Why spirituality requires a sponsor

In OA, when we hear about sponsors, we often hear primarily about food:

  • I give my food to my sponsor every day.
  • My sponsor helped me develop a food plan.
  • I’m honest with my sponsor about my food.
  • My sponsor helped me get back on track food-wise.
  • I was having cravings, so I called my sponsor.

We can’t get abstinent without a lot of help, so it’s no wonder that these common themes emerge about sponsors!

In OA, although we sponsor up to our level of experience, a sponsor is ultimately someone who guides us through the Twelve Steps. That’s because the OA program is the Steps. Without them, we are supporting one another on a diet. With the Steps, we each can have the spiritual experience that leads to lasting recovery.

The writers of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous included an appendix called “The Spiritual Experience.” In its one-and-a-half pages, they make sure we’re really clear what this experience means. They use a form of the word change five times, upheavals once, transformations once, and alterations once. That’s about once in each paragraph in this brief appendix.

This repeated usage of these carefully chosen should make clear to us the idea that change and spiritual experience are inextricably related. They may even be synonymous in the context of recovery.

So what’s that got to do with sponsors? Plenty as it turns out. If we could have changed ourselves to end compulsive eating, then what are we doing in church basements, hospital rooms, and community centers on a weeknight or weekend morning? We’ve tried and tried and tried to make the changes necessary to bring about normalcy around food and to solve our lives. No dice.

The Big Book goes to great, gentle lengths to show us why we can’t do it ourselves. In a nutshell, our brain has been compromised by the disease of addiction, and we are defenseless against it. Many of us even tried using religious means to beat our compulsion without success. What we didn’t know, and what the founders of AA want us desperately to know is this: We are powerless and cannot change ourselves by any act of willpower on our part.

Here’s where we stand: We have to change, but we can’t do it for ourselves. We’ve tried asking others to change us. Doctors, counselors, family members, food clinics, diet professionals, celebrity physicians, or just plain celebrities. We know from these experiences that no human power can save us from compulsive eating. So, we can’t do it. Another person can’t do it for us. That means it must come from a Higher Power. And that is why we must have a spiritual experience to change.

But what do we know about spiritual experiences? Not much, really. So if we can’t do it ourselves, that means we’re going to need someone to show us the way. We must find someone with experience doing and living the Steps. If it’s worked for them, then they can pass on their experience, and we can enjoy the fruits of the spiritual experience as well. A sponsor cannot change us, but they can show us the path they took and give us suggestions for how to pick our way along that path. They can also provide us with encouragement if our spirits flag.

The change in our food is merely one of many changes that must be made for us to outlive our disease, but it’s just the first one. For the full effect, we’ve got to get spiritualized too, and for that, we’re going to need our sponsor very, very much.

Updates Available

Sometimes it feels as though we get a notification every day for our desktop, laptop, or device that says “Updates available.” So many, in fact, that for some people these notifications can feel paralyzing:

  • Didn’t I just update?
  • Is this real or some scam?
  • Why do I have to “fix” something I already like?
  • What happens if I don’t do the update?
  • What am I updating anyway?

Yet others may view it more positively:

  • What new features will be available?
  • Will my device run better now?
  •  I bet this will fix some of the buggier features.

But we can find ourselves on both sides of this question. We may not, for example, want to learn a new user interface, but at the same time we may want our operating system to drain the battery less often.

Our OA program can feel much the same. Anytime we go to a meeting, there’s a good chance we’ll hear the equivalent of “Updates available.” Not an explicit request to change, but the implicit suggestion that “this helps me, and I’m sharing in case it helps you.” In fact, it’s part of why meetings help us make progress. We may hear about:

  • an interpretation of OA literature that we’ve never heard before that challenges us spiritually or attracts us
  • a food plan that sounds too loose, too tight, or absolutely amazing
  • a speaker that hits us upside the head with their experience or that gently leads us to a new understanding.

The same is true of our sponsor. They might offer us a radical suggestion or a subtle prompt for reflection that gets under our skin. (Sponsors are good that way!)

Like with our update notifications, we can hear or read so much that we feel as though we have to throw our program away and start over. Or that we have to hold onto it ruthlessly. One of the foundations of how we work OA may suddenly feel ready to buckle. Or we might feel energized and look forward to jumpstarting our journey.

No matter what, we have to evaluate what we hear and be ready to make change if it’s called for. We needn’t take hasty action either. In the past, we’ve often acted impulsively. We’ve made hasty decisions because we wanted to feel better, or at least different, fast. Many times, those decisions came back to bite us in the backside. So we should well consider the things we hear about. We can ask our sponsor and trusted OA friends whether what we’ve heard seems like a good idea. We can, and should, ask our Higher Power for direction. But we probably shouldn’t just go barging ahead with a new idea without careful consideration.

On the other hand, if we’ve asked our Higher Power for a direction or an intuition, we might well be on the right track. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should act with abandon. We should still proceed with care before making adjustments to our OA action plan.

For example, someone else’s food plan may sound amazing. But it’s their food plan, not ours. Their enthusiasm at how well it works for them may feel irresistible, but it might not be right for our particular needs. Or it might be! But updating our food plan is not a small matter because it keeps us in balance with food. If our food plan works for us, we might think through changes very carefully.

Of course, the opposite may be true. The new food-plan idea may elicit a repellent response from us. If our hackles go up merely upon hearing about it, we might ask why we respond so strongly to what’s not our business. Is there something we fear? Do we have an axe grinding away in the background of our brains?

If we hear something powerful in a meeting that’s unorthodox or unusual, does that mean it’s problematic? Of course not. It only means that we haven’t experienced it. But we might also want to consider how the substance of what we’ve heard matches up with OA’s literature and the experience of those around us. If we hear about a miracle new way to write our Fourth Step that only takes ten minutes, we should surely be skeptical. Don’t we read in the Big Book and hear from OAs with strong recovery that the Steps require diligent and thorough work? But if we see that it has worked for the speaker, there’s likely no harm in trying it, and yet, why would we toss aside what’s worked for so many for the experience of many fewer? This stuff gets complicated fast, and that’s why sponsors and our Higher Power are so important for helping us know whether something is right for us.

Doesn’t it come down to honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness?In our meetings and all our OA interactions, we are listening for our Higher Power’s will. Simultaneously, we have a disease that uses our own minds to harm us. We listen, we evaluate, we reflect and question ourselves. But we also have to seek other’s feedback. We can ask our HP if what we heard is “right” for us. We can talk it over with our sponsor and our trusted OA friends. Because in the end, if we choose to update our OA program, we have to remember one key question: Will this help me to grow spiritually? If we can honestly say yes, then we are probably on the right track.