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NA, AA & Existentialists.

This weekend I was invited to attend an NA open meeting in East London as a psychotherapist. I sat and listened to the gritty realism of the shares and was struck by the contrast between the ‘powerlessness’ of the fellows and the existential position I inhabit in the NHS. In my position for the NHS I work in a protocol which outlines a client’s sense of freedom, choice and agency in managing their own struggles. This sense of agency seemed in direct contrast with a popular NA prayer called

‘The powerlessness Prayer’, which reads;

‘God, I admit my powerlessness and the unmanageability of my life. Help me live with others as an equal, dependent upon you for direction and strength.’

From an existential position the philosopher Kierkegaard’s argues that life is a series of choices – and that these choices bring meaning (or not) to our life. Rather than offloading the responsibility onto society or religion, each individual is solely responsible for making their life meaningful and living it authentically.

As I sit here and hold these two opposing views I can’t help but wonder whether we really do have the choices that Kierkegaard suggests. Perhaps we do have some choices but that depends on where we were born, how wealthy we are and how much adversity we have faced. I’m reminded of being a teen and feeling I have very little choice of my next step in life. Warehouse, the dole queue or wrong-doings. Yes I had a choice but but not much that I could see. It wasn't until much later during a troubled time where a bereavement counsellor asked me ‘what do you want to do?’. It had never occurred to me that I had options this open. Subsequently I find myself in the lucky position of having choices which continually grow. As I reflect on the fellows and the shares in the meeting I’m struck at their limitation of practical choices. Choices between paying the rent or buying their kid a birthday present. Yes, some are lucky to have those choices between a travel year or going to uni but the fellows in that meeting were existing at a far more foundational level and it resonated with my own experience growing up. I agree that we need to make choices and assert agency to develop ourselves, but as a therapist I have to hold Kierkegaard’s ethos lightly when faced with the degree of which this differs in the varying classes. Maybe this is postmodernism’s dilemma of holding many truths!

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