When Harry Met Humility

Toward the end of his life, in 1965, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous put forward that his program came down to two main precepts: humility and responsibility. Admitting one was powerless. Then doing something about it. Alcohol had been the catalyst, teaching humility the hard way, through humiliation. Learning the value of responsibility began by recognizing unmanageability for what it was: chaos. Yet, that was just the first step. Sober for years, and nearing the end, Bill W was talking about more than mere abstinence. To achieve serenity, he posited, one had to be humble and responsible. Grace was thusly earned.

When you were a boy you had loved watching Kung Fu on TV. David Carradine played a peace-loving Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, who wandered the old west confronting and confounding hombres and roughnecks with his Eastern Philosophy. Caine had great humility. Unfortunately, that was not a popular attribute in Tombstone. In every episode Caine did all he could to practice humility in the face of insult, bigotry and violence. Invariably, he would get pushed too far. A bad guy would step on his little grasshopper and that was it. Caine had no choice but to kick some ass.

Thank fucking God. Otherwise Kung Fu would have been a dull meditation on passive resistance. You accepted the show’s weekly lessons in humility precisely because you knew what was coming: fists of fury and flying kicks! There wasn’t a 12 year-old boy in America who didn’t feel the same way. The bullies liked the exotic fighting. You liked the revenge. Either way blood spilled. Humility wasn’t enough. Truth is, you’ve always known the difference between humility and humiliation. That wasn’t the tricky part. The first problem with humility was that it was for sissies, because they had no choice. That and it was boring. Bill W wrote AA is a program of action. Clearly, the definition of that word had to change too.

A man spoke at a meeting, named Harry. He was a bit older than you. Wore a rumpled suit. Thick glasses. He spent much of his allotted time talking about how important wealth had once been to him. He’d been a big shot and proud of it. The house. The cars. The stuff. Counting his money, measuring his worth. He drank to celebrate victories at work, over peers and competitors alike. Drank even more to wash away failures, which of course became ever more common. Yet, he said, when he finally did stop drinking, he became even worse. “Without alcohol in the way, I could really fuck people over.”  By his own admission, it took decades before he wizened up and acquired even a modicum of humility. Such was the intoxication of his pride. Listening to him share, you could still detect it. The way he mentioned his past achievements and former possessions, listing them like awards. Even after 30 years of sobriety and thousands of AA meetings he still couldn’t let go, not completely.

You could relate. You were always too quick to mention your past accomplishments, as if people were keeping score. Not so deep down you always felt they were.

Harry worked in retail now, far beneath his pay grade. Gone were the fancy cars, lavish homes and glitzy vacations. He found value by putting in a solid effort and going to bed tired. That’s what he said. He also admitted this was not easy for him. Many days he railed at his lot. Felt superior to his superiors. Beat him self up for all he had lost. Then, if he were thinking straight, he’d call his sponsor. God gives you what you need, Harry, the man would tell him. You’re responsible now. You’re practicing humility.