Step Seven

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.


The word "humbly" fits here, I guess, because after the last few steps we now see our defects clearly and see what they're costing us and others, and with that comes a - perhaps new - awareness that we can't wish them away on our own will power.

The AA Big Book devotes just a couple of paragraphs to Steps Six and Seven - though the suggested Step Seven prayer is powerful. By the time Bill W. wrote the 12 & 12, he felt that a lengthy discourse on humility was in order. And having criticized his treatment of Step Six, I want to say that Step Seven in the AA 12 & 12 is pretty well done and contains some real jewels. I'll quote some of them in full below. And since that time, it's been customary in step studies to treat Step Seven as being about humility. The OA 12 & 12 follows suit. I'll do that here too. And I have a feeling I 'm going to be even more all-around-the-mulberry-bush than usual.

People say about art, or pornography, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Well, humility is like that for me. When I encounter it, something melts in my heart and I am uplifted, not aware until that moment that I often expect people to be operating in a manipulative mode and am surprised when they rise above it.

When I was very new in AA, delighted to have friends again and be part of a community, I would go with the crowd to whatever coffee shop hadn't thrown us out yet and spend several hours after the evening meeting. We newcomers, the Class of '75, hung out together, and we still had the instincts of the barroom days - that's nothing, my story's better than yours... The difference was, well, Jimmy would say "And then the bartender came up with a shotgun from under the bar, and." And then somebody else would tell another story. And Jimmy would be quiet for a little while, and then he'd blurt out, "You guys, that bartender didn't have any shotgun." And it would make the hair stand up on my arms - how new it was for somebody to pull their own covers. And then I'd find myself making a phone call at the end of the day, "I told you something that wasn't true today and I want to straighten it out." and I'd expect the earth to open up and swallow me, and it didn't. The very idea that it was even POSSIBLE to say, "I lied and I'm sorry."

Humility isn't limited to our crowd. I read a paper by a professor of mine, a world-famous linguist/philosopher/playwright, in which he made some claims about how humans universally map certain semantic concepts - how the mind organizes and groups them. Aristotle and others had made conflicting claims about the same question. A lowly grad student, I developed a questionnaire and went over it with speakers of fifty or so languages, it being an international campus, and showed in real-world examples that my professor was wrong and another group of theorists was right. He is a blustery, fire-breathing Englishman and I was quite intimidated by him. Though the paper was not written for one of his classes - I subsequently published it - I felt I owed him the courtesy of showing it to him first of all. And I was afraid of him. So I slipped a copy under his door when his office was dark, and dreaded the next time I would see him. The next day I ran into him in the hallway. He exclaimed, "Fascinating paper! I THOUGHT their theory was stronger than mine!"

This was a professor who would talk in class about how bees communicate, and then when I would speak up (I was once a commercial beekeeper, I told you before) and he saw that I knew more than he did about bees, he would shut up and ask me to tell what I knew. And be willing to listen and learn from a student. I have come to expect that the more knowledgeable a person is, and the more confident they are in themselves, the quicker they are to say "I don't know." And I am reminded of times past when I NEEDED to be the expert and pretended or bluffed or changed the subject rather than admit I didn't know the answer to a question.

My early sponsors connected humility with being "teachable," as they put it. My favorite professor was teachable.

And a couple of years later, as a lecturer at Tel-Aviv U., where students told me that many professors did not allow questions during their lectures, I was able to let my lectures be highly interactive because I'd learned that it is a strength to say "I don't know the answer to that - but I do know where to find it."

I had gone back to grad school in my forties on a shoestring, with little Seth to support, and I was accumulating a string of incompletes in classes that required term papers. A year and a half into the deal, I began to think I was going to end up selling life insurance rather than teaching at a university. I was terrified every time I would start to write, that I would not do it right, and I froze. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that my professors, who were my heroes and for good reason, would circulate drafts of their papers among their colleagues, copies being passed up and down the hall and marked all over with suggestions and criticisms. When the paper was ready enough, they would present it at a conference and listen carefully to the criticism and questions. And only after a long process did they feel the paper was good enough to submit for publication. And here I was unable to write because it might not be perfect the first time anybody saw it.

I submit that this stuff has everything to do with humility. I was a perfectionist with no examples to show of my perfection, and here were people who knew more than I ever would, presenting their imperfect best efforts to their colleagues for criticism and enjoying the process. I remember the day I said, to a blank piece of paper in the typewriter, "I am going to write Mary had a little lamb. And then I am going to edit that." And I started that way, and by the time I was writing my dissertation I could barely keep track of the copies of my work with the blustery professor 's bold red felt marker notes and my committee chair's finely penciled suggestions. And I finished the degree imperfectly, that I was unable to finish perfectly twenty years earlier. There was a joke going around: Do you know what they call the person who finishes last in his medical school class? They call him Doctor!

