Death, A.A., and the Power of Community
Updated: Nov 27
Hank Azaria, the actor behind many voices on The Simpsons, and other roles, knew he had a problem with alcohol. His friend Matthew Perry offered to take him to an AA meeting. Mr. Azaria found God and sobriety at that meeting, and his insights into how that happened can be used by leaders to help the public overcome its addiction to toxically polarized politics.
Let me explain.
Imagine a city resident, Megan, who spends hours a day on social media; she loves to hate the incompetence of leaders and the idiocy of other people. Deep down, however, she worries that American society is so irreparably polarized that the American experiment might actually fail.
Megan wants to become an active, hopeful citizen. She has read David Pepper's book on how citizens can save democracy, as well as Peter Block's books about working toward the common good rather than worshipping consumerism. She is inspired to go to a public meeting about setting the city budget. Her experience was not positive.
Back to Mr. Azaria…when he stepped into his first AA meeting with Mathew Perry: "He knew the look on my face, daunted. Beyond daunted: demoralized. It's very hard to imagine how going into a room like that is somehow going to make you want to stop drinking … or feel better." Megan had a similar feeling when she walked into the city council’s chambers. She saw nearly 100 angry faces and a lonely microphone up front. She heard dozens of angry residents proclaim their issues as THE most important – pitting after-school recreation programs, increased police patrols, and longer health center hours against each other in a winner-takes-all frenzy of self-interest. Megan thinks to herself, "I’m never attending a public meeting again.”
This is where Mr. Azaria’s AA experience diverges dramatically from Megan’s city budget hearing. As Mr. Perry told Mr. Azaria, alcoholics tend to feel they are alone in their addiction -- but when they go into a room and share what's upsetting them, and then hear from others that they are not alone, the "terrible things they face become their greatest strength, as they connect us with others."
Unfortunately, typical public meetings polarize us because they aren't designed for building the connection or common purpose shared by AA members. Instead, they polarize us by turning everyone into a caricature: the angry resident, incompetent government official, corrupt politician, or idiot on the other side. We all become enemies.
But we can design our public meetings to use our "seemingly pointless suffering" to make, as Mr. Azaria says, "a tremendous point." By simply putting people in small groups and asking them to tell a story – a lived experience – about why something matters to them, we immediately understand that personal suffering drives all acts of public incivility. I design conversations like this for a living, but I’ve also experienced how hearing someone else’s story – and sharing my own – can completely change how I feel and consequently work with them to make a decision.
Let’s start with the initial stages of my recovery from alcoholism, when for the first time I truly shared my own “terrible thing” with fellow alcoholics. Actually, many things, from the tragic impact on my family to embarrassing behavior with friends. When my sponsor and then a group of strangers heard my stories without judgment and felt my pain with empathy, I was released from years of shame. I learned to talk about what mattered to me without fear and became far less defensive when criticized. The acceptance and empathy of other alcoholics also helped me learn to listen with my heart and to let go of my judgments of others.
Members of the public, especially those like Megan with enough pain and passion to show up at a city budget meeting, need to feel safe enough to share their stories. That doesn’t happen standing at a microphone under a dais of elected officials in a room full of antagonists. But it will happen if we put them into small groups and ask them to share their story.
I got to participate in this kind of conversation about setting a city budget, one I designed but had a friend facilitate. When each person offered their top budget priority, they shared a story about why that issue mattered to them. Coming into the room, I had very strong feelings about cutting the police budget because it hadn’t been reduced in 20 years, while all other departments were cut significantly. When a mother of three grade-schoolers wanted to increase the police budget, I was flabbergasted. But then she told a story about how every evening she drove her minivan through her neighborhood to patrol the crime hot spots the police had requested help with at her neighborhood council meeting. Patrol cars were just too busy to sit and watch these corners, so this MOM volunteered to help out.
Now I understood the issue, which wasn’t just about crime prevention data or budget utility scores, but what really mattered to people – how this mother saw the sidewalks where her children walked to school, and the everyday efforts it took to create the community she wanted. I realized then what Mr. Azaria discovered at an AA meeting: that saying out loud what matters helps us realize that we need each other. After hearing her story, I knew that I needed this mom and people like her. We got to talking with the others in our group, and quickly found compromise that would increase police patrols while adding after-school recreation programs for youth by finding money in other areas (which our collective stories helped identify).
A common theme of all of the obituaries about Matthew Perry was his humanity, his profound understanding of his own flaws and those of others, which gave him a lot of compassion. We need to bring compassion back to our public conversation, and leaders can do this if they remember that we need to know each other’s stories before we debate, that we need to lean on each other before we start walking toward a solution.
Mr. Perry wanted to be known as someone who helped other people recover from addiction. As he said to Mr. Azaria as they walked into that first AA meeting together, "It's something isn't it? God is a bunch of drunks together in a room."
Maybe the legacy of this generation of public leaders is that they help our society recover from its addiction to public outrage and self-inflicted alienation. If they used small group story-telling, the public would put aside its anger, see their common pain, and our democracy might not only recover but thrive.