Anonymity and Healing

Writing for Real Clear Religion, author Mark Judge observes:

Somebody needs to stage an intervention on Bob Beckel. The man needs to stop taking about being a drunk.

Beckel is a Democratic operative who now co-stars on The Five, the popular Fox television show. The Five has five stars — Beckel, Greg Gutfeld, Dana Perino, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Eric Bolling. The show has received good reviews — even from the New York Times — and it’s not hard to see why. It has an easy flow, the hosts are telegenic, and spontaneous things often happen.

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There’s only one factor dragging things down — Bob Beckel’s relentless, unceasing, OCD-style references to being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It’s hard to get through a show without Beckel declaring his membership in the world’s largest recovery group. It seems that whatever the topic, from Barack Obama to Robert Downey to farting house cats, Beckel manages to make it about his struggle with demon rum. There are several reason why this is off-putting and wrong.

But first, some full disclosure. I myself used to be a Beckel. I drank too much when I was younger, got in trouble for it, and had to get help to stop, which I did many many years (decades) ago. When you manage to pull through something like that, there’s a sense of evangelical euphoria. You want people to know that you lived. That you’ve found joy. That you believe in God. And boy, did I. I publicly wrote and talked about being sober. Like Beckel, I told stories about myself from the bad old days. I had a big mouth, not unlike today — although I like to think I’ve mellowed a bit.

But then something happened. The program I was in worked so well that I not only stopped thinking about drinking, I stopped wanting to talk about it. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the founders of AA, had emphasized in their writings that the point of recovery was to get back into the world. I had gotten back. And I didn’t want to relive the past.

It was at that point that I realized the true value of anonymity. It’s not as much about the shame of alcoholism, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but about living a spiritual and virtuous life that doesn’t put our own interests and suffering above other people. One of the great things about being sober for a long time was the realization that I wan’t any different from other people — that everyone has problems and ways of overcoming suffering.

In 1946, A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson wrote: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.”

In broadcasting my recovery in public and in print, I was not being humble. I was also, paradoxically, hurting my own health. I still remember the day years ago when I realized that I didn’t want a drink, hadn’t wanted a drink in months, and had no desire to talk about any of it.

Judge’s observation may offer a break-through for Bob Beckel and an improvement to the dialogue on The Five. But he also captures an important dimension of spiritual growth: It is important to move on.

In our therapeutic age that’s not always as clear as it should be.  We revel in our brokenness, drag our therapists through endless “yes, buts,” and we turn our brokenness into a virtue.

One of my colleagues observed before he retired from teaching seminary, “I’m too old for this.  One of my students came into my office this morning announcing, ‘I’m taking your class this next semester and there are certain things you need to know about me.’”

“’I thought to myself,’ he said, ‘No I don’t, I really don’t want to know that much about you.’”

This is not to say that public confession and witness is not important.  It is important to talk about our brokenness, our struggles, and our failures.  Until we admit those struggles we can’t begin to heal.  In the absence of such confessions, others might never find their way.  But confession is not an end in and of itself.

There is also a time to hear the words, “Take up your bed and walk.”  Not the words, “Lie here and rehearse the past.”  Not “Lie here and invite sympathy.”  Not “Lie here and make a virtue of brokenness.”  Hear the words, “Take up your bed and walk.”

Spiritual growth requires us to be vulnerable and honest about our failings,  but it is not a celebration of brokenness.  Spiritual direction is devoted to the nurture of healing.  And those who search for healing need to embrace the anonymity of those who are healed and who serve.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.