A Life-Affirming Community

In and through community lies the salvation of the world. Nothing is more important. Yet it is virtually impossible to describe community meaningfully to someone who has never experienced it-and most of us have never had an experience of true community.
M. Scott Peck, M. D.

Perhaps John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, provided as good a definition of community as anyone. Shortly before his fellow colonists set foot on land in 1630, he said: We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.

A story of a community from unexpected people:

The leader had suffered from depression most of his life. He continued to smoke, even as cigarettes killed him. He wrestled with his ego and his need for approval. He lived in poverty most of his life. But what a group he created. His honesty about his flaws provided the humility to lead.

Today, the organization has groups in every town and city in the United States, and in more than 140 countries of the world, with more than two million members worldwide. Each local group —more than 100,000 — functions with autonomy and has little formal structure. New groups begin and old ones die regularly. The enterprise has no budgets, buildings, or machines. Members make voluntary financial contributions. This “unorganized” body’s marketing plan attracts instead of promotes.

The organization has a powerful sense of purpose and shared values and principles to guide choices. No one gets away with self-delusion for long. Leadership emerges and shifts. All feel included and no member gets fired or laid off. Everyone values everyone else equally.

Every member accepts personal responsibility and accountability. They become humble experts at personal mastery and members do not take their success for granted. Meetings consist of myth, story, and ritual, and in every meeting members discuss the shared values, purpose and vision. All members feel significant and passion abounds. Spirit and commitment emerge from equality, creativity and shared decision-making.

We call this community Alcoholics Anonymous.

The leader was Bill Wilson: a hopeless, defeated and hospitalized alcoholic who faced imminent death. His elemental need to live rose from the deepest depths of his soul. A powerful spiritual experience reordered his psyche. After his transformation, he never drank alcohol again in his remaining 36 years. Out of his despair, he began a worldwide movement that has saved unknown millions of lives. Minds and lives changed. Aldous Huxley called Wilson “the greatest social architect of the twentieth century.” The deepest personal despair imaginable preceded his greatest possibilities and achievements.

Bill Wilson believed AA’s success had to do with the willingness of members to place the welfare of others above their own desires. AA exemplifies a humble and committed attitude of the mind and heart that, unlike most organizational change efforts, survived its leader and sustains itself.

When AA began, alcoholism was thought to be caused by character flaws or personality defects. We know that to be wrong today. Alcoholism is a disease and recovery can be defined as learning how to manage a chronic illness. This change of definition can renew AA, as all organizations must renew themselves, and expand its strengths.

Scott Peck wrote, “The most successful community in this nation-probably in the whole world-is Alcoholics Anonymous.”

How ironic that the lost souls of the world teach us how to live.

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