Anyone familiar with this phrase will recognise it from the early part of chapter five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, which sets out the 12-step program which is the cornerstone of AA’s recovery process.
As with many things in life, context is crucial.
This phrase is used in a very specific context in the book, which needs to be looked at and read to be properly understood.
The intent behind this phrase and the whole tone of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is one of urgency, rather than fundamentalism.
The book was written by the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Many of them were what would be referred to today as street drunks, even though some owned their own homes or had somewhere to live.
It is certainly true that most of them had reached a stage of their lives where they were completely desperate about drinking, and knew they had something that worked.
Chapter five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is often referred to by its title, How it Works.
This is because this specific chapter begins to spell out in great detail the experience of these early AA members as to what they collectively did to get sober and stay sober.
The principles of the 12-step program can seem fairly daunting to many people and certainly were to the early members of AA.
Most of them found however that they came to apply them to their lives when they had little or no option in terms of doing anything else.
They felt they were completely beaten in many ways, often referred to in AA as reaching rock bottom.
The phrase ‘willing to go to any lengths’ should always really be understood not only in the context of how it was written but in the fact that it applies to the principles of the 12-step program.
The reason this matters and is important is that the phrase is often used in the reality of daily AA, and AA meetings, almost as a litmus test for people’s approach or commitment to their recovery.
This type of fundamentalism is actually about forcing people into a position that they may not yet be ready to be in and distorts the very freedom that AA offers.
Process and Experience
The nature of AA is really about experience. The real DNA of Alcoholics Anonymous lies in the value of its experience, collectively written in the book Alcoholics Anonymous and other literature.
This literature gives people the opportunity to access and utilise the whole experience of AA as it is understood today, from when it first started.
The other aspect of this is that people have the individual freedom to use that experience in any way that they feel appropriate or not.
This is an absolute freedom that sadly it’s not always recognised or acknowledged within the reality of daily AA.
Fundamentalism may seem a slightly strong way of describing the pressure that is often put on people who are new to AA, as well as some who have been sober for a while, to embrace the AA program in a particular way or manner.
However, the pressure can be very real and is often exerted on people who are in many ways quite vulnerable, by people who have been sober for a while and should know what they are doing.
The nature of fundamentalism is closely linked to that of sponsorship within AA.
Sponsorship should be a type of buddy system to help people who are new or are generally in need of help. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it is much more hierarchical than a one-on-one buddy system should be, and develops a level of status that distorts the relationship.
This issue of status can often lead to a degree of fundamentalism, sometimes based on good motives, other times motives more to do with power and control than anyone else’s well-being.
It is often in the context of sponsorship that this phrase, willing to go to any lengths is used. A potential sponsor will sometimes ask an individual who has asked them to sponsor them if they are willing to go to any lengths.
Invariably the individual will say yes, not knowing really what it means. This is then used as a general big stick approach to how the sponsor controls the individual they are sponsoring.
The issue of sponsorship and control is a huge one, and one that needs much thought and correction within AA generally.
It is important, however, to make a distinction between the urgency of the message carried in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and an individual’s use of that message to try and control someone else.