The History of Easy Does It

By Jeff Vircoe

The Eagles sang about it. Spiritual gurus preached on it. And addicts swear by it.

When it comes to slogans in the recovery lexicon, Easy Does It is one of the 12 Step community’s most endearing and enduring jingles. It’s the “slow down, big guy” warning veterans give to newcomers, and let’s face it – what hungover, dopesick addict doesn’t like to be told it doesn’t all have to be fixed today?

Sure, this “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “Stay in your shoes” flavour is relatively simple to swallow, even for drug-corroded brains. But behind Easy Does It is a rich nugget of wisdom which has been utilized by seekers of mental and spiritual peace for centuries. And it has been part of the recovery vocabulary since the spring of 1939.

First, the facts. On the bottom of page 135 of Alcoholics Anonymous’ basic text book, commonly and affectionately known as the Big Book, three suggestions or slogans are offered at the end of the chapter titled The Family Afterward. The section concludes with a  description of how, sometimes, families miss the miracle of a sober alcoholic because they are too busy expecting rapid progress in areas outside of abstinence. The author of that chapter, A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson, wrote this: “We have three little mottoes which are apropos. Here they are: First Things First. Live and Let Live. Easy Does It.

They are the only italicized slogans appearing in such a manner in the book. An exploration of the Easy Does It history opens up a Pandora’s Box of interesting tidbits about the fellowship, its roots, and geographical and theological differences.

If you are into stats, on the website www.164andmore.com, we find the word “easy” appears 10 times in the Big Book and another seven times in the book “12 Steps and 12 Traditions”. In the Big Book chapter Into Action on page 86, the page after the Promises end, we find this nugget: “We relax and take it easy.” It refers to prayer and waiting for God to lead us into an intuitive thought, a good idea.

In the 12 and 12 book, in the chapter on Step 2 on page 26, we find this: “His sponsor probably says, “Take it Easy. The hoop you have to jump through is a lot wider than you think.” Bill is referring to a newcomer struggling to accept his powerlessness and a Higher Power as the answer to it.

So, embedded deep in the 12 Step literature, Easy Does It is a pretty common suggestion around the rooms. It can be found on posters, cards and other internally promoted material. Many members of the more than 200 registered 12 Step fellowships, from A.A. to N.A. to O.A. (Overeaters Anonymous) and beyond, can be heard verbally offering the suggestion to newcomers at meetings and in coffee shops. Easy Does It is so popular that most cities in North America have a group, or even a club, named after it.  In Surrey, B.C., there’s an Easy Does It club providing fellowship and social activities in an alcohol- and drug-free environment. In the village of Orono, Ontario (a 45-minute or so drive from Toronto), the Easy Does It group offers recovery seekers a meeting at 8 p.m. each Thursday. And in beautiful Pictou County, Nova Scotia, the tiny St. Andrews Presbyterian Church serves up coffee and fellowship at the Easy Does It meeting in Westville, population 3,798, at 8 p.m. each Wednesday.

Clearly, Easy Does It has made a big impression on the members of A.A.. But why did it end up in the Big Book, and where did Bill Wilson learn it?

Easy Does It is hardly a new concept. In 1938, when Wilson was writing the original Big Book manuscript, even as he and the 100 or so sober alcoholics were passing around the manuscript he had written for their feedback, several important spiritual and religious leaders and organizations were already championing the concept Easy Does It encapsulates. In fact, they had been doing so for over 2,000 years.

First off, a little geography comes into play. In particular, Akron, Ohio, and New York, New York.

On a business trip to Akron in the spring of 1935, Wilson, a New Yorker, helped sober up A.A.’s other co-founder Dr. Bob Smith via the Akron Oxford Group. The Oxford Group was a fellowship of Christians who believed strongly that God needed to be in control of a person if that person was to rid him or herself of the burdens of being a sinner. In their organization, which espoused principles like God having a divine plan for everyone, surrender was necessary, and that “soul surgery” came from self-examination and restitution, among other things, the Bible was often used as the main source of inspiration and direction.

Just as his old friend, Ebby Thatcher, had introduced him to the New York Oxford Group where Wilson had found sobriety through their teachings, in Akron, Wilson began working with Dr. Bob, a surgeon who was already a member of the Oxford Group, albeit a drunken one. As Wilson shared his story and knowledge of addiction with the doctor, something clicked between them and the genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Though Wilson was much less vocal about his faith in the Christian angle, the book is filled with Christian references. And things were a lot more by the book – the Good Book – in Akron than in New York. (Historians will tell you that in Akron A.A., the rule of thumb was “Trust God. Clean House and Help Others,” while in New York A.A., it was “Don’t Drink. Go To Meetings.”)

In A.A.’s formative years, with Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne, leading the Akron meetings with plenty of King James Bible references, the “God as you understood Him” as first appeared in the 12 Steps of the new book was tolerated and not promoted.  The Akron approach, strongly influenced by the Smiths, was undoubtedly Christian. Inside that bubble came a certain way of looking at things.

Working with thousands of alcoholics until his death in 1950, Dr. Bob frequently quoted portions of his favorite part of the Bible – in particular, Christ’s Sermon On The Mount.

Found in the Gospel of Matthew, essentially it is a sermon delivered by Jesus in which he explains how the faithful should live their lives. To believers, it is a powerful guide to living life in the moral, just and compassionate manner expected of Christians.

“As Pope Benedict once observed in a study of Jesus, ‘The Sermon on the Mount is the new Torah brought by Jesus … as the new Moses whose words constitute the definitive Torah,’” writes Scottish Jesuit priest, Jack Mahoney, Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Theology in the University of London. In a 2008 article titled, “The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount”, which appeared on the Christian website thinkingfaith.org, the professor explained how it established the rules of engagement for life, so to speak.

