Tell Us Your Story—You Are Not Alone

by Killian Noe, Cofounder of Recovery Café Network

I am passionate about ancient civilizations and, more specifically, about the sacred texts that emerged from those civilizations. I am especially passionate about the Perennial Philosophy which posits that many religious traditions share many of the same universal truths.

That’s what took me to divinity school in the 80’s. And every now and then, when I am asked to address specific topics like good stewardship or strategic planning, I pull a bait and switch and talk about the perennial philosophy or universal truths instead.

I love the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hebrew scriptures.

I love the Nag Hammadi texts which were discovered in stone jars in Egypt in 1945 that include my favorite, The Gospel of Thomas—which as you may know did not make it into the New Testament.

And although it’s not as ancient, I absolutely love the poetry of Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi.

A Recovery Circle at Recovery Café DC in Washington, DC

An Ancient Ritual in Jerusalem’s Temple

But today I would like to highlight a universal truth from a third century text found in the Mishna—or the collection of oral traditions sometimes referred to as the oral Torah. (I want to thank Rabbi Sharon Brous whose book The Amen Effect sheds light on this text.)

During the third century there was a practice of making a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. As you would arrive at the Temple Mount, you would turn to your right or to your left and continue walking along the perimeter of the huge plaza.

If you were having a pretty good year and in pretty good shape emotionally, physically, and economically, you would turn to your right. If you were in the grip of grief or suffering you would turn to the left.

As they walked, those who had turned to the right would encounter head-on those who had turned to the left. Face to face, looking them in the eyes, they would ask, “What happened? Tell me your story.” After listening, they would offer them a blessing, saying, “You are not alone,” and continue walking until they came to the next person. Then they would repeat the same ritual, asking, “What happened? Tell me your story.” After receiving the story, again, the same blessing: “You are not alone.”

A Recovery Circle at SHINE Recovery Café in Griffith, Indiana

A Modern-day Ritual in Recovery Cafés

This ritual is repeated hundreds of times a day in all of our Recovery Cafés—especially in our Recovery Circles. People show up so gripped by loss they are barely able to breathe and those in their Circle ask, “What happened? Tell us your story.” By listening with their whole hearts, the other members of the Recovery Circle communicate, “You are not alone.”

Sometimes the following blessing comes in the form of information about where to get on a list for housing, or how to receive a free pair of glasses. Often the blessing is an offer to accompany them to a difficult medical appointment or a court hearing.

Always, it is an experience that breaks isolation. We were created for community. Whether we turned to the right or turned to the left to begin our walk around the temple plaza, isolation kills us all. For those who turn to the right, hearing the stories of suffering and loss enlarges our hearts and creates in us a greater capacity for love and compassion. It reminds us of the oneness of the human family and that, even though we may have turned to the right during this pilgrimage, next time it may be us turning to the left.

The deadly isolation of those who turned to the left is broken through the telling of stories and by the experience of being deeply known and loved.

A recovery coach training at Jefferson County Recovery Café
in Port Townsend, Washington

Loosening Tribalism, Healing Trauma

The group who turned to the right is saved from tribalism—from only understanding the realities and views of those like us, those in our small circle of family and friends. The group who turned to the left is saved from trauma that has been stuffed so deep and for so long that it only surfaces in ways that destroy us. My favorite line from the gospel of Thomas says it like this: “If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you.”

Recovery Café’s mission is to hold space where all can be healed from both tribalism and trauma.

By the way, although socioeconomic inequality plays a huge role in whether one would turn to the right or to the left, life brings us all suffering and loss. One volunteer at Recovery Café who is a physician lost her former husband and two daughters in an Alaska Airlines crash. She would have turned to the left in this ritual—year after year, for the past many years.

I could go on about how all of us are in need of healing and all of us are recovering from something and all of us—on any given day, month, or year—would be in the group turning to the left. But I want to share one other part of this third century ritual which takes my breath away.

Welcoming the Ostracized

The text reveals that there was another group invited to make pilgrimages to the temple: the ostracized or the excommunicated. The punishment of ostracization was used sparingly in ancient times. It was a temporary punishment given only to those whose behaviors ripped the social fabric. And yet the ostracized were invited to make pilgrimage to the temple, to turn to the left, to look other members of their human family directly in the eyes, to tell their stories and to receive the blessing of hearing that they are not alone.

This, too, is at the heart of the mission of Recovery Café. Unlike in ancient times, in our culture ostracization is quite common. Recovery Cafés welcome those who are ignored and despised because they are experiencing the results of trauma, like homelessness, addiction, other mental health challenges, and re-entry after incarceration and says to them, “Tell us your story. You are not alone.”

Killian Noe cofounded Recovery Café in Seattle, which opened in 2004. The Recovery Café Network was established in 2016 to support those who felt called to establish Recovery Cafés in their own communities. There are now 63 Cafés across the country and in Canada. Read the full story, and be inspired, by Killian’s book Descent into Love: How Recovery Café Came to Be.