What 12-step programs can teach us about the true meaning of work

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“Things began to come together. I got a job scrubbing toilets, that honestly I am grateful for. It taught me about humility and showing up to do a good job, no matter what job I’m doing. It stripped me of my ego in the best possible way.”

This is a description of life in early sobriety written by Hannah Lund in 2017 for The Voices Project, a grassroots recovery organization. It is an especially clear and concise statement of an understanding of the purpose of work, from a perspective shared through much of the 12-step or “recovery culture” world. There is no requirement to hold a particular belief about the nature of work in order to practice 12-step recovery, nor is a specific philosophy of work part of the written traditions and literature of Alcoholics Anonymous. What I call the recovery attitude toward work is a tendency, not a principle. You do not need to think this way in order to get sober through the 12 steps, let alone to recover from addiction by one of the many other paths that work for many. And yet attending to the implicit theology of work that has developed “in the rooms,” as they say, of Alcoholics Anonymous and its affiliates can help all of us think through the deeper meaning of work.

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Outside recovery culture almost nobody talks about work the way Hannah Lund does. Bureaucrats, policy wonks, politicians and activists rarely praise work for its simplicity, humility and ability to strip the ego. When they describe good jobs they do not talk about scrubbing toilets. Perhaps surprisingly, Catholic leaders do not often talk like Lund either. When popes explain the economic and social teaching of the church, they praise work in terms that would be totally alien to the recovery attitude.

The recovery attitude offers only a partial account of work’s purpose, but its insights can make the Catholic understanding of work more complete, more honest and less sexist. Recovery culture can illuminate what we need from work.

Even before Covid-19 caused unprecedented layoffs and furloughs, work had become unexpectedly precarious. Automation is perhaps the most obvious reason that policymakers and political philosophers have begun to wonder if work still has a universal purpose. If robots are stealing our jobs, is that so bad? Work was once called “the curse of Adam,” and some posit that clinging to its grueling demands would be as willfully punitive as keeping women from receiving epidurals because Eve was condemned to the pains of childbirth. Articles with titles like “Post-work: The radical idea of a world without jobs,” and books like David Graeber’s 2018 Bullshit Jobs, suggest that work is a necessary evil—and when it becomes unnecessary, that is cause for rejoicing.

The Benefits and Burdens of Work

Catholic theology views work ambivalently. Adam tilled the garden, while Jesus offers rest from labor. The grueling, depleting aspect of labor is Adam’s curse; and yet in work we have an opportunity to participate in God’s own work of creation. Pope John Paul II, in both “Laborem Exercens” and “Centesimus Annus,” consistently locates work’s goodness in the opportunities it offers for creativity, responsibility and the exercise of human freedom. Modern papal encyclicals argue that good work creates community and solidarity (friendship) rather than division and isolation. But good work also develops and expresses the individual personality.

Recovery culture can illuminate what we need from work, and guide us as we navigate a world where work seems ever more precarious.

This idea that work is valuable when it is a forum for self-expression is hardly confined to papal documents. Graeber correctly argues that people hate purposeless jobs, and these jobs destroy their psyches. Yet he gives an oversimplified account of purposeful work when he explains that we delight in seeing the effects of our own actions on the world—what the early psychologist Karl Groos called “pleasure at being the cause.”

In the 1970s, during an earlier wave of worker dissatisfaction (manifested in rising absenteeism, wildcat strikes and poll numbers showing a collapse in the percentage of Americans who believed that “hard work will always pay off”), sources from government, the universities and private industry warned that people hated working because boring, repetitive jobs leached work’s purpose. “Work in America,” a 1973 report to the secretary of health, education and welfare, argued, “What the workers want most, as more than 100 studies in the past 20 years show, is to become masters of their immediate environments and to feel that their work and they themselves are important—the twin ingredients of self-esteem.” Satisfying jobs, the report argued, offer “variety, autonomy, and meaningful responsibility.”

