Over the weekend, I posted a video on Facebook which shared the message of a famous spiritual teacher. Many were touched by and shared the video, but a few wrote disparaging remarks about the video, claiming that the spiritual teacher couldn’t be trusted because he struggled with alcoholism, as if we could never trust anything we might learn about spirituality from an alcoholic.
I found myself reflecting back on the twelve step meetings I was required to sit in on as part of my medical training. Attending these meetings with active and recovering addicts touched me deeply. Before experiencing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as a young student, I had been taught by my parents and my church to judge addicts- at least that was my interpretation as a child. I thought addicts simply lacked willpower. I deemed them to be lazy, sloppy, even immoral. Addicts were people we should steer clear of and judge harshly. They weren’t as “good” as people who were able to stay sober. They were somehow lesser humans, and certainly, you couldn’t learn any spiritual lessons from a drunk or a drug addict.
A Lesson In Humility
I was humbled to realize that these “drunks” had much to teach me about what spirituality really means. I hadn’t realized that, in my judgment, I was committing one of the greatest spiritual “crimes.” I had forgotten that perhaps compassion is the most spiritual of virtues, and compassion was what these AA attendees had in spades.
As one after the other shared their stories of human vulnerability, heads nodded around the circle from others who understood the pain being shared. They told stories of childhood sexual abuse, parental abandonment, foster homes, and alcoholic parents. They had been beaten with golf clubs. Their mothers had knocked out their teeth. Some had been moved from orphanage to orphanage, being forced to leave the only people they found to love in each home.
They hadn’t just been traumatized themselves. They had also become perpetrators of trauma. They shared stories of how they had hurt others- betraying those they loved, stealing money from parents, breaking laws and even violently harming other humans. They spoke of blackouts and seizures and waking up disoriented in pools of vomit. They spoke of suicide attempts and jail time and spousal and child abuse.
As they told their stories of trauma and humiliation, often through tears of shame and vulnerability, the others listened generously, often in tears themselves. Nobody judged these addicts as they told their stories. Instead, their very raw stories were held with pure, loving compassion. It was fucking holy.