Tradition of the Month: Innovation from Autonomy

4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or OA as a whole.

In OA, there is no one food plan. Our statement on abstinence says only that “abstinence is the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight.” Each member determines what abstinence means for them and a food plan and action plan that support their abstinence. No one in the program has the right to tell anyone what they can and cannot do.

In other words, while we depend on the fellowship for support, we are each autonomous in how we work our program.

This very same principle applies to meetings. There is no one way to run a meeting. OA has some important guidelines about meeting formats such as allowing all members the chance to share, avoiding crosstalk, promoting the 12 Steps, and abiding by the 12 Traditions. Beyond that, however, OA as an organization lacks much central authority.

Most organizations have a great deal of centralized authority. There are chains of command and rules both spoken and unspoken. We might think of OA instead with an analogy. OA’s World Service is a greenhouse, and each meeting is one of the plants inside of it. World Service supplies a broad, roomy, and safe place for groups to grow. The beams and glass of the greenhouse are the 12 Traditions. Each group sits in its own pot, finding its own way to thrive. Not every plant will survive, but most will, and they produce their own beautiful flowers.

Sometimes, however, a blight, pest, or invasive species may be inadvertently introduced to the greenhouse. When this occurs, we carefully watch to see whether groups’ own natural defenses will be enough to keep it at bay. If we mind the 12 Traditions, that’s likely. But because we are human beings, events can get ahead of us and begin to spread throughout the greenhouse. When this occurs, we need to be vigilant, and we need to act parsimoniously, doing exactly enough to remedy the issue. We can’t beat the issue by killing everything we’ve planted.

Blatant and repeated breaks of tradition are often cause for consternation and cries for action. But we may find that they end up damaging the metaphorical host plant before it can infect others. So we watch carefully instead of flying off the handle and threatening extreme sanctions. This is the essence of autonomy. It’s OK to let groups do things wrong and to fail. The fourth Tradition explicitly says we don’t get involved unless “other groups and OA as a whole” are affected. Notice it doesn’t say “OA members.” We are not in charge of making things perfect for the newcomer, though many of us have that fear. We are not in charge of making sure someone else is “doing it right,” though our perfectionistic streaks may swell with anxiety.

Ultimately, OA is anarchic by design. This sort of hands-off approach has the great benefit of creating opportunities for innovation. A new and successful meeting format may emerge from the wide experimentations of our groups. We stifle that impulse at OA’s expense…which is ultimately our own expense. So we encourage autonomy and only act if it’s absolutely necessary.