AA Symbol: An Image Of Total Recovery

AA Symbol

AA Symbol…AA History

Some AAs rave about it. Others give it little thought. But the truth is the AA Symbol of Recovery has been the subject of controversy, celebration, and dismissal since its advent.

Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was somewhat of a mystic. He loved symbolic means of communicating seemingly ineffable experiences.

Historically, God has been dubbed the “God of the gaps.” This is largely due to our inability to express anything intellectually about Him. Subsequently, when we run into a wall scientifically we could just chalk up the explanation to God, thus bridging the gap we could otherwise not cross.

Well, Bill W felt the spiritual life was a bit more discernible and expressible. The symbol was one of the means he sought to do so. This article is my explanation of the symbol and what I believe Bill and those in early AA sought to convey.

AA Symbol

AA Symbol…The Circle & The Triangle and The Three Legacies

AA Symbol

The circle stands for Alcoholics Anonymous in its entirety. Every soul that has found a seat in AA is represented as the circle.

The triangle stands for 3 integral components of AA’s structure, they are known as the three legacies: unity, service, and recovery.

AA Symbol

The primary result of the application of the three legacies is “the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.”

This is usually referred to as a “spiritual experience or spiritual awakening.

The radical freedom of the program is placed against the backdrop of the radical obsession and captivity of addiction.

The symbol is also ancient, as with many of the elements of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The priests, prophets, seers, and sages of the ages held this specific icon (the circle with the triangle enclosed) as a means of warding off evil spirits.

Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, remarked that

“AA’s circle and triangle of Recovery, Unity, and Service has certainly meant all of that to us and so much more.”

Bill W., Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p.139)

What Does the AA Symbol Signify?

The symbol also communicates that the ticket to lasting contented sobriety is the balance between unity, service, and recovery.

The majority of individuals who relapse tend to emphasize one aspect of the triangle at the expense of the others.

Unity Without Balance

AA Symbol

For example, let’s look at the individual with an out-of-balance unity. This individual is at every meeting, every event, and every outing.

However, they rarely contribute.

They go to meetings but don’t pursue commitments.

They show up, but don’t develop relationships based on AA’s singleness of purpose.

They put their butt in the chair, but they don’t allow the program to shape their walk.

Consequently, they relapse.

Service Without Balance

AA Symbol

Some individuals get over-involved and spend day and night contributing. This is the individual with an overemphasis on service.

They confuse service with a membership on a committee rather than a posture of the heart.

They overextend themselves and become resentful and consumed with guilt and fear.

Consequently, they too relapse.

Recovery Without Balance

AA Symbol

There are also individuals who do non-stop recovery.

They read all the books, and are constantly journaling, praying, and meditating.

These guys have done the 4th Step 10 times in less than a year.

They are evangelical and passionate.

This overemphasis on recovery often forsakes unity.

They get filled to the brim with dogma and the “right way to do things.” This creates a massive chasm between themselves and others.

Consequently, they relapse.

Imbalance Creates Relapse Attitudes

These relapse attitudes always stress one aspect of the triangle at the cost of another.

If not corrected, relapse or dry-drunk syndrome is the inevitable result.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll be unpacking the three legacies with a little more substance. I hope they help!

AA Symbol

AA Symbol: What is Unity?

Unity refers to the fellowship aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most envision this to be the meetings.

For most newcomers, the meetings are the first introduction to the program of action as outlined in the 12 Steps.

Therefore, unity is largely found through the meetings, particularly the service work. Each part of the triangle is necessary. You can’t have unity without service and can’t have service or unity without recovery.

They each of necessity serve as the foundation for the other.

The Benefits of Meetings

  • A support group is necessary for long-term contented sobriety.
  • A perfect venue for sponsorship.
  • A safe and secure place for newcomers often in the throes of addiction.
  • Fertile ground for service work.

The meetings however are not the program.

AA Symbol
AA Symbol

People frequently conflate the program with the meetings, but the meetings support the program, which is the 12 Steps.

AA Symbol: What Is Recovery?

Recovery can mean a million different things to a million different people.

In Alcoholics Anonymous each member knows that it’s absolutely critical to carry the message.

Every newcomer is warned that “You can only keep it by giving it away.”

The problem is that nobody really knows nor explains what “it” is nor “the message” the newbies are instructed to convey.

Rather than be tied up in numerous interpretations, the Big Book is explicit.

The Message: as a result of working the steps you can have a spiritual awakening.

This is the ultimate sales pitch of A.A.

Work these 12 steps and sobriety will be a by-product.

Sobriety isn’t the goal, a relationship with God, self, and others is.

Bill W recalls his experience being Twelve Stepped,

“My friend promised when these things were done (The Step Work) I would enter upon a new relationship with my Creator; that I would have the elements of a way of living which answered all my problems. Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements. Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all.”

Bill W – Alcoholics Anonymous

As can be easily inferred, the goal is a relationship with God.

However, as ancient Scriptures convey, God is jealous. He wants a monogamous relationship.

If you think of self-centeredness as the toxic partner interfering with your chance at real love, then you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

Sobriety and self-centeredness are incompatible.

