This letter written to The S.I.C.L.E. Cell reminds me of a talk I heard last year by an alcoholism and drug counselor.
He said that sometimes he feels that the message of hope from Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups has had a paradoxical effect on American society, of encouraging people to believe that no matter what they do, and no matter what happens in their lives, they fer sure can recover.
What they say in AA is, "The program works...IF you work it." Is that true? Or is that a rationalization for why the program doesn't work for some people, the people who didn't try hard enough?
I expect that the saying is based on years of observing that people who don't eventually become sober are the people who don't get a sponsor, journal, pick up the phone when the urge hits them, go to meetings twice a day if they have to, work the steps, etc, even when doing all that seems completely pointless to them.
But no doubt there are people who do all those things, faithfully, and are still driven by the demon of alcoholism. That was probably the point of the speaker I heard. In recovery, there are no guarantees.
Ashli's letter-writer also reminds me of how much we still don't know about helping men and women who suffer relentless anguish after an abortion.
I met a Project Rachel counselor recently who told me that when she first starts meeting with women who are in distress after abortion, she asks them to imagine a tool-shed at the bottom of a garden. She tells them that hardly anyone knows about this toolshed, but that it is full of tools, more than can be counted. "Together," she says, "we will take out and get to know these tools. We'll feel their size and shape, and see what they do, start learning how to use them. Some of them may not work for you, and some of them will. The important thing for you to know and trust right now is that there are many surprising tools, more than you can count, in this toolshed."
I appreciated this approach and this image. It suggests that the counselor doesn't feel that she has the magic formula to end someone's pain, combined with an attitude of patient hope.
Confronted with personality disorders, entrenched substance abuse, the seemingly ineradicable wounds borne by torture or sexual abuse survivors, and other forms of human anguish, therapists are endlessly humbled but still have to find a way to see a horizon of hope.
The tools imagery does imply fixing, which rightly causes many people to feel resistance. Her attitude, though, was not "I'm going to find a tool and fix you," but more along the lines of what Rachel Naomi Remen beautifully expresses in her article, In the Service of Life, where she talks about the difference between helping and serving.
"Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. If I'm attentive to what's going on inside of me when I'm helping, I find that I'm always helping someone who's not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very aware of my own strength. But we don't serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.
Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude. These are very different things.
Serving is also different from fixing. When I fix a person I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When I serve I see and trust that wholeness. It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.
There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment. All judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. This is Mother Teresa's basic message. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy."