Take it out of the box, and you can easily snap it. Just a bit of pressure with your fingers causes it to splinter in two.
Now think of a whole box of toothpicks. Take all the toothpicks out at once and try to break them together. It’s almost impossible.
I heard the toothpick story long ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. One reason is that what’s true for toothpicks also is true for people. When we step up to help each other and work in community, we grow stronger. When we don’t, we’re much more vulnerable to breaking.
We see the toothpick theory at work every day at the Duluth Bethel. When people come to us facing drug abuse and alcoholism, or if they have run afoul of the criminal justice system, they usually are in danger of breaking. Some may have already started the process.
What we do in recovery and community corrections is place resources around them. Drug-abuse counselors. Probation officers. Medical professionals. Mental-health experts. Employers. Police and public safety officials. Prosecutors. Public defenders. And, of course, family and friends. All step up like those other toothpicks. They surround the struggling person and find ways to support him or her, with advice, strategies, tactics, a job, encouragement, hope and love.
When we do this, and when the person at the center is willing to accept help, we almost always see positive outcomes. But when we fail to do this or when the person refuses to accept assistance, we often see breakdowns. Those take the form of relapse, recidivism—and sometimes even death.
In our community, we are fortunate to have many options for those struggling with substance use disorder and criminal behavior. We have strong treatment centers offering sober solutions to drug abuse and alcoholism. We also have a law-enforcement system that sees the benefit of tailored programs such as drug court, which understand better the specifics of situations that often run people afoul of the law. These tailored systems can provided tailored resources instead of one-size-fits-all options, including jail or prison, which alone might not fully fix the problem.
Sometimes, people look at these helping tools and see something quite different. They wonder why we need to provide assistance to those struggling with substance abuse and criminal behavior, urging instead that we place a stronger value on personal responsibility.
No argument here on the need for responsibility. But for those struggling, it doesn’t happen automatically. If it did, they likely would not be in the difficult situations in which they find themselves. They need help to recognize their errors and to see the value of sober, lawful living. With some help, they are much more able to grasp and embrace the important message about personal responsibility.
I have a friend who likes to put it this way: “Don’t condone but also don’t condemn.” Our community has a lot of like-minded people standing by ready to help, and for that we are grateful. It may be as simple as sponsoring someone in the throes of addiction. It may be one of the many employers working with us to offer our men and women jobs through work-release programs. These employers are willing to provide second chances that teach our clients the benefits of hard work and the value of someone believing in them—perhaps for the first time.
It means a lot to our clients, and we have seen miracles happen when people value and take advantage of support.
Like a handful of toothpicks, a group of people supporting one vulnerable individual can make that person stronger—and unbreakable.
Author Dennis Cummings is Executive Director of the Duluth Bethel, a nonprofit organization that provides treatment for substance use disorder as well as community-based corrections programs to hundreds of men and women annually. This column originally ran in the May 7 edition of the Duluth Budgeteer News. Look for future columns every month in the Budgeteer.