It’s Always Messy

It’s Always Messy

The Serenity Journals
Shalvah means Serenity, Support for Recovery

It’s happened a few times but always de-stabilizing. Someone comes to the meeting drunk, smelling like drink anyway and acting strange, I assume drunk. As do several others around the table. We are all authorities on drunkenness, as it were.

Still we say it out loud and clearly in our opening: the only requirement for participation is willingness. If they are present, we assume willingness. Generally no one says anything, unless there’s a disturbance.

Generally there is a disturbance. It’s alcoholism or addiction or substance abuse or mental illness, whatever it’s called it’s always messy. It is always messy. So someone came to the meeting smelling of alcohol. She cried, teary through the lead, and punctuating the speaker’s words with her own grunts and acknowledgments. It was uncomfortable but no one said anything. The woman sitting next to her passed her some Kleenex.

She was, of course, one of the first to speak in the sharing. She gave a lecture. Entirely theoretical against defining a human being in any way other than beautiful, I am not my problem, etc. We all get this, of course, but we let her go on with the theoretical part of the meeting.

There is no theoretical part of these meetings. We are always speaking about our own experience and what we have learned from the poetry of our own lives. We never talk theory.

I was reminded of Dr. P of blessed memory, our beloved teacher of theology in rabbinical school. He was a great theologian. Once early on in our training, he said this, something I didn’t really understand at the time but I remember specifically him saying it at the beginning: theology is story telling for adults.

I get now what he meant. We are not talking theory about Godliness or the nature of God or even the nature of human beings, we are basically talking about how it feels for us to be in the world, what the nature of existence feels like to us. Is it God-full? Is it fear-full? Is it in need of repair? What does it require of us to lead an authentic existence? What to do? In the daily sense, the every day all day of getting up and getting on with it. It is so non-theoretical, as in this theology my friend posted this morning off a wall in a coffee house:

Wake up.

Kick ass.


That’s a theology. I think in all my years doing this work, no one has come to me with a traditionally theological question. It’s always this: is it safe? Existence. Is it meaningful? How? How to make meaning when I lose the sense of meaning. Is it God-full? God hidden? How to coax God out of the hiding places. How to interpret the hiding places, how to read the texts of our own lives. So non-theoretical: how to live.

I didn’t say all that. I thought it.

After the meeting, the woman who was melting couldn’t find her car. Some of us didn’t think it was such a good idea for her to drive and I might have not told her where her car was if I knew her name or how to get in touch with someone, but she found it and whoosh – she was away.

I had given her my phone number and I really hope she calls me. I think she is in danger.

Maybe the hardest part of the night was the two new people who came, young girls, in their Twenties both of them. It couldn’t have been easy for them to come to that room, it’s a big vulnerability to walk in for the first time. But they did. And they saw. I talked to them afterwards and I think they’ll come back.

What I’ve learned: the mess of that meeting that night, the source of it, she may be making mess everywhere in her life and maybe for years like plowing a wake through the waters of existence, this may be her way and she could do that a long time. Until it’s enough. When it’s enough — God only knows.


She called the next day, The ship of her life has plowed enough water. She asked: Was I inappropriate? I don’t know the protocol.

The protocol is simple, I said, we read it at the beginning of every meeting. I will make a suggestion. Come and listen. Listen first, talk later. Listen for a month. I have found that we learn first the art of listening. Then we learn the art of talking.

I’ll be there, she said. She hasn’t been back. She calls every now and again.

From What To Do Active Mental Health

From What To Do

And then sometimes he went only within. He didn’t go outside, he went inside and maybe you have to have been there, you have to have gone into a darkness within, if you have spent some time there you know that when you visit there, even briefly, something can happen. It’s not a well understood place and it’s not well lit, the overwhelming sense of futility and pain and helplessness, this least understood part of the most private world of especially sensitive people, you understand that to have been there you might not come back so easily.

You may not come back at all.

Sometimes even with help, family, friends, a community, you may not touch that darkness, sometimes it is something that cannot be penetrated and not easily dissipated and you understand that but that’s the way it is. It happens.

And for those of us who do understand, we have to start telling people what it’s like, help other people understand, let everyone know so we can treat each other with kindness, above all, kindness and gentleness and understanding and respect and without judgment, without judgment for these problems, and be easy on ourselves for not knowing for not having known for having done this or not done that, we have to treat ourselves with kindness and with mercy because it’s right and we need to heal. And we will only heal with mercy.


My wife Susan Talve and I have organized a series we call Shanda: There is None. We are devoted to lifting the shame curtain that surrounds these under-discussed subjects. All are meetings are open meetings, each one a series of teachings and talk. I wrote a pledge and I took it:

1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.
2) I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them. There is no one outside who cannot be brought within.
3) We can live with our problems.
4) I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:
5) Talk, talk, and more talk.
6) I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:
7) I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.

*Shanda* means shame. There is none.

I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; it’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help and relief.

Let’s get to work. Tell your leadership and your intimates and your trust-worthies that we are suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community.

I think it’s the next frontier: the inner world when it goes dark.


On Suicide, from a longer piece

From Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects

In the group that I lead on Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) we are familiar with the subject of suicide and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand each other – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at the table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily.

I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.

We don’t have an antidote. We have each other. I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have today, and that becomes enough.

james stone goodman, rabbi, human being