Wealth is Measured in Relationships
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
By John Richards
One of the experiences that has most influenced my work happened several years ago when I was invited by a friend to Alcoholics Anonymous.
It is an organisation that he has been involved in as a member and as a sponsor in several countries, and though I had always wanted to go, I had never had the courage or opportunity.
I was intrigued, because I have spent my working life trying to build and develop therapeutic communities to provide people with a safe context in which to face issues, change and grow. Consequently, I have studied a lot about AA and remember being moved by a particularly compelling description of a meeting by one of my favourite writers in which he was affected deeply by the mutual dependence of the members.
As the group convened, the confidentiality rules and format were explained to me and my friend told his fascinating story of childhood hurt and alienation, his steady descent into anxiety, drugs and then prison, violence, alcoholism and then gradually, the beginnings of recovery and a slow and purposed walk of healing and change via the 12 steps.
As he finished and the group thanked him, others began to quietly contribute from their own lives and experiences. As different people spoke in that little backroom I was struck by both the unity of diverse people and the feeling of complete safety conveyed by the group, making it possible for one another to share with honesty and openness.
Individuals of all ages, from several countries, at all stages and every possible walk of life talked nakedly, freely, humbly; about their own struggles, daily need for change and their sincere hope for healing and Redemption.
For the next hour, I hunched increasingly lower in my plastic chair biting my knuckle so that I wouldn’t cry, as story after story after story acknowledged the teller's brokenness and then desire for real change and complete dependence on the little community for daily progress and survival. I found to my surprise that the increasingly overwhelming emotion that I was feeling was longing, coupled with the frustration and sadness that the profoundly freeing principles I was seeing so simply displayed were distinctly lacking in many of the therapeutic and supportive contexts I had been involved in.
More than ever they seem overwhelmingly absent in our so-called ‘connected’ society. I fear that that they may lack even more in our families and in our closest relationships.
Over the course of the next few days I thought endlessly about what I had witnessed. I felt somehow that I couldn’t let this experience go, that I had to do something.
As I thought and agonised, I realised that ultimately, the only way to respond to what I had seen was to somehow try to start a community myself that might replicate the safety and reality of AA. I wondered if it might be possible to find a way to learn and to follow the 12 steps of recovery; whatever an individuals circumstances, in a context of complete openness, honesty and mutual dependence.
I hoped that a group might form and experiment with a traditional AA format: 30 minutes of catch up, a 30 minute talk by one member and then 30 minutes of discussion. As I began to contact friends to describe the idea, I found to my amazement and relief that the response was immediate and overwhelming and nearly everyone I tentatively approached wanted to do all they could to be involved.
A week later, a little core of 4 of us met and considered the right venue and a few evenings later we gathered, nervous, not really knowing what we had let ourselves in for as we sat around drinking coffee.
The group was made up of a real diversity; ten or so individuals from a great range of backgrounds, all walks of life with differing affiliations, family situations, experiences and yet the shared desire and hope and commitment for openness, community and a shared pursuit of progress.
We discussed four principles that we felt should be central to what we were doing; foundations that I think must apply to any attempt at building a safe context of reflection and community:
Confidentiality; all that was shared in the group would stay in the group and not be shared outside of it.
Acceptance; we were here to establish a context in which one another's thoughts, struggles, dilemmas and personalities could and would be accepted and valued regardless of our understanding and agreement. We would seek to maintain unity and encourage and nurture one another at all costs.
Non-Disclosure; Though we wanted a context in which people felt they could pour out their hearts and share their deepest struggles, such disclosure was not a requirement for membership and it was fine just to be there and to listen; no-one would be pressured or expected to share unless they felt completely comfortable to do so.
Support; we aimed and hoped to be able to support one another and establish a shared interdependence; if someone expressed a need, concern or hurt with which they were struggling, then the group and the other individuals would hope and desire to support that person without setting conditions or demands.
Without going into detail I can simply say that to all of our surprise, the floodgates were blown open that first night. I had wondered if openness and trust might take several months, but almost immediately and without any hint of invitation, intensely moving and personal stories of suffering, struggles, progress, hope and victory were shared and listened to, tears were shed between us and the birth of a little community took place.
We went far beyond the allotted time and finally I remember that someone spoke up and said in a voice thick with emotion that he had traveled the world and waited 28 years for a group such as this. We sat quietly for a few moments, and then hugged and left, surprised and hopeful about what might be to come.
Many years on, I look back on the incredible journey that started that night between us as we met weekly for several years thereafter; intertwining our lives with a regularity and commitment that deeply affected us all.
A small amount of peripheral members came and went, but the core of us remained steadfast on a committed journey of mutual inter-dependence.
We argued, laughed and wept together. We supported one another through that which life will most certainly bring: the births of children, bereavement, illness, relationship struggles and career and parenting challenges of every kind.
We made some naive mistakes.
Sometimes things were an enormous struggle and we should have been more aware of so much that we later learnt and are still learning about the nature of community.
Tragically, one of our founding members who had been suffering from severe depression and anxiety took his own life and we struggled with guilt and mourned his death, carrying one another through the great loss.
We also celebrated many joys and triumphs as we struggled forward as a group. We were privileged to see incredible growth and healing in so many of our situations and families.
More than anything, we grew and changed and learnt to share our failures and our successes as a community, rather than living simply as individuals.
We learnt to face life with one another; and to overcome together.
Finally, after several years, people moved away, got married, different jobs; circumstances changed and the 30/30/30 community naturally drew to an end. Although 3 of us still meet regularly, our lives in the wider group eventually grew outwards and that particular ‘season’ has now passed.
But the shared story of our group has had a considerable effect on me and informed all of the work that I have done since.
I continue to work therapeutically with a wide range of people, whether in a business context, directing awareness and development, or in the homeless projects that I oversee for vulnerable young teenagers.
I have experienced so very many days in which I might support a 16 year old struggling with the the anxieties and challenges of caring for her newborn baby in the morning, and then in the afternoon discuss the stresses of international sales with a business director.
And more and more, I see that in our diverse human family, regardless of our material situation, our most fundamental psychological needs are invariably, just the same.
Whoever we are, as people, parents and leaders we face the most complex and overwhelming array of conflicting priorities, anxieties, stresses and challenges to balance and overcome in the relentless pressure of our modern lives.
Whatever our circumstances, what we seem to lack most is a safe place in which we can think upon, consider and maybe share the deep questions - that which we are really feeling and struggling with.
Perhaps more than anything else in our busy and complicated lives, we need somewhere in which we can rest and think; where we know that we will simply be listened to and treated with gentleness and respect.
Through experiences of inspiring success and also of failure, I have spent my working life trying to provide such a refuge for people, whether it be with a group of business leaders directing reflective practice, or in a safe house for those from abusive backgrounds.
I still believe that no other place will give us the opportunity to do that which is most crucial: to think, reflect and then to invest in ourselves.
Nothing else brings progress or change.
(extract from 'Deeper')
John Richards is an experienced business retreat facilitator, personal growth expert, author of 'Deeper', and director of AwarenessChange.com.
He is a founding director of The Inspiration Programme.
Together with his co-directors Neil Laughton and Angus Wingfield, he leads adventure retreats in places around the world as diverse as Mount Everest and wild South Africa.