People

Chapter 10: To the Chronically Human

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Chapter 10

“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I doFor the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” [Romans 7:15…7:19] NKJV

TO THE CHRONICALLY HUMAN

From the whimsical office-party gaffe to the incarnate evil of the Holocaust, we are consistently shocked by the behavior of other people. Our dismay finds legitimacy because we assume that people do what they intend to do. Freedom of choice means that no matter what we have done we always could have chosen otherwise, and it is in that choice that we assign agency to our actions and find our moral compass. No matter how much we complain about the constraints of external circumstance, the internal feeling of being able to choose remains one of our most powerful allies in daily living. So, what happens when someone reports that they have lost this precious feeling?—not because of immediate physical obstacles or the limitations of opportunity, but because in the felt fact of their existence they are compelled to act in a way contrary to their imagined intentions.

     Few know more about the painful ambivalence of choice than someone in a full-blown addiction, and nowhere can you see indecisiveness reach such tragicomic proportions. One moment you watch an alcoholic resolutely pouring booze down the sink, only to find that resolve melt away in a liquor store a few hours later. Then, the morning after. Convinced that they will never drink again, a world of infinite possibilities opens. Looking back to only yesterday they are astonished that anything could have taken hold of their lives in such a manner. But later that same day they will be in the liquor store again, absent-mindedly forgetting the steely certainty of just a few hours earlier. And this cycle can go on indefinitely: ask an aging alcoholic whether he has ever tried to quit; the answer may surprise you: “Every day of my life.” Nowhere in human experience does the Sisyphean task of reliving personal struggle come more clearly into focus.

   Addiction engulfs not only the addict, but also those around him. He tears through our lives like a tornado and seems to lose touch with anything that is sane. He can appear to us as alternately pathetic or evil. His body breaks down, his judgment goes, and when we look at him, we see only a shadowy carcass of the person we once knew. How do we respond to such a disturbing development among our fellow human beings? Addict or not, we are all affected by their suffering.

    Our attitudes about addiction tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the addict. If we are candid, we admit that in many areas of our life we at least think and act as if we have lost the ability to choose. We stay stuck in careers that we hate and relationships that sap our strength because we cannot envision another possibility. Our ambivalent attitudes toward the addict can expose the ambivalence we have towards our own behavior. Why do so many of us have such difficulty deciding and sticking with the decision? Why do so many of us overeat, overwork, or indulge in limitless numbers of self-destructive behaviors that eventually curtail the very freedom that allowed us to make those choices. In moments of occasional honesty, we sense that we are our own worst enemy. In moments of rare clarity, we admit to ourselves that most of our attempts at self-improvement are just stumbling in the dark.

We have all witnessed childhood psychodramas being re-enacted on a daily basis by individuals who would swear that everything they do is the act of an autonomous agent. At the other end of the volitional spectrum, what an astonishing thing it is for any human being to say, “I cannot choose otherwise.” Is it possible for anyone to inadvertently surrender their capacity to choose? Or can the delusion of powerlessness become so strong that it makes the distinction between “having to” and “thinking you have to” meaningless? And if the addict is deluding themselves when they say they have no choice, perhaps we are deluding ourselves when we say that we do. So, we ask, What happens at that moment of decision when an alcoholic stands between two alternatives—drinking or not-drinking, each leading inexorably to different realities? Perhaps we are afraid to find out that the choice the addict faces is not so much different from the choices each of us faces every day. Perhaps our innate sense of psychological freedom may not be such a powerful ally after all

      How much is feeling free an indication of actually being free? Baffled by the addict’s behavior, we try to make sense of our own contradictions, and react with emotional extremes when their disruptive presence forces us out of complacency. We may ignore them because looking is too painful. If we do jump into the fray we are immediately confronted with our own helplessness: at best, our good intentions seem to accomplish little; at worst, our efforts only accelerate their downward spiral. We become a part of their story and their malignancy infects us. We become irrational, combative; and all the while the addict seems to care more about feeding their addiction than they do about our concern.It angers us, confuses us, because they seem to get something important from their addiction that they cannot get anywhere else, and we can’t understand what that could be. When the addict’s behavior towards us becomes malicious, we try to tell ourselves that it’s the addiction talking, not the person. But we know better. Even in the distorted picture before us, cannot help but see a human being making choices.

            Can we as human beings see ourselves as what we truly are rather than what we think ourselves to be? Just as we cannot see our own face without looking into a reflective surface, so we cannot see our own true nature without something to mirror it back to us. Addiction is a broken mirror that perfectly reflects our imperfect natures. We get a sharp, clear image of ourselves, but disjointed and exaggerated. The self-portrait that the addict sees is so disjointed that they do not recognize the humanity in their addiction. The picture that the addict presents to us is so exaggerated that we often do not recognize ourselves in their suffering. Whether addict or not, most of us skip the painful step of seeing what we are and look towards an idealized picture of what we would like to be. If the instrument is broken, however, we must see how and why it is not working before we can restore it to full and proper function. We must look at what we are before we can discuss what we might become.

      We should be careful about speaking too abstractly. Addiction is quite real. An addict is a character writ large upon life’s stage, and a few short years in the trenches can be rich with an eternity of pleasure and pain—assuming they survive. Addicts are acutely human in that they are ordinary people having the extraordinary experience of an addiction: every fear, every hope, every quirk of human nature that we all experience from day to day becomes magnified. As such, the addict becomes an accidental teacher and student of human nature, offering us a caricature of the human condition: just enough pleasure to give us some satisfaction, just enough pain to keep us from getting complacent, not enough of anything to make our lives consistently meaningful. Addiction does not separate the addict from other human beings; instead, the addict joins the rest of humanity in the search for a purposeful life. Addiction is a crash course in being human.

…transcription to be continued…MVC

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