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Changing the Water

Changing the Water

On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace opened his commencement address at Kenyon College with the following story.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning,  boys.  How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Each of us swims in a near-invisible cultural stew of words, ideas, attitudes, images, and sounds that constitute the personal stage upon which the actions of our daily lives unfold. These near-invisible contextual elements of our lives are so deeply imbedded that they rarely if ever enter our conscious awareness. Yet, they exert a profound influence on how we view ourselves and our relationship with the world. They bestow or deny personal value, convey our degree of safety and vulnerability, and impregnate us with hope or hopelessness.

The shared “water” that Wallace refers to includes cultural attitudes towards addiction and addiction recovery. Recovery advocates have long known that these cultural waters can nourish or extinguish efforts to prevent or resolve alcohol and other drug problems. When we talk about the role social stigma plays in inhibiting help-seeking and preventing the integration of people in recovery into community life, it is these waters of which we speak.  

Those of us who start out helping people resolve these problems at an intrapersonal level often reach an “Ah Ha” moment in which they see the larger challenge before them. In a breakthrough of insight, we face two essential and linked dilemmas. First, there is the awareness of being at the end of an assembly line spewing out broken souls at an ever-increasing pace and the realization that, in spite of our service to individuals, we are doing nothing to slow this machinery of personal destruction. Second is the awareness that people are seeking to initiate and maintain recovery within communities that offer little if any physical, psychological, or cultural space within which recovery can flourish and which, in fact, impede recovery initiation and maintenance efforts. Those of us seeking to heal the broken person are often initially blind to the power arrangements that inflict such wounds and impose such obstacles to healing. The water within which helper and helpee both swim must become visible if a larger healing is to occur.    

As David Foster Wallace suggests, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” As we get inevitably caught up in the daily details of this or that recovery advocacy or support activity, we must not lose sight of the fact that what we are ultimately trying to do is change the nature of the water within which we are all swimming. Today we bind the individual wounds; tomorrow we will transform our communities into sanctuaries in which such wounds become increasingly rare. Within the Wellbriety movement, this transformed community is understood as a “Healing Forest.”

In the Red Road to Wellbriety, the individual, family, and community are not separate; they are one. To injure one it to injure all; to heal one is to heal all. –The Red Road to Wellbriety

 That is a vision of community recovery  we must not lose. 

William (“Bill”) White

Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health System

Recovery Historian

Read all of Bill White's Blog Posts on his website here www.williamwhitepapers.com