Ms. Lund did not name the first two qualities and only alluded to the last of these. In recovery culture, work offers very different benefits, which may even seem to be at odds with the autonomy and self-expression praised by mainstream thought. To radically oversimplify: In contemporary activist accounts, there is no ideal job, no kind of work toward which we might aspire; the normative worker is actually a person at leisure. In many recent Christian theological accounts, the normative worker is an artisan, perhaps an artist. But in the recovery world, the normative worker—the person whose job best expresses the inherent nature of work, its purpose and even its beauty—is the janitor.

All of these approaches express some insight. But the recovery perspective is the least-often heard. It is also timely in a world in which low-paid, low-status jobs have suddenly been deemed essential. Friends in retail have expressed surprise at the way (some) customers now understand that their jobs are crucial and even risky. Where was that respect a year ago? The cover of the April 13, 2020, issue of The New Yorker shows a rainswept, deserted city, with only one small human being in the darkness: a delivery worker on a bicycle, bringing groceries. The name of the picture is “Lifeline.”

The Curse Becomes a Blessing

It is a commonplace of Christian writing about work to note that Jesus was a carpenter: an artisan, a creator, a maker of discrete objects—a very different image from the parables about shepherds and servants. The 1961 encyclical of Pope John XXIII, “Mater et Magistra,” declares that work is “the immediate expression of a human personality.” The Anglican priest John Hughes, in his excellent study The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism, argues that the English Romantics (John Ruskin, William Morris and others) offered one of the most vivid pictures of unalienated labor—characterized, once more, by “sensuous pleasure and autonomous creativity.” In this view, work improves as it approaches the status of art, not cleaning.

In the recovery world, the normative worker—the person whose job best expresses the inherent nature of work, its purpose and even its beauty—is the janitor.

A notable exception is the discussion, toward the end of John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” of work as our opportunity to imitate Christ on the cross: “By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.” The curse of Adam becomes for us a blessing; this is a rare passage of modern papal thought in which we imitate Christ in work primarily through our obedience.

In recovery culture, creative self-expression has an ambivalent value at best. Alcoholics Anonymous does teach people how to “share,” how to narrate their experiences of addiction and recovery. This education emphasizes the ways in which your story is like other people’s (you are not “terminally unique”). A healthy meeting will encourage “shares” that do not conform to a rigid pattern—expressing frustration or even criticism of the program itself is part of the honesty that is foundational to sobriety. But as Leslie Jamison’s literary memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, explored in depth, recovery culture can be skeptical of autonomy and creativity:

In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always been taught about stories—that they had to be unique—suggesting instead that a story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again.... Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.

For recovery culture, the value of work is that it gives structure to life’s chaos; it is simple, intelligible even when your own heart is baffling; it lets you be of service to others, making every job well done a kind of living amends; and, above all, good work brings humility. The more humble the work, the more obviously it helps you recover. Twelve-steppers love riches-to-rags stories: the high-flying sales rep who “used to go to work in a suit and now comes home covered in dust”; the stylist to the stars who had to redo her training from the bottom, crying with relief when she received her hairdresser’s license. For those of us in recovery these are actually rags-to-riches stories. An actively drinking alcoholic has nothing even if she stands at the summit of her profession. In sobriety she has something priceless, even if she is pushing a broom for minimum wage.

If work provides structure and a chance to be of service, then any “post-work” future must recognize and meet these needs.

Or for no wage at all. Even in very early sobriety, people in A.A. are encouraged to take on “service commitments.” These are often small tasks like making the coffee, setting up the chairs for meetings, cleaning up afterward. Cleaning is an especially powerful act for recovery culture, because it is a microcosm of the massive restoration you are undergoing in your own life. There is a reason the great literary work of 12-step culture, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, includes a memorable scene of the recovering addict Don Gately at the janitorial “humility job” required by his halfway house, hosing feces off the showers at a men’s shelter. And one chapter is just a list of things you learn in a halfway house for substance addiction, including the hard truth: “That a clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room.”

These often foul tasks (Gately “just shuts his head off” to get through it) focus your attention on the aspects of work that are important to your recovery. You know what to do. You know who you are doing it for—calling this work “service” emphasizes that it is about relationship. And you know that your worth is no longer determined by your intellect, your accomplishments or even the length of your sobriety. You know that anything that encourages you to think of yourself as superior to others is dangerous for you, and anything that helps you to see your own littleness is good for you. You learn the incredible relief of being useful.

