Bill White on “Symbolic Firsts”

hopeBill White had a very interesting post a while back on the concept of “symbolic firsts” and how it relates to recovery advocacy and recovery initiation.

The concept is based on the idea that:

. . . the pioneering achievement of a single individual from a historically marginalized group affects the self-identity, aspirations, and performance of other members of that group as well as culturally dominant attitudes toward members of that group (e.g., the effects of Barack Obama’s 2008 election on the academic performance of African American children and attitudes toward African Americans).

This reminded me of an interview I heard on the radio and a previous post on the concept of “the adjacent possible”.

During the interview he discussed the concept of the adjacent possible and it’s importance in forming new ideas. During the interview, he described it as the building blocks of new ideas. Without the right building blocks, any innovation is not possible. He described it another way in a WSJ article:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.

During the interview, he pointed out that it doesn’t matter how smart one is, it was not possible to invent a microwave in 1650, because the building blocks, the adjacent possible, just wasn’t there.

One factor is that the physical building blocks did not exist. The other factor is that the imaginative/inspiration building blocks did not exist.

Bill links the concept to hope and recovery initiation:

Symbolic firsts in recovery stand as a living invitation for individuals, families, and communities affected by addiction and a source of motivation and guidance for those seeking and living in recovery. Through their achievements, symbolic firsts expand the roles and community spaces in which people seeking and in recovery can envision themselves.  Symbolic firsts in recovery diminish the community cues conveying that people in recovery do not belong in particular positions or places. They offer living proof of what can be achieved in recovery and the principles and strategies of how such achievements have been and can be made in the context of recovery.

But Bill doesn’t stop there. He calls on those us us in stable recovery to out ourselves to reduce stigma, inspire hope and make the adjacent possible known.

Symbolic firsts in recovery achieve such status by acts of destruction (tearing down historical barriers of exclusion and their supporting machinery) and acts of creation (forging new niches and styles through which people in recovery can personally excel and socially achieve and contribute).

Symbolic firsts in recovery eschew “passing” (hiding concealable stigma for personal advantage) to achieve a higher social goal–even in the face of personal challenges and socially-imposed limits on opportunities that can potentially flow from this decision.  Symbolic firsts face extremes of experience different in nature and intensity than others who will subsequently fill the space that the trailblazers created. As a result, symbolic firsts in recovery need the full support of communities of recovery.