When the Twelve Steps and Unitarian Universalism are practiced together, they can heal the broken
An Alcoholics Anonymous sobriety token © Bernardo Fuller.
UU World recently spoke to Ken, one of the co-editors of Restored to Sanity, a collection of essays by Unitarian Universalists in Twelve-Step programs.
Contributors to Restored to Sanity include lifelong UUs, those who are newer to the faith, a transgender man, and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. How did you find your contributors, and were you worried about preserving their anonymity?
Ken: It was important for both Cathlean and myself, who are white and identify as cisgender, to make sure the book had a diversity of identities, including LGBTQ people and people of color. Primarily we solicited writers through word of mouth. Also, I’m publicly open about my recovery, so I have lots of conversations with other folks in our movement who are in recovery. Befitting a collection that features twenty-four UUs, there are numerous perspectives and practices on what maintaining personal anonymity means, so for the book we went with the traditional practice of first names only, and offered our writers the choice of pen names if they wanted additional anonymity.
In the social media era more people are willing to talk about their recovery stories, and I think that’s a very good thing as openness about the reality of addiction can reduce shame and stigma. Movies like the documentary The Anonymous People encourage those of us with long-term sobriety to share our stories so we can empower recovering individuals and families to get access to the resources we need to survive and thrive. Grounded in that way of thinking about addiction and recovery, I now say publicly, “I’m a person in long-term recovery. For me that means I haven’t had a drink in more than nine years.” I respect the tradition of anonymity as it regards not sharing my full identity and my association with Alcoholics Anonymous in a public forum, and I also assert that the practice of anonymity in my personal recovery doesn’t mean that I keep my recovery a secret.
UU World: Why make a book about UUs in recovery?
Ken: Unitarian Universalism already has the Addictions Ministry Handbook, an excellent source about the “how to” and the “what” of addiction and recovery in congregational life. What we didn’t have was a source that brought personal storytelling and the modeling of spiritual growth together in the context of recovery. Many UU individuals, families, and communities live inside the experience of addiction and recovery. We thought it would be helpful and truthful for this book to exist. We also thought it would be a great, spiritually grounded way to introduce Unitarian Universalism to people in recovery who are looking for progressive religious community.
UU World: In the introduction, you acknowledge that some UUs have struggled with the Twelve-Step program’s God-language, and that this program may not work for everyone. How do UUs who genuinely recognize no divine power do a program like this?
Ken: It was very important for us to include voices of atheist and agnostic UUs who have made the program work for them. The truth is that many non-theists have found spiritual growth in the Twelve Steps and have made it work. I believe that a recovering person must find an approach and support structure that works for them, so if people get sober in other ways beyond the Twelve-Step approach, I fully support them. The whole point is to help addicted people get well. That can happen by a number of means, and I think that’s worthy of celebration.
I’m comfortable with God language, and I also draw upon the Buddhist practice of mindfulness as my primary spiritual discipline in my recovery. My experience of higher power is not an external being, but more like the Spirit of Life, a pervasive sense of presence that awakens love and wholeness in human life. When practiced in a way that I can affirm, the Twelve Steps are clear that your experience of the higher power is yours to discover and no one else can do that work for you. Whether god or higher power is metaphor or metaphysics, that’s the business of the individual person in recovery.
UU World: You mention seeing interconnections between Unitarian Universalism and the Twelve Steps. Where do you most see a connection between the two?
Ken: At their best, both traditions are theologically pragmatic and tolerant, emphasizing cultivation of personal and spiritual character and focusing on what helps people experience spiritual growth while accepting that we don’t have to “think alike to love alike.”
The emphasis on honesty, self-examination/inventory-taking, asking and extending forgiveness, right relationship, compassion—there are numerous crossovers. I often go to the Rev. William Ellery Channing’s sermon “The Likeness to God” and the Twelve Step injunction to “practice these principles in all our affairs” as sources that both challenge and encourage me to have my faith show up in my actions on a daily basis.
UU World: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Ken: I hope it conveys this: If you or a loved one is addicted, you’re not alone. In the rooms of AA or the sanctuaries of UU congregations, there are many others like you, people who know the same hardships and can share in the same healing. I hope it helps create more space for addicted people to ask for help within our congregations and will encourage recovering people to be fully and openly themselves within Unitarian Universalism. When the Twelve Steps and our faith are practiced and lived compassionately and collaboratively, they can heal the broken, help us bind our wounds, and return us to life as agents of the kind of committed love and caring that our world desperately needs.
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Sonja L. Cohen is deputy managing editor of UU World and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.
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