Some traits which on their face would not seem to suggest a lack of humility, are in fact quite entangled with it. Guilt for example. In my first days in AA, I told my sponsor how tortured I was by the guilt of leaving my kids, failing to complete my education, letting my parents down and the like. He told me that he saw pride and guilt as being opposite sides of the same coin. If there are things you would quickly forgive in a friend who was trying to do better, but you can't let go of your guilt for doing the same things, then what is your basis for holding yourself to a higher standard than your friend? Who do you think you are? Is it not pride in reverse?

Being down on oneself, stuck, day in and day out, because of defects one has, or traits wished for, is something like being in a snit about THINGS one doesn't have. And again, pride is right under the surface. Humility says, "I'm a mess but I'm doing better all the time. You should have seen me before." And keeps moving forward.

Low self-esteem - it's hard to see pride in it -- might be paraphrased as "I might not succeed, so I just won't try." Surprisingly, when humility is added to this equation, it changes to "I'll give it my best shot and if I fail, at least I will have tried." I have lived in both these worlds.

Self-righteousness is universally recognized as an opposite of humility - except when we have a case of it ourselves. Clark Kerr, president of UC Berkeley where I taught in the sixties, described us Berkeley radicals as follows: "They have the moral fervor of the prophets of old, combined with the personal behavior of the romantic poets." I laughed with recognition even then, though he was talking about ME. I now look back, speaking only for myself, on a LOT of self-righteousness cloaked in a crusade against racism, war, greed and the like. And as for the personal behavior, well moving right along, let's talk about something else now.

And I never suspected that self-righteousness was a defect of mine - that was for the religious hypocrites - until Noa, a respected friend in program, flatly confronted me with it one day. And as these things go, once you SEE it, you can't NOT see it after that.

Bill W. wrote, "Humility, as a word and as an ideal, has a very bad time of it in our world." I puzzled when I first read that. And then one night my best friend Johnnie led a speaker/discussion meeting which was attended by the bluehairs, materially successful AAs with enviable cars and houses and contracting businesses. He spoke on humility. In the remaining forty minutes, one person after another tore into him and rebutted by saying how we should be proud, how we'd regained control, how we'd succeeded. These are folks who read Step One as ".our lives had become unmanageable - when we were drinking - but now we're back in charge." So at the end of the meeting Johnnie chuckled and summed up, "Well, it seems to be the group conscience that, as a subject, humility sucks." And I understood what Bill W. was saying. Humility sometimes has a hard time of it even in our program.


The AA 12 & 12 talks about an underlying assumption that exists at least in our society, that satisfaction of our desires will bring contentment and peace and harmony to the world. Getting what we want becomes a goal in itself, rather than a means "by which we could live and function as human beings." Good character, well okay, but only as much as we need to display in order to get what we want. Bill W. uses words like "This lack of anchorage to permanent values, this blindness to the true purpose of our lives."

And then he goes on at length to talk about the transition to a spiritual perspective being incredibly painful, and seemingly without exception. "A whole lifetime geared to self-centeredness cannot be set in reverse all at once. Rebellion dogs our every step at first."

While writing this piece tonight, with AA/OA books all around me all open to Step Seven, I am struck with something I've already told you a lot about but now see from another angle.

At age forty, I was sober five, six years, skinny and tan, married to a beautiful woman, dancer in a Greek restaurant, and running construction projects, living on the 18th floor in Hawai'i Kai with swimming pools and sauna and security. we were the pretty couple and life was going to be wonderful. After all, the payment for getting sober and abstinent and working the steps was for me to have delicious sex and money for toys and to look good in the community.. It was all about US, and the goal in life was satisfaction of our desires. And I confess I enjoyed a certain "better than" feeling with this pretty wife on my arm and the pocketful of $100 bills I left the job with every Friday, and even my sobriety and my abstinence as if I were making THAT happen too. How we love to put ourselves above others, in a million ways.

The Birds, as Flobird called her flock, and Johnnie, and Noa and Harry and others, had all taught me, put your integrity first, get the insides right and get right with God and get into service of others, and let the outer stuff - romance and career and vehicles and house and the like - come to you when it gets ready, when YOU get ready. I thought I had followed their lead and now the outer stuff was indeed coming to me, and that was what it was all about. How clear everything can be right before it all falls apart and changes.

So meanwhile, I got on my knees every morning and asked God to direct me and show me what to do, turned my will and my life over as I understood it at that time. And you know the story already, we had an uninvited baby Seth, and he was blind, and my construction job evaporated, and my wife left and took up with my old roommate, and I ended up with custody of Seth. Holy shit.