The sermon “shows us Jesus now describing and explaining what life would be like for his followers in the kingdom, as it would describe and confirm to subsequent generations of new Christians, beginning with the Matthaean community, what being a disciple of Jesus would now regularly involve for them,” writes Mahoney.

And just as the Oxford Group members swore by its significance, many in recovery believe it is in Sermon on the Mount where the roots of Easy Does It can be found.

“Dr. Bob always attributed the slogans Easy Does It and One Day at a Time to have come from the Sermon on the Mount, in particular the Gospel of Matthew 6:34,” says  A.A. historian and author Dick B. in his 1992 offering, The Good Book and The Big Book.

Loosely translated, the passage advises, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

In other words, Easy Does It.

Sermon on The Mount has been studied by theologians for centuries. In contemporary times, one voice signaling the importance of the Sermon on the Mount was Emmet Fox. He named a book after it.

Fox (1886-1951) was a world renowned spiritual leader and advocate of what was called the New Thought movement. Fox believed that man’s thoughts shape his reality, and that concept resonated with millions. He believed Jesus was a misunderstood, misrepresented figure. Fox’s metaphysical approach to religious beliefs influenced 20th century icons like Louise Hay and Wayne Dyer – and Bill Wilson – among others.

Fox’s metaphysical, dogma-free approach to religion attracted the alcoholics who were struggling with Christianity. So, when he wrote his book Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life in 1938, it was quickly considered by many in the yet-to-be-named fellowship of A.A. to be a must-read.

Amazon.ca says this about Fox’s Sermon on The Mount: “In his most popular work, Emmet Fox shows how to: Understand the true nature of divine wisdom. Tap into the power of prayer. Develop a completely integrated and fully expressed personality. Transform negative attitudes into life-affirming beliefs. Claim our divine right to the full abundance of life.”

As Fox’s popularity grew in New York and around the globe, Bill and the early New York “alcoholic squadron” members of the Oxford Group were getting sober in the same city where Fox was drawing thousands to hear him speak in the largest rentable locations around town – the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, the Hippodrome, Steinway Hall, Madison Square Gardens and Carnegie Hall. In a Grapevine article published in the January 1996 edition, writer Igor. S. notes that Fox had a secretary whose son, Al, was in Bill Wilson’s circle of alcoholics. As such, it would make sense that the New York A.A. pioneers would take in the lectures given by Fox.

It is also safe to say that the “New Age” or “New Thought” label put upon Fox carried with it some divisiveness for the newly forming alcoholics’ organization. To the New Yorkers, Fox’s way of looking at Scripture resonated. The God as you understood Him crowd liked what they were hearing. In Akron, the God of the King James Bible was clear, it was Jesus and Jesus only. In New York, and in the Big Book since Bill wrote the bulk of it, there are plenty of references to Creator, Father, Director, Maker, Infinite Power, Spirit of the Universe. Not surprisingly, there was not perfect agreement on the words Wilson put down in the Big Book, nor in the prescribing of Fox as a provider of a solid line of Christian thought.

“The Fox book may not have been as popular among Akron A.A.s as it was in the east,” conceded historian Dick B.. He explained how “every major Christian writer studied by Dr. Bob and the Akron A.A.s wrote about the Sermon; and four of these writers – Oswald Chambers, Glenn Clark, Emmet Fox, and E. Stanley Jones – wrote major books or studies of the Sermon.”

Nonetheless, Dick wrote this: “Any discussion of A.A. and the Sermon on the Mount would seem to require comment on Emmet Fox’s study of Sermon on the Mount.”

Remember the passage that impressed Dr. Bob from the Biblical Sermon on the Mount?

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

The meaning is pretty clear. Take it easy.

Emmet Fox’s view of what Jesus meant in Matthew 6:34 goes like this.

“Try not to be tense or hurried. Tension and hurry delay the demonstration. You know that if you try to unlock a door hurriedly, the key is apt to stick, whereas, if you do it slowly, it seldom does. If the key sticks, the thing is to stop pressing, take your breath, and release it gently. To push hard with will power can only jam the lock completely. So it is with mental working. In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”

Again, take it easy.

Or as the rock group, The Eagles, wrote in 1972:

Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand.

Take it easy.

In the “How to get a Demonstration” chapter in the book Emmet Fox Speaks (a collection of Fox’s most poignant thoughts from his books, including Sermon on the Mount), the author put it this way:

“Know the truth about your problems,” Fox wrote. “Claim spiritual dominion. Avoid tenseness, strain, and over-anxiety. Expect your prayer to be answered, and act as though you expected it.”

While pop’s counter-culture made blacklight posters mocking the “chill out” idea (think buzzards in a tree saying, “Patience, my ass, I’m gonna kill something”), Wilson included Easy Does It in the Big Book.

And, in Akron in 1940, though they were part of the group that approved the Big Book, those more religiously inclined A.A. members put it this way in an 18-page pamphlet handed out to newcomers:

“There is an old saying, ‘Easy does it.’ It is a motto that any alcoholic could well ponder. A child learns to add and subtract in the lower grades. He is not expected to do problems in algebra until he is in high school. Sobriety is a thing that must be learned step by step. If anything puzzles you, ask your new friends about it, or forget it for the time being. The time is not so far away when you will have a good understanding of the entire program. Meantime, EASY DOES IT!”

Getting the last word in, however, they made sure their loyalty to the Oxford Group remained obvious. Also in that pamphlet, known as The Akron Manual, are the 12 Steps – followed by the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group; absolute honesty, unselfishness, love and purity.