I knew something about the demographics before we sat down for our opening prayer and I was nervous – Catholic, mainline, born-again, Muslim, unaffiliated, black, white, Latino, formerly homeless, housed, highly educated, and high school dropouts. Ellis Island in one room. I was attending a conference sponsored by the Ignatian Spirituality Project which provides retreat opportunities for those who are homeless and seeking recovery. The conference aimed to facilitate good storytelling and assist us in setting our stories within the context of Ignatian spirituality. I was anxious and doubtful, but still curious, about how the conference could succeed. How would such a diverse group pray together, tell stories, and learn from one another, all within the framework of Ignatian spirituality, without either watering down our faith traditions or offending one another, intentionally or unintentionally.
In our two days together, not only were my apprehensions erased, I was astounded by the group’s authenticity and care for one another. In every session and meal we prayed, worked, and conversed with one another without compromising our own faith traditions, cultural backgrounds, and personal histories, while we also listened carefully to, and learned from, one another.
At first I didn’t understand it. We represented a microcosm of our nation’s economic and educational disparities, as well as the racial and religious differences that often categorize and divide us. Where was the hostility? How were we doing this?
The short answer: sobriety and the Twelve Steps.
Conversation after conversation began with sobriety and when each day ended, this was what really mattered. While not every person at the conference was in recovery themselves, each of us had been touched by addiction and the Twelve Steps. As a result we shared a mutual rootedness in the importance of sobriety and all that the Twelve Steps imply, from powerlessness over addiction, to a belief in “God as we understand God,” to a commitment to admit our wrongs and seek reparations when possible.
We weren’t developing public policy, grappling with the unemployment rate, or debating the justification of our military presence overseas, nor was the group designed to take up such issues. We were just telling stories. But I left the conference believing that the spirit there might inform our policy making, national debates, and search for the common good.
Books, articles, and blogs about the common good abound, along with an unending number of definitions, campaigns, toolkits, and action plans. We agree that we are failing as a nation to uphold the common good but consensus is lacking on what the common good is and how we might uphold whatever it is.
We need a national AA meeting.
What I find so refreshing about people who have experienced the nightmare of addiction, and have lived to see the other side, is the honesty, humility and hope they carry. Recovery comes after alcohol and drugs are chosen over education, careers, children, homes and even the addict’s very body. There is no hiding from what’s been done and how choices have caused irreparable damage. Survival is only possible through honest confrontation and humble recognition of how egos, whether thriving on narcissism or victimization, legitimized the most illegitimate kind of actions. But behind that brutal honesty and humility is hope, the endurance of the human spirit, the belief that change is always possible, that another day will come and that day can be better.
The singular commitment to sobriety makes it possible for Muslims, born again Christians, wealthy, and poor to sit, share, listen and pray together. Shared honesty, humility, and hope found in sobriety and the Twelve Steps, keeps everyone in the room and in a posture of mutual respect.
Of course the United States is not an AA meeting. It is an extravagantly wealthy and powerful nation. It is also deeply divided on social and political issues, struggles with increasing levels of violence, and is among the world leaders in income inequality. We have made detrimental choices leading to lives lost, relationships broken, and an environment irreparably damaged. We are blinded by our egos, filled with both narcissism and victimization, and seem to be at a stalemate, or worse, a downward spiral. In order to survive, we need brutal honesty and humility as individuals and as a collective whole, as Republicans and Democrats, as Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists. With honesty and humility we can, as a nation, find some consensus on what the common good is—something that can root us in the way sobriety roots those in AA. And recovery shows us that we have a good reason to hope that this is possible, but we have a long journey ahead of us.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
– Reinhold Niebuhr
Image: John. Serenity Prayer. Available from: Flickr Commons.