Step of the Month: Willingness

How’s your willingness today? It’s a question we might ask ourselves each morning. The word willingness is all over the first 164 pages of the Big Book as a well in the AA 12&12. For example, in his own story, Bill, referring to the recovery he saw in his sponsor, writes, “Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend.”

This willingness stuff is pretty important to recovery. Requisite, actually. “Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the essentials of recovery, but they are indispensable,” the Big Book tells us in the Appendix titled “The Spiritual Experience.” Willingness, in fact, can lead to open mindedness and honesty. For normal folks, any of these three might be an entry point to the rest, but for us addicts, willingness is probably the most important.

We are a stubborn people, us addicts. We’re trying to control and enjoy everything. We think we know what’s best. But we can’t enjoy what we can control nor enjoy what we can’t. We’re trying to take the edge off with food without the consequences. We’re trying to rely on ourselves instead of a Higher Power. We are not open-minded people, at least not on this matter.

Nor are we especially honest. Not merely about what we’re eating but about how our lives are going. About whether we’ll ever get control of our food (we won’t). About whether we’re hurting others besides ourselves (we are). About whether we even know what we feel (mostly, we don’t). But we tell ourselves lies about all of these and thousands of other things each and every day, from the moment we awaken to the moment we go to sleep (sometimes even in our dreams).

How can the solution offered by OA to our compulsive eating possibly break through our stubbornness and our dishonesty? That’s why willingness is so important.

The Big Book says that “alcohol beat us into a state of reasonableness,” and this is true for compulsive eaters and their substance. Willingness is a synonymous with “the gift of desperation.” When we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, we suddenly get a little burst of willingness. Or maybe a big burst. We hurt so much, that we would try anything to get better. And we’ve done so in the past. Grapefruit diets, fad diets supposedly from other countries, Dr. So-and-So’s diet, supposedly holistic diet programs where we purchase unhealthily salty food branded by the company, lifestyle changes comprising unsustainable calorie restriction and extreme exercise regimens. You name it. We’ve had the willingness before, but we’re cynical after so many past failures.

So willingness comes first and leads open-mindedness and honesty by the ears as we march through the Steps. In fact, the theme of willingness appears in several of the steps even if it is only directly expressed in Step 8:

2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The chapter “We Agnostics,” is all about becoming willing to believe in a Higher Power of our own conception. Bill writes, “… As soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results…”. Relief from compulsive eating begins with willingness (and requires more action to stick).

The theme of willingness in a step often indicates that an important action will required of us in the next step. So it is that Step 2 bridges to Step 3.

3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

The Chapter in the AA 12&12 is absolutely littered with references to willingness, and with good reason. “There is only key,” writes Bill, “and it is called willingness.” Elsewhere in the chapter he writes, “Once we have placed the key of willingness in the lock and have the door ever so slightly open, we find that we can always open it some more.” And willingness is huge in Step 3 because we are making a contract with God: You save me from addiction, and I’ll do what you ask and help others. We are saying, in effect, that we’ll do the rest of the steps, and Step 3 comes before Step 4 for a reason. We’ll need willingness to conduct a thorough and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

6)  Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Here’s the really big one. In Step 7, we are going to ask God to change us from the inside out. We’ll be given a second shot at life. So we need to get willing, utterly willing, to let God take away from us all of our old habits, our old ways of thinking, our compulsive eating. All of it. Are we willing to give up these things that we’ve worn like an old sweater all these years? A sweater that everyone can see is stained, fraying, putrid-smelling, time-faded, hole-riddled garment that was ugly even when it was new. If we’re not ready to let go, then we won’t be changed. If we are not changed, we will not get the gift of neutrality toward food. We’ll be stuck. This is where we truly “abandon ourselves to God” as the famous “How It Works” passage admonishes us. Which brings us, finally, to Step 8.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Why do we need to become willing to make amends? Why don’t we simply make the list and get to it? Simply put, because we need honesty, open-mindedness, and only willingness will get us there. First off, making amends isn’t a fun-times activity. It’s serious, and it requires some serious pride-swallowing. At that simplest of levels, we need to check in our willingness.

But as we progress into Step 9, we’re going to need to do some rigorous examination of what we are making amends for, to whom we are making them, how to make them, and most importantly, whether direct amends may create further wreckage in that person’s life.

Any amends that can be made directly should be, and our minds will rebel at the idea of facing those hurt face to face. We need God to help us get willing. Some amends should never be made directly, and we need God’s help to understand which. In fact, we may need God to stay our hand in this matter if we are zealous! Some amends shouldn’t be amends at all. Our disease is still alive inside us, and it uses our ego against us. Just as it may tell us, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t need to make amends for that little thing,” it may also tell us that something we did rises to the definition of harm, even though it isn’t. This is a form of self-centered thinking. So we need HP’s help to show us what to do, or who to ask about it so we gain clarity. We’ve already done damage to others, and we must take great care that in repairing that damage we don’t create more wreckage, even with the best intentions.

So willingness is massively important to our recoveries. There’s much to be done so that we can be changed. God will do the changing as we do the footwork that prepares us for it. So we must be willing to go to any length. But we are rewarded with a happy life, the joy we haven’t felt in so so long, and freedom from food obsession. Willingness is worth it!