AA Symbol

Of course, you’ll still be self-centered, hence the proclamation:

“It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve Thee – Thy will (not mine) be done.” These are thoughts which must go with us constantly. We can exercise our will power along this line all we wish. It is the proper use of the will.”

Bill W – Alcoholics Anonymous

We move from a selfish heart to a servant’s heart. This is a perfect description of a “fit spiritual condition”.

AA Symbol: What Is Service?

Thus, as we move toward fit spiritual condition, the 12 Steps enable us to be of service, to authentically and effectively carry the message.

Why can’t we merely keep the message to ourselves and live out its contents?

Well, a message by nature is meant to be shared. By definition, a message is “a verbal, written, or recorded communication sent to or left for a recipient who cannot be contacted directly.”

Communication exists between persons. Using the terminology of “the message” doesn’t purely describe the theme of the 12-Steps, it’s rather its sole purpose, shared in the confines of a relationship.

Sobriety is therefore 1 part willingness and 2 parts relational. Namely, individual willpower (recovery) and a group (unity) with a common purpose (service).

The following was taken directly from a previous article I wrote titled The Power of Friendship.

The Power Of Willingness

I’d argue therefore that the current and historical data suggest two primary factors contributing to higher quality and meaningful life: the human will and relationships.

Since these two elements are necessary for purposeful communal involvement, they are integral to 12-Step recovery.

Let’s now begin a brief examination of the will.

For starters, every relationship requires a willingness to compromise, sacrifice, and to be inconvenienced.

An authentic relationship requires a degree of self-denial; this is evident by the very fact that a one-sided relationship is really no relationship at all. It’s rather what I call “star and spectator syndrome.”

Additionally, willingness is necessary for life change.

I think this is obvious but underestimated in my opinion.

I’d argue that willingness is so powerful that in effect once an individual becomes willing they’ve already changed.

That’s the sheer force of the human will.

There is a caveat though, willingness without a relationship is only a quick fix.

I’ll provide an example using the story of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, to crystalize my point.

The Mayflower Hotel

AA Symbol

Bill’s early sobriety was a trying time. He basically spent every waking minute trying to sober up other alcoholics.


He found this type of service work mitigated his obsession to drink and thus kept him sober.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t simply the act that sustained him, it was also his willingness and intent (the power of the will!).

To illustrate, on one particular evening after a failed business endeavor Bill paced back and forth in the Mayflower Hotel lobby.

Two thoughts bounced around like a chaotic pinball in his skull:

  • I need a drink
  • I need to help another alcoholic so I don’t need a drink

Even though the hotel bar was for all intents and purposes seductively calling his name, he decided if he were to survive, he had to find an alcoholic to help.

So, what was his course?

He used his willpower to hobble over to the phone booth, pick up the phone book, and start calling hospitals, ministers, and anyone who could possibly direct him to a drunkard.

Did he find someone?

No, he didn’t.

He instead made contact with a woman who provided him with the name and address of an alcoholic, a man named Dr. Bob Smith.

Unfortunately, the doctor was under the kitchen table; literally passed out from a day of boozing.

With this information, however, Bill found a needy individual who could use his assistance once the morning came.

At this point, a bizarre phenomenon occurred.

Bill stepped out of the phone booth with no need to drink and here’s the kicker: he didn’t even get to help anyone.

Rather, he demonstrated the willingness to be of service and it acted as the service itself.

That’s the power of the will!

AA Symbol

The desperate need to find and help someone for a quick “reprieve” from the drink soon changed to something more lasting.

This is the power of a relationship with a common purpose.

This is what service coupled with community can create.

Bill and Bob ministered their message together, establishing a community, and forging for themselves new identities.

Identities grounded in maximum involvement in their particular group.

What began as two men just trying to avoid “needing” a drink morphed into two men who were seemingly unable to drink.

What a transformation!

Additionally, countless others now share a similar story using the same core factors: the cwill and relationships with a common purpose.

Everything Has A Beginning

In order to help, one must first go through a boot camp of sorts – in Alcoholics Anonymous this is the 12-Steps that prepare one for service, however, this is done quickly and often to ensure maximum effectiveness.

What is this process in a nutshell?

A process of uncovering, discovering, and discarding that which keeps one self-centered and cut off from God and others.

Pretty simple, right?

A million processes such as this exist. Find one and gain knowledge of yourself; abandon that which keeps you from serving; begin to help (which simply means get involved!)

In any event, the group is necessary. Why? Could involvement exist outside of a group? That’s a negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full…

Service Basics

  • Setting up chairs before and after a meeting
  • Making coffee
  • Helping clean up
  • Going on speaking commitments
  • Helping the newcomer
  • Driving someone to a meeting
  • Sponsoring people
  • Calling another alcoholic/addict and checking in
  • Anything that basically helps another human being.

Wrap Up

It’s not realistic to maintain perfection between the three legacies of the AA Symbol. The Big Book is clear, “we aim for spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.”

Rather, these ideals are worth striving for; they’re concepts we must seek to embody.

Just as certain ideas and concepts must be embodied for addiction to sustain, so does sobriety.

As you apply and practice these ideas in your daily life you’ll develop a lifestyle that makes drinking and drugging completely unnecessary. Yes, you’ll be well on your way to sober to stay.