The Boston Marathon is on the bucket list of every serious runner and famous for being the oldest annual marathon in the world. I have run it twice and loved competing in the same race as the fastest men and women in the world. More than other races, the runners and spectators seem to cheer on everyone, not just their family and friends. It is Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts and there is a real sense of solidarity, as if we all share in each other’s victories. This sentiment was not reserved for only the fastest runners. As my family and I walked back to the car around five hours after the starting gun went off, spectators still cheered fervently for the exhausted runners. It was inspiring.
In most areas of life, the older and more experienced person is afforded respect and deference. This person, the boss of a company, for example, is considered the “best” expert because he or she usually has vast knowledge in the field. The opinion of the “old-time” server in a restaurant weighs more than the newbie. The veteran on the team sets the tone for the others just as the elders of a church make decisions. Even within families, this hierarchical structure seems to naturally take place.
There are rare exceptions to this structure. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, the newcomer is the most important person in a meeting. This inverted pyramid favors the newcomer because their sobriety is in its infancy and their story is a stark and fresh reminder to the others in the program of the perils of drinking. Similarly to the Boston Marathon, the solidarity is palpable and many within 12 Step programs find the fellowship a powerful deterrent to relapsing. The collective wisdom of the old-timers is not diminished by this switch, but rather displays humility, a key aspect of 12-Step programs. A wise person is cautious and knows that they are a mere drink from relapse.
The example of A.A. illuminates lessons of the spiritual life. First, the deeper that our relationship grows with God, the more humble we should become. This is related to the profound awareness of our reliance on God. Secondly, while one’s faith can be a selfish endeavor (I only need to save myself) it is preferable to assist others in their journey. That is a selfless act and reveals a broad perspective. Lastly, like A.A. or training for a race, we can never just coast in the spiritual life. We are either growing spiritually or diminishing spiritually; there is no plateau.