a reminder from Dr Bob to keep it simple:

“One is the simplicity of our program.”

We then go on to his second quote. It helped me understand what Dr Bob meant by the program’s simplicity. After reading his farewell message several times, I was confident in where I was supposed to be heading. Moreover, the AA literature confirms Dr. Bob’s words page after page. “Love and Service” to others is the therapy for the successful rehabilitation of alcoholics.

“Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.”

Simple, if not always easy!

Not keeping it simple.

Mine was always an analytical way of thinking. As an alcoholic, this was why my life was always so complicated. I could keep nothing simple. In terms of treating the illness, having an overactive mind has proved a total liability. I always insisted on trying to get an in-depth understanding of the issues that made life so unmanageable. Instead of taking positive action, I tried to fix my problems by overthinking them.

Initially, I believed that psychotherapy was a much more effective treatment option than the twelve steps. I was in for a big shock. Leaning on modern psychology, I thought that talk therapy would help me resolve my issues. I remained angry and miserable, sometimes reaching for the first drink to find relief.

“But the actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge.”

(BB p. 39)

I understood that the twelve steps were the formula to implement Dr. Bob’s message. His simple talk convinced me that extending love and service to others was the only way to treat the illness. I began to believe that the solution to alcoholism was spiritual, not psychological. Despite being an agnostic, extending love and service to others struck me as achievable.

Analysis leads to paralysis.

I know that therapy is a valuable and healing resource for many people. However, I was already self-centered enough. It took a long time, but it gradually dawned on me that focusing on my problems in a therapist’s office only made them worse. I needed practical solutions that worked. These lay in the daily suggestions I was receiving from an AA sponsor. They worked because they reduced overthinking. Whether I was drinking or not, my alcoholic mind continued to distort my perception of reality.

“Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind rather than in his body.”

(BB p.23)

The simple suggestions of a sponsor taught me how to live in the solution and not the problem. Dr Bob offered yet another illuminating idea about recovery. His comments were what I needed to hear. He convinced me beyond any doubt that for an alcoholic like me, trying to analyze my problems in therapy would land me in a world of misery and pain. It turned out to be the exact opposite of keeping it simple.

 “Let’s not louse it all up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work.”

New ideas from members at meetings

Soon after discovering Dr Bob’s farewell message, I became aware of some new ideas at meetings. They also helped me to simplify the program.

“We came for our drinking and stayed for our thinking.”

“It’s the first thought that does the damage.” (A helpful variation of “It’s the first drink that does the damage.”

“Don’t analyze, utilize”!

“We cannot think our way into right living; it’s all about taking the simple suggestions of a sponsor.”

“The title of chapter six of the Big Book is “Into Action” not “Into Thinking.”

Twisted thinking

The Big Book confirmed that too much thinking was the opposite of keeping recovery simple.

“Now about health: A body badly burned by alcohol does not often recover overnight, nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling”

(BB p. 133)

The reading then goes on to say:

“We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative.”

(BB p. 133)

So, what is a spiritual mode of living for an alcoholic who doesn’t believe in God?

Once again, Dr Bob answers this question to offer a tangible solution for members who do not believe in the traditional idea of God. Although a belief in God is helpful to many, his powerful words do not mention a belief in God.

  “Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.”

Humility – a formidable higher power

Gradually, by taking the suggested actions, I was set free from the “twisted thinking” (BB p.133 ) of untreated alcoholism. First, I had to surrender and become teachable. “Running the show” of my life on self-will (BB p.87/88 ) condemned me to remain:

“restless, irritable and discontented.” (BB p. XXVIII) 

To stop running the show involved an unconditional surrender to the first and second half of step one. My maladapted ego continued to create confusion, resentment, and negativity. Learning to be honest, open-minded, and willing (BB p. 568) requires humility. A willingness to work a daily program reduces the thought-disordered madness of untreated alcoholism. The twelve steps have helped me find acceptance and serenity.

“We soon discovered” humility “to be a healer of pain” (12&12 Step 7 p.75)

Dr. Bob’s farewell message to AA

For an alcoholic with a complicated analytical mind like mine, love and service to others are not that difficult to grasp. When the pain of chasing self-will gets painful enough, Dr Bob’s alternative becomes the easier, softer way.

How would I begin making Dr Bob’s two powerful principles a daily practice? I had to learn that recovery is all about action, action, and more action. It is never about thinking, thinking, and more thinking.

Whenever I stop listening to Radio Andy, through the practice of love and service to others, I get to be “happy, joyous, and free.” (BB p. 133)

In fellowship,

Andy F

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