The writer Hunter R. Slaton, who worked “on the ice” in Antarctica in a failed attempt to escape his drinking problem, recalls his service commitment cleaning up after an A.A. meeting:

The push broom was the same type of wooden, bristled broom I’d glumly wielded in Antarctica. But, unlike how I felt then, broken and miserable at the bottom of the world, here I was in a drab school basement, deliriously happy, sweeping the floors—the humblest of jobs, really—at a meeting I’d grown desperately to love. For maybe the first time in my life, I was accepting life on life’s terms, and not kicking back violently at “conditions,” as I had while on the Ice.

Lessons for Those Outside the Rooms

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty.... To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, gives him glory too.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

It would be easy to claim that these aspects of work are only important for people with addiction, at least in part because then we are relieved from the feeling that maybe, if they apply to all of us, they should color our theology or policy. But part of the allure of recovery culture is that it is one of the few remaining common languages we can use to discuss universal experiences of shame, sin, relapse, helplessness—and rescue, restoration, amends, humility. Despite the A.A. slang of alcoholics versus “normies,” perhaps addiction is just a triple-distillation of our common condition, and we alcoholics are just like normal people, only more so.

There are four ways in which the recovery culture of work can improve the thinking of those outside the rooms of A.A.

There are four ways in which the recovery culture of work can improve the thinking of those outside the rooms of A.A. First, if work provides structure and a chance to be of service, then any “post-work” future must recognize and meet these needs. David Graeber insouciantly imagines a work-free future where people “knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafes arguing about politics, and gossiping about their friends’ complex polyamorous affairs.”

This is a self-absorbed vision in itself, but the reality is likely to be an even more depleting toggle along the entertainment–depression axis. Oren Cass’s book of conservative pop policy, The Once and Future Worker, notes that we already have people who can live easily without working: “We call the result a ‘trust fund baby.’ The term is not synonymous with ‘kind, well-adjusted, productive member of society.’”

And many people have a “post-work” present, whether due to disability, family responsibilities, inability to find a job or idle wealth. Structured service to others (including through prayer) is either something these people are already doing, for which they deserve honor, or something they can begin to do in order to avoid the moral dangers of self-absorbed idleness. The two obvious havens for unpaid service are the family and the monastery. In the monastery, as in prayer more generally, we both labor and delight. We contemplate God, which is not work. We also intercede for others, which is a form of service. The precariousness of contemporary work is only one reason to work toward a monastic revival; for those who are not called to vowed religious life, A.A. might inspire new forms of structured service and joy.

Recovery culture can provide is an ideal of work that focuses on care rather than solely on creativity.

The second insight recovery culture can provide is an ideal of work that focuses on care rather than solely on creativity. David Graeber writes, “[M]ost working-class labor, whether carried out by men or women, actually more resembles what we archetypically think of as women’s work, looking after people, seeing to their wants and needs, explaining, reassuring, anticipating what the boss wants or is thinking, not to mention caring for, monitoring, and maintaining plants, animals, machines, and other objects, than it involves hammering, carving, hoisting, or harvesting things.” From retail service to motherhood, some of the most common forms of work in our society look more like sustaining than like artisanal creation. Recovery culture, with its iconography of the mop and toilet brush, honors the repetitive work that sustains and restores our world.

This attention to care corrects the male bias of much philosophy of work. It not only makes workers’ individuality more evident. (Graeber notes that the belief that most low-income work is “productive,” rather than caring, makes it easier to treat workers like machines.) It also reminds us that God’s work is sustaining work. Our very existence is proof not that God loved us once upon a time, before we were born and started messing stuff up, but that God loves us now—we know this, because God’s love is what maintains us in existence. To be like God is to care and sustain and clean and restore, not simply to create.

