What Makes a Community Gel

By Ken Wells - 07/01/2022


Series Three: Blog Forty

I recently finished reading a fascinating book entitled The Life of Hidden Trees by Peter Wohlleben. He spent considerable time discussing the growth and development of the beech tree. He shared that the beech like many other trees thrive in community with other beech trees. Apparently, a beech tree deplores the oak tree and will expel it from its community. While the Oak can grow strong separate from the forest, it will not become a mighty Oak but will live out a wimpish short life in a grove of beech trees.

In community trees thrive and look out for each other. When a disease approaches or a destructive insect enters the tree community warning is sent out through a complicated network of mitochondria. Trees then produce a chemical reaction to ward off the dangerous intrusion. Beeches and other varieties of trees survive longest within a community or a grove that cultivates compatibility.

Recovery among addicts is like a grove of trees. Addicts flourish in an environment with other addicts. There is a kind of “mitochondria” that ignites connection from one addict to another. When one group member shares open brokenness, it triggers an energy within the room for others to be vulnerable in like kind.

Last week while driving to the airport with a group of guys someone asked me if I would share how things have been going in my recovery life. I shared about the loss of my brother who had passed away recently and some complicated heartbreaking experiences within my family of origin. Sadness and tears overcame me as I shared. While I struggled to compose myself to continue sharing, automatically all three men in the car reached out and put their hands on my shoulder and knee while one said I’m so sorry for all that has happened. Even as I think of that moment while writing this blog, tears well up. The “mitochondria” that existed among the men in that car provided support for me in that moment. This is the magic of group consciousness and vulnerability in recovery groups.

The network of connection within the context of a recovery community is fragile and requires ongoing tending and cultivation. Its growth and development are dependent upon every individual that steps into the confines of a recovery room. It doesn’t matter how smart you are about recovery principles. To the point, in a recovery room those who are smart are ones who realize how dumb they are about recovery. They are the ones who testify that their best laid plans and thoughts got them where they are with out-of-control addictive behavior. When two addicts gather and humbly share their common shared brokenness, the mitochondria (connection) in that moment is incredibly palpable. It’s what Bill W refers to when craving is overwhelming. He says in that moment he only needs another alcoholic to tell his story to and listen to that alcoholic tell theirs. It’s the connection with common brokenness shared that helps the community grow and remain vital.

Accountability is necessary in recovery community. Like other communities, when addicts gather there is a tendency to gravitate to sharing life from your head and not your heart. Most addicts learn to manage chaos by relying on their capacity to control things with their head. Group accountability holds your feet to the fire to share from your heart. It’s not how much you know but sharing from the struggle in your heart that moves others to do the same.

Groups that cultivate accountability are sensitive to members who are quiet or whose shares are guarded. When one shares looking down at the floor without making contact, group conscious is concerned about the overwhelm of shame. In groups that do feedback, other members share their experience of shame and how they learn to manage shame. When feedback is not available in group, it is helpful for members to reach out after group and share their story of fear and shame and how they learned to manage these powerful emotions.

Rote disconnected shares stifle the chemistry (mitochondria) within a group. Broken open hearted shares followed up with coffees or car chats in the parking lot cultivate community connection. Phone calls and text chains throughout the week fuel the power of healing in community. Consultation activates the need for support and follow through. Most addicts live maverick lives. Addicts act out in isolation. Recovery requires the insulation that comes from ongoing consultation with a community of recovering addicts. Particularly during the onset of recovery, if you are not consulting and depending upon group conscience and individual guidance, the odds of relapse is great. The power of community will enable you to overcome the attack of craving in the same way a grove of beech trees ward off the intrusion of disease and destructive insects.

St. John of the Cross once said that “the virtuous soul that is alone becomes like a long lone burning coal. It will grow colder rather than hotter”. Just as the beech tree requires a grove to thrive and live a long life, so too does an addict require the connection with a vital community of common shared brokenness.

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