Spirituality of Imperfection through Personal Storytelling Thrives in both AA and Toastmasters

You’ll find little of what follows that hasn’t already appeared in this space. The following is the text of a speech I gave last week in Toastmasters. My assignment was to explain an abstract concept. I chose “the spirituality of imperfection,” which I’ve written about here a number of times. I wove a bit of my personal story into it, something I’ve also written about here. A new addition had to do with Toastmasters itself and how it is a safe place to tell personal stories.

By the way, one of the books I’ve most enjoyed over the last year is Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s memoir. Roger tells his personal story of his alcoholism in this terrific blog post.

My name is Kathy, and I’m an alcoholic.

If I were at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, that’s what I would say. I haven’t had a drink in 29 years, but I am still an alcoholic because if I ever took a drink again, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

I was inspired to tell a bit of my story after [a member] mentioned during Table Topics that he is in recovery. [Member’s name] told me that he was planning to start a 12-step group here at this church because he feels it’s important to tell his story so he can help others. Later, [another member] spoke about her experience with a 12-step program.

Thus, my peer Toastmasters and honored guests, I want to share with you how important stories are for sharing our common humanity and imperfections.

A few years ago, I was drawn to this book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, partly because of my own experience with addiction and partly because of my passion for storytelling and the book’s subtitle, “Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.” The book explains why personal storytelling is at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

“In the mirror of another’s story,” the book says, “we can discover our tragedy and our comedy — and therefore our very human-ness.”

My tragedy was that I spent 10 years of my life drinking — from age 18 to age 28. I did many things I’m not proud of, including blacking out and waking up with no memory of what happened in the preceding hours. Back then, I could not imagine participating in a social event without the lubrication of alcohol. A cousin once told me, “You don’t bother to have a personality unless you’re drunk.”

After I quit, dealing with my shyness in social situations was extremely difficult, and is to this day. But I would never go back because my life is unimaginably better without alcohol.

Let me share with you a passage from The Spirituality of Imperfection that explains how sharing stories helps others:

The stories that sustain a spirituality of imperfection are wisdom stories. They follow a temporal format, describing “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” Such stories, however, can do more: The sequential format makes it possible for other people’s stories to become part of “my” story. Sometimes, for example, hearing another person’s story can occasion profound change.

This format, the books says, of describing of “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now” shapes a language of recovery that acts as the key that opens the door to experiences that are spirituality.

It may not be easy to understand how this story-sharing is spiritual. The Spirituality of Imperfection notes that the great spiritual leaders told stories that invited identification. If you look at the parables of Jesus, for example, they are all stories that his followers could identify with, could see themselves in — The Sower and the Seeds, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan. As The Spirituality of Imperfection states, great spiritual leaders have understood that “the best way to help me find my story is to tell me your story.”

When I first moved to this area, I knew I needed a social outlet. I narrowed my choices down to Alcoholics Anonymous or Toastmasters. You know which one I chose.

But A.A. and Toastmasters have some similarities. They are both safe and supportive environments in which people can share their stories without fear of being judged or ridiculed. Just a few weeks ago, [a member] commented on we show our vulnerabilities here. Of course, we communicate in lots of ways beyond telling stories here in Toastmasters — but we all know we can tell our stories here.

How many times have you told a story about yourself in a speech or Table Topics and had someone come up to you afterwards and tell you that he or she had the same experience you shared in your story?

Because we are imperfect creatures with flaws and limitations, we take comfort in the imperfections, flaws, and limitations of others.

How many times have you seen a member become emotional — get choked up — while telling his or her story? In telling our stories, we are not only describing the spiritual realities of Release, Gratitude, Humility, Tolerance, Forgiveness — we are experiencing those emotions.

Let me close with an excerpt from a review of The Spirituality of Imperfection by a blogger named Jennifer:

It is through the telling of stories of hardship and pain, shame and doubt, joy and strength, experience and hope that we connect with each other and find a shared spirituality that accepts us all as okay, as imperfect. We learn and grow from our shared imperfections. These very imperfections are what enhances our spirituality, our connectedness, so that we are better, stronger as a result. It is not just through our flaws that we grow strong, but in shared imperfections — a sharing that occurs through the telling of our stories.

That connectedness — with each other and with our Creator — my friends, is the spirituality of imperfection.

Thank you.