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Old Ideas and Stories

More and more I see that getting help, being healthier, having greater joy begins with giving up an old idea.

Some old ideas:

That I can seek to regain the pleasure drinking once brought and not have problems with my health, my family, and being depressed.

That because alcohol has been the solution most of my life there are no other solutions.

That life can be richer and more joyful if I can give up the need to be in control and the illusion of control that alcohol gives.

Well, there is another old idea that is still new.

That telling and listening to stories is important.

Not just any story, but stories told in which the teller and the listener(s) participate equally, stories in which there is participation without judgment.

Of course, we know that all the great teachers (e.g. Jesus, Buddha) taught by telling stories.  The best trial lawyers all know how to really tell the story of their case to the jury.

Mr. Fred Helms was the senior partner at the firm where I first went to work in Charlotte as a young lawyer.  Mr. Helms was known for his penchant for discourse.  But in addition to his ability to harangue on and on about the law, Mr. Helms was a wonderful storyteller.

Alcoholics, roughly 10% of the population, consume 50% of the beer, wine, and distilled spirits sold in this county.  The other 90% of the population that use alcohol consume the other half.  From the active alcoholic’s perspective, the problem is not drinking but not being able to drink.  For without alcohol the irritation, the fear, the too high volume of the world will not go away.  For active alcoholics trying to prohibit alcohol is futile without also addressing the underlying disease state.  So when Prohibition came to Charlotte, as across the rest of the country, it brought to Charlotte those things that thrive with illegal activity, e.g. crime, gambling, prostitution.  Charlotte had “Cadillac Annie’s” the pride of the red light district and Basil The Owl Banghart, a mail truck robber.  Gambling was open in the form of slot machines.

Early on in his career as a lawyer, Mr. Helms was involved in civic enterprises to clean up Charlotte, and one of his stories I liked the best was about his defense of Frank Littlejohn, an unorthodox police detective, whom the federal authorities had hired in the 1920’s to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina and who eventually became Charlotte’s Chief of Police.

Because of his tendency to pay little attention to police department rules, in 1940, Littlejohn was suspended from the force.

Mr. Helms took on his case pro bono.  Along with Frank N. Kennedy and Elmer Hilker, he defended Littlejohn in an appeal of the police chief’s dismissal before the Civil Service Commission.  The hearing lasted five weeks.  Mr. Helms cross-examined the police chief alone for three days.  Mr. Helms could reminisce about the Littlejohn case with a fascination that kept me caught up in a world as real as the one I actually knew.

Mr. Helms taught me how much stories can move people.  Stories can move people out of believing their old ideas.  Whether Alcoholics Anonymous knew this or whether it simply developed as a natural part of how the twelve steps make real the principle of self honesty, there is no way of knowing.  What we do know is that it works “by honestly telling one’s story about the development of one’s alcoholism, what happened to initiate recovery, and what that recovery was like, the storyteller is able to change and to grow.  And by listening to the stories of those in recovery, the listener discovers the possibility of letting go of old ideas to allow for needed change.

David Abram’s remarkable book “The Spell of the Sensuous” presents his compelling argument of how written language has estranged the human and non-human world.  His book reminds me of the saying that every advance of science carries with it an equal loss.  For as much as we have benefited from knowledge being advanced and disseminated by the printed word (e.g. your having the chance to read this), Abram demonstrates how in the process wisdom has been lost.  While Abram is particularly concerned about how the abstraction of written language has estranged us from the non-human world around us, his basic thesis is that we are open circuits that complete only in others and in the encompassing earth.

Oral storytelling seems to be one way our circuitry gets completed as human creatures.  Practical knowledge, moral patterns, social taboos, and the very language or manner of speech of any nonwriting culture are all maintained primarily through chants, myths, and legends, that is through the telling of stories.  Abram cites examples such as that of the Apache culture where the use of agodzaahi tales is part of the community fabric.  Thus, when an Apache person offends the community by a certain act, one of his elders will, at an appropriate time perhaps a community gathering tell an appropriate agodzaahi story.  The offender will not be identified or named aloud, but the listening offender will feel the story penetrate deep beneath his skin.

While Abram emphasizes the importance of place and the non-human environment in the encompassing nature of stories, he leaves no doubt as to the importance in the human psyche of oral stories for thousands of years.

While I can tell you in writing an interesting, even entertaining, story that Mr. Helms told about Frank Littlejohn, I cannot in writing, nor can you as reader and not listener, participate within that story in quite the same way.

We are enraptured by the printed word.  I am sure there is a self-help book written that will debunk every old idea we might have.  But most of these books will never precipitate any change. Most of the time, these books will remain collections of good ideas, but not move us to discard an old idea so the space can be filled by something more life giving.

The steps that make recovery possible from a chronic disease like alcoholism are pretty simple; not easy, but simple.  To get to recovery, to let go of old ideas, often begins with stories, with beginning to participate as a listener in the stories of those who have traveled your path; and, eventually sharing your story with others who may have no other way to break free of their old ideas.  A pretty simple idea telling and listening to stories.  But a simple process, wired into our brains for thousands of years, that offers an experience of understanding, an experience of wisdom, an experience of whom and what we are the opportunity for enough clarity and honesty that no matter what we are caught in, we can become willing to change.

– by Don Carroll

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