At the time the pain and fear was so great that I was headed toward suicide. And now, looking back at it, coming to accept what was handed to me as my mission, with Johnnie guiding me through the steps, was a major turning point in my life. What I'm seeing tonight, seeing it this way for the first time, is that this was THE painful juncture in my life when I made the transition from pursuing the satisfaction of my own desires, to giving myself to a project that God had handed me to do - raise a blind kid without having any idea how to do that. One of the rabbis says that a soul may come down to this plane for seventy or eighty years just to do another soul a favor. I think Seth was sent to me on such a mission, and it turned me around. I told him that the other day and he said he hoped there was something more for him to do than just that.

And I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that since that time I have had a LOT of fun, my sex life has not suffered, I've had neat jobs and traveled and lived abroad, and there have been toys like my Jeep and my computers, my woodwork. it's been better than ever before. Possibly because it's not something I've sought but has been handed to me as a side-product of asking God to show me where I belong and what I should be doing.


Back to being teachable for a moment. I have always had the idea that adults taught and kids learned. One time at the Dept of State, I had gotten myself into a conflict and was going to have to face a bad confrontation the next morning. They can play rough. And that night ten-year-old Seth and I were saying our prayers aloud together as we always have and still do, and I said, "And help me to be strong tomorrow morning." And Seth got up and went toward his room, and stopped in the doorway and said, "Maybe God doesn't NEED you to be strong tomorrow morning." And it was exactly what I needed. Thank God I can listen to kids now, really listen.


I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from the AA 12 & 12 here, to give an idea of why humility is something we might want to seek.

"As we approach the actual taking of Step Seven, it might be well if we A.A.'s [O.A.'s] inquire once more just what our deeper objectives are. Each of us would like to live at peace with himself and with his fellows. We would like to be assured that the grace of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We have seen that character defects based upon shortsighted or unworthy desires are the obstacles that block our path toward these objectives. We now clearly see that we have been making unreasonable demands upon ourselves, upon others, and upon God.

The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear--primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded. Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration. Therefore, no peace was to be had unless we could find a means of reducing these demands. The difference between a demand and a simple request is plain to anyone."

It's very revealing to me - looking back in retrospect as Yogi says - that when I first read that line about the difference between a demand and a simple request, I said, exasperated, "It's not plain to ME!" It might have been several years before it hit me one day: Oh, if it's a simple request, and the answer is NO or WAIT, then I say Okay. If it's a demand, then NO and WAIT are not acceptable answers. No wonder. Before now, all I'd known were demands. And the phrase, "Living on the basis of unsatisfied demands." stood out in the way I lived, and in the way many people I knew got crossways with the world and stayed miserable and resentful. Oh, so THAT'S what's wrong with us.


I'm going to close with the text of the Seventh Step Prayer from the AA Big Book. If you're as non-religious as I am, you might want to change the wording somewhat, but the idea is pretty clear. I'll say one thing that came into my mind - the Dalai Lama was on Larry King Live a couple of years ago, and Larry King, you could see he was looking for some common ground when he asked the Dalai Lama, "But you folks DO believe in a creator don't you?" Dalai Lama smiled and said, "Well, we believe it was always here." So do it with Creator or Inner Voice or whoever you pray to, and here's the prayer:

When ready, we say something like this: "My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen." We have then completed Step Seven.


1. The inventory never seems to stop. How about self-righteousness? Have you got any? What can you learn by looking at it?

2. Putting ourselves above others, outwardly or in our own minds. Do you have any of THAT? How does it manifest? Are you subtle about it?

3. Do guilt and low self-esteem, pride well concealed, keep you from rolling up your sleeves and getting on the bus just like the other bozos?

4. Or has low self-esteem made you a high achiever for all the wrong reasons?

5. Why do you suppose the 12-step programs latched onto the slogan "There but for the grace of God?"

6. Does that phrase, "Living on the basis of unsatisfied demands.." apply to you at some stage in your life? Where are you with that dynamic right now?

7. There is so much talk here about a painful transition from living to satisfy our wants/needs, to seeking to be the person we are meant to be and living on a spiritual basis. "Rebellion dogs our every step at first." Does this model make sense to you?

8. If it does make sense, where do you stand now? Before, in the middle of the pain, or on the other side of it finally?

9. Are you teachable, by people who are younger or lower-ranking in some way? Do you really listen as if you might learn?

10. How about the prayer? Are you ready to take that step?

I don't know about you guys. I'm asking questions I feel pretty vulnerable about answering myself. But here they are.

Step Six

Step Eight

WTS Home
The Twelve Steps
Recovery Home

Copyright 2005 THE RECOVERY GROUP All rights reserved