In Search of a Healthy Hierarchy

Like all ideals, the ideal of work as service is frequently abused. The 12-step emphasis on humility may be the single most common justification for abuse within recovery culture, and work is one of the ways in which that abuse is perpetrated. Where work, especially unpaid labor, is considered essential to an education in humility, it is easy to use work to humiliate people supposedly for their own good. If people with addiction have an especially acute need for obedience, structure, humility, then forcing us to do menial labor in humiliating conditions can be presented as “treatment.” Reveal News exposed the exploitation of rehab patients by companies like Walmart, Shell and Exxon, under the aegis of the Cenikor Foundation: “Cenikor’s success is built on a simple idea: that work helps people recover from addiction. All participants have to do is surrender their pay to cover the costs of the two-year program.”

Workplace injuries and a death were only some of the resulting hardships, in what one former participant called “the closest thing to slavery.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed suit in 2017 against what it called “human trafficking” at an alleged “unpaid labor camp disguised as a rehabilitation center.” These cases are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to punitive work at abusive rehabs and “teen treatment centers.”

Like all ideals, the ideal of work as service is frequently abused.

Twelve-step traditions already include several elements that should militate against these abuses. Exploiting fellow sufferers is so far from the “eighth tradition” of freely-given service that its wrongness practically glows in the dark. But from a theological perspective, the more interesting way in which an orthodox understanding of A.A. should restrict abuse is in its understanding of hierarchy.

The primary hierarchy in a healthy A.A. group is the sponsor-sponsee relationship. A sponsor guides someone newer in sobriety through the 12 steps and provides ongoing guidance, support and (where appropriate) correction. This is the third way in which recovery culture can deepen a general rethinking of the nature of work. An overemphasis on autonomy can lead us to think that Christian theology supports what Americans mostly already believe: that power is good for us and greater control of our own lives should be our goal. Honoring autonomy rather than obedience will always mean bosses are more honorable than subordinates.

When A.A. is working right, not only do “subordinates” (sponsees) become “bosses” (sponsors). More importantly, they never stop being subordinates—to their own sponsors, to the program and fellowship of A.A., and above all to their Higher Power. It is this willingness to be sponsored that gives them authority. The goal is not to boss but to serve, and not to think like a boss but to continue to think like one under obedience. One cannot simultaneously serve and dominate; the ethic of surrender is a living critique of an economy based on competition for dominance. If only our own managers and corporate titans asked how they could serve the fellowship of workers and think like their lowest-paid employees.

Work can be part of our path to this communion. But it is not something we can build for ourselves.

And here we reach the final insight recovery culture can offer to Christian theology. We are made to share in divinity, to become what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Bible (2 Pt 1:4) call “partakers of the divine nature.” Work can be part of our path to this communion. But it is not something we can build for ourselves. Even labor—our desire and ability to work and serve—is something we receive obediently from God. When we view work primarily as an imitation of or participation in God’s power, we risk forgetting our creaturehood. Work humbles us, and humble work is better for us, because our path of transformation not only passes through obedience but remains always within obedience.

Jesus was a carpenter. He also knelt to wash his disciples’ feet. This, too, should be our ideal of work.

The Question of Policy

I love people who...strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

—Marge Piercy, “To be of use”

Today people who do manual or service-industry work often view their jobs as shameful signs of personal failure. As Sarah Smarsh writes in her book, Heartland: “The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it. A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you.” A.A. is a Möbius strip, where low-status jobs will always be high-status simply because they are humbling; but jobs requiring manual labor also carry a special honor in recovery culture. They are respected and they symbolize the hope that we can lead lives as clean and useful as a well-mopped bathroom.

All of this leads to questions of policy too big to tackle here. But the general aim of such policy should be to rescue the ideals of humility and gratitude from an American culture that has turned these words into weapons used to keep working-class people from organizing or demanding change. There is no reason your humble service to the fellowship of labor should not come in a union.

But any policy will serve poor people and people who do grueling manual-labor jobs only if it is both drafted and implemented by people who believe poor people and laborers are exalted in God’s eyes. John Paul II pointedly criticized communism as an ideology “forswor[n]” by the working people of Solidarity for whom it “presumed to speak”—and like other modern popes, he was also quick to condemn liberal capitalism as an ideology that claimed to better workers’ lives while actually ignoring and degrading the image of God they bear. Every policy will become a weapon in the hands of the rich and the managers unless it is implemented by people for whom poor and working-class people are recognized as people participating in God’s work—for whom they, above all, are “essential workers.”

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