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.

Tradition of the Month: #4 Autonomy

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

What’s this mean in our meetings? Well for starters, Bill W. explains it this way in the AA 12 and 12:

Autonomy is a ten-dollar word. But in relation to us, it means very simply that every AA group can manage its affairs exactly as it pleases, except when AA as a whole is threatened.

So we can all do pretty much whatever we want, however we want, right? Well not quite. After all, the traditions, themselves, represent guidelines of conduct for meetings just as the steps do for individuals. The OA 12 and 12 says it pretty clearly:

Groups which ignore one or more of the twelve traditions bring discord to the fellowship.

But how can it be the business of one group what another does when we are autonomous? Think, for example, of the kind of heated discussion that what would happen at an intergroup meeting or just over the phone among friends if a local meeting started insisting its members use the diet regimen of an outside organization. This isn’t so hard to imagine for many of our program elders who witnessed the schism of OA over food plans. To this day, the wounds of that time affect how long-time members view their progress through OA.

How do we deal with groups that stray a little off the reservation? “An infraction of an OA tradition does not result in a group being summarily ejected from the Fellowship,” says the OA 12 and 12, ”we might not have any OA Fellowship at all if that were the case!” Groups that consistently ignore a tradition are usually, the 12 and 12 reminds us, not doing so out of hostility to the traditions, but more likely out of ignorance of them. Those well versed in the traditions have a responsibility to bring the matter to the group’s attention at a business meeting, lest the meeting lose its connections to the traditions and cease being effective at helping its members find recovery.

But what about the group that flaunts the traditions? The one that tells the traditions to stick it in their ear? Again, the OA 12 and 12:

In extreme cases…the group may be dropped from OA meeting lists which are published by intergroups and other OA service bodies. However, the service body taking such an action should do so only after much soul-searching. It is far too easy to use the power of the majority against groups in in the minority.

In other words, even service bodies need to recognize that their actions affect other groups and OA as a whole! The traditions and the steps counsel patience and dialog, not carrots and sticks. The offending meeting is likely to disappear if it doesn’t stick to OA principles because those principles are founded on the hard-won experience of twelve-step groups worldwide—they represent the collective wisdom of 75 years of helping addicts recover.

What about in our personal lives? How does tradition four help us live happy, joyous, and free? The slogan “live and let live” is embodied in this tradition. If someone doesn’t do things the way we think they should, we don’t have to resent them or release our anger on ourselves or others (through food or misbehavior). We don’t control anyone, and when we think the next right step is demanded, we might pause and talk the matter over with a trustworthy person and our Higher Power before taking any action.