By Galen T.
Many of us are familiar with the events that brought AA’s two founders together for the first time. On May 11th of 1935 Bill found himself pacing back and forth in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, OH. At one end of the lobby was a bar and at the other a public phone. He had gone to Akron to pursue a business deal. The deal had fallen through and Bill, several months sober, wanted to drink. As Bill felt lured by the alcohol-fueled chatter and laughter spilling out of the bar, he realized that he needed to talk to another alcoholic. So he went to the phone and after a number of calls connected with a local resident, Henrietta Seiberling. Ms. Seiberling was not herself an alcoholic, but was a member of the Oxford Group and had been trying for years to help a fellow member, Dr. Bob Smith, kick his alcoholism.
Henrietta immediately recognized the opportunity that Bill’s need presented for her project of sobering up Bob and invited him to come to her house immediately. She would get Dr. Bob over and the two men could talk. As it happened, Bob was at that moment lying drunk under his dining room table, so the meeting was postponed until the next day.
Bill got there first. Bob arrived a few minutes later accompanied by his determined wife. He looked unwell and out of sorts, and had stipulated to his wife that he would stay no longer than 15 minutes. After introductions, however, Bill and Bob repaired to a private room and emerged five hours later. During this time they discovered the founding principle of Alcoholics Anonymous—conversation and the sharing of experiences between one alcoholic and another.
By the time Bill met Dr. Bob he had already discovered that preaching at active alcoholics about the moral and physical perils of drink did little good. When he and Bob talked at Ms. Seiberling’s they discovered that what could help alcoholics is telling one another their stories. And they discovered the obvious corollary—that telling stories of defeat and despair requires a receptive listener, in this case another alcoholic. This dynamic of speaking and listening, of sharing at depth, not just of defeat and despair but then of hope, deliverance, and healing, is still, 80 years later, the foundation of AA’s spiritual vitality.
It is impossible to spend much time in AA without getting caught up in rhythms of speaking and listening that lie at the heart of our fellowship—from our regular meetings, including the before and after talk, to the more extended before-and-after-the-meeting gatherings around coffee and food. There are also the intimate exchanges among close friends, and the sponsor-sponsee relationship that has played such an important role in many of our recoveries. There is nothing more important to the future of AA than our continued capacity to listen attentively and receptively to each other. We make this commitment to each other because we have experienced how essential it is to our healing and recovery.
I have learned the most about listening through sponsoring other men. Initially, I found that I didn’t want to listen to them for more than a few minutes. I wanted them to be brief and to the point, so that I did not get distracted or bored, and so that I could give them a word of advice and send them on their way with their problem or issue fixed.
As time passed, however, I noticed sponsees rarely took my advice, even when they had asked for it. They were really looking for something else, even if they didn’t know what this something was.
As I experimented with not giving so much advice and instead asking more questions, it came to me that my sponsees were not looking for answers to their problems but for somebody who would listen as they sorted through them. This set me on a path of improving my listening skills. This meant that I stopped interrupting them with constant comments and observations. I quieted my mind’s persistent desire to pass quick judgments on everything I heard. I learned through practice to listen carefully and restrict myself to questions of clarification or ones that might help the other person connect more deeply with their experiences and feelings.
I am not sure what to call this kind of listening. It is not active listening, since this involves the constant evaluation of what is being said for the purpose of making an effective response. The kind of listening I am talking about pays close attention to the other person, to both the surface content and the underlying feelings. So perhaps it can be called attentive listening. Or compassionate listening, since it embodies a caring desire to understand the other person. It is something we can give others that promotes more healing than our best advice giving.
The further along I am in recovery, the more it strikes me that I came into AA in a state of trauma. My trauma was not as severe as that borne by people who have been physically and sexually abused. But when I walked into my first meeting my life was crashing in on my family and me. I had lost my job, my career, and my house. I was a self-confident person who suddenly realized he did not know how to live. Many of those I see coming into the program today are in a similar state. To recover, they need to face and make peace with a painful, perhaps calamitous past, while building a new identity and a new future.
My sponsees have helped me to see that one of the ways in which we do this is through the simple act of talking. Personality psychologists call it narration and have written about how we all deconstruct the past and construct our future through verbal expression.
Experts in the healing of serious trauma agree that after establishing basic conditions of safety the survivor needs to tell her story, not necessarily everything in one sitting, but eventually, as Judith Herman says in her classic Trauma and Recovery, “completely, in depth and in detail.” This telling of traumatic events from the past needs to be accompanied by a reexperiencing and expression of emotions. The verbal articulation of her story transforms the traumatic material so it can be integrated into the survivor’s life and form a springboard rather than a block to future growth.
In the case of severe trauma this work usually needs to be done with highly trained professionals and even the lesser traumas most of us bring into recovery can benefit from therapeutic help. But our relationships within the fellowship, whether with friends or a sponsor, can also help us to recount and integrate painful events from the past, often through thorough step work. We clear away oppressive guilt and shame from the past and identify self-destructive patterns that have hobbled us for years. We can then move to integrate the lessons of the past and put them to use in helping others. This happens through talking and being listened to. Through conversation we shed an old identity and build a new one on a different foundation.
Most contemporary personality psychologists agree that ingredients, or levels, make up the human personality. First, we all have dispositional traits. These are fairly fixed features of our makeup such as extraversion, playfulness, orderliness, and so on. The second level is comprised of characteristic adaptations. These are more fluid and include interests, attitudes, coping skills, and relational styles.
But neither of these levels speaks to the question of individual meaning and purpose in our lives human life—the unique particularities that make us who we are. This third level, that of narrative identity, is forged by the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives. Through the out-loud, spoken narration of our stories and lives to one another we make sense of who we are—we process the significance of the past into our ever-evolving present and define our future by narrating to each other both our past and present. This is how we give our lives meaning and direction.
Developing a narrative identity is a critical part of healing for people emerging from all kinds of trauma, including that of addiction, and whose sense of self is fragmented and diffuse. It takes place through talking and so depends on the availability of people who can listen with patience and compassion. Through talking and being listened to we process reality and give structure, meaning, and purpose to our lives and the lives of others.
Empathetic listening does not come naturally to most of us. It leaves us exposed and vulnerable to the pain and struggle of others and the messiness of human life. Daily meditation helps, as does the intentional cultivation of compassion for people we don’t like.
Today our willingness and capacity for listening is challenged by the ever-beckoning lure of contemporary communications technologies, especially the cell phone. It is not just that we can fall into using these gadgets instead of paying attention to those around us. Sherry Turkle, a research psychologist and technologist at MIT, in her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, shows how our obsessive relationship with technology fosters self-absorption, turns us in on ourselves, and degrades our capacity to attend to and care for others.
With these increasing challenges to listening and meaningful human conversation, perhaps AA can be a beacon of light, persistently reminding us that the intimacy and growth that all humans crave is bound up with our readiness to lend our ear and our soul to the person next to us.
When I feel my energy and attention lagging and want to hand out advice and empty platitudes I sometimes turn to the words of educator and philosopher Parker Palmer, who writes eloquently about the value of listening and presence:
“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there.”
Being there is our readiness to listen to each other.
About the Author, Galen T.
Galen spent most of his career in the ministry, and in mental health and career counseling. He has published numerous articles as a career consultant. He is now an independent writer focusing on the application of personal narrative to addiction recovery and life generally. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in several of his local AA groups.
by Jan A. and Doris A.
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georiga. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org