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.

Feeling Alive

I survived without purpose, identity or community for a time in my life.  A dark cloud enveloped me. Imprisoned in a dark Plato’s Cave, I was lost and could not find my way. Alcohol had made me feel good. Now it no longer worked but I couldn’t stop. Such a betrayal. It was a time of despair; I felt dead.

Then the patients and counselors at a tough alcohol treatment program unshackled my chains, confronted my defenses and taught me how to feel alive without chemicals or the other addictions so prevalent in our world. They turned me from facing a wall of darkness to seeing the light from the entrance to a potential-filled world of spirit and possibility. Their love and acceptance of the worst of me gave me hope and a community with the drug addicts and alcoholics of St. Mary’s Hospital.

Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth that more than seeking meaning for our lives, we seek the experience of being alive. We feel alive when our life experiences align with our own inner worlds. I set out to live a life of spiritual, emotional and intellectual adventures; to live true to my values of courage, authenticity and excellence and my vision for the future I felt called to.

I felt alive leading renewal and change in many positions at the Star Tribune newspaper over 18 years, especially my last leadership experience that engaged the hearts and minds of people and opened my eyes to a new world view. I never felt more alive (I also felt a deep loss when this creative work of art was mindlessly destroyed after I left).

I left the corporate world and felt alive in a Ph.D. program that I completed at age 52. I began to write. With each piece I wrote, I felt energized inside. I  lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months  where I grieved the deaths of my mother, marriage, and mentor and wrestled with the big questions of life and the difficult emotions within me. I then fell in love when in Fargo, ND. Those were times of emotional expansion and exploration.

Feeling alive isn’t just the big experiences in our lives that excite and fulfill us. I feel alive when I sit down on a cold winter day with our dogs at my feet, a blanket over my legs and read a book by a favorite author. I feel alive when I take my daily five-mile walk with Melanie and when I venture into nature to photograph wild life and beautiful scenes. An introvert, lots of people tire me. But an authentic conversation with another adventurer enriches me.

We are not entitled to feel good all the time. Feeling alive means we experience and ponder all of our human emotions authentically: fear, guilt, grief, anger and anxiety as well as love, passion, gratitude and high energy.

Feeling alive requires us to renew ourselves over and over again by learning new things. We get comfortable feeling uncomfortable much of the time. Our journeys are messy, inefficient and we make mistakes. We feel alive more of the time as we get better at learning how to live.

Finding who we really are  is not so easy in an often anti-human world that treats people as  machines without values, spirit and emotion. We will suffer from others and from ourselves on our unique journeys that expand our souls.

James Hollis wrote in What Really Matters that a more interesting life, a life that demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned on, to have engaged the big questions, been defeated by ever-larger things and to take one’s journey through this universe and to have risked being who we really are is what matters most.