To Live Freely: Part Four

Living a Lie)

Thus far I have shown an example of those who live in the full light of the truth and are more fulfilled as a result, I have also demonstrated how building our science and technology on physical truths resulted in far greater accomplishments than could be achieved in any other way, and I have also illustrated the chaos that arises by accepting untruth. I have presented each of these as demonstrations of how being founded upon truth brings about greater growth and fulfillment and knowledge than any other course.

There is another way that we can strengthen the argument for living a life founded on truth, and that is by refuting its alternative. Let us consider an opposite philosophy, such as “sometimes a person will flourish more if they believe a lie.” If we can provide evidence that this is false, then that leaves as the only other option that we should live in the truth.

And this philosophy we will seek to discredit is no mere imagined thing. There really is an idea in our society that people will be happier if they don’t have to deal with certain unpleasant realities. It isn’t only suggested that they are better of living in ignorance of a truth, but that they should actively believe something that is opposite to that truth. One example is that a husband shouldn’t tell his wife about an affair, and another is that a child should be led to believe that his parents are biological, when in reality he is adopted.

We will examine both of these, and point out the damage, not comfort, that is inherent in each. Today we will cover the first example, that of whether infidelity should be concealed from a spouse.

The Fall)

The reason typically given for hiding a betrayal of marriage is that it only causes the innocent spouse to feel pain and anguish that she doesn’t deserve, better to let her remain happy with her home and family life. It is the burden of the unfaithful spouse to carry his transgression himself, not hurting those that did nothing wrong themselves. This is his penance.

There is much that is initially appealing in this line of reasoning, but it is extremely condescending to the faithful spouse, and also it sets her upon a treacherous trajectory. By the husband doing one thing, and then allowing his wife to believe that he didn’t, he has rotated her alignment away from reality, and worse, done so without her consent. Falsely aligned, the wife is now put in the awkward position where she might now be the instrument of her own continuing harm. She might willingly take on debt with her husband for a large purchase, such as a new home, only to be hurt financially when he announces his intention to divorce, and the property must be divided. She might unknowingly abet her own betrayal by encouraging a friendly relationship with the very person her husband is sleeping with, or even just by staying at home and watching the children while he goes out for another liaison. She might burn bridges with people that cast aspersions against her husband, even though they are the ones genuinely acting in her favor. She will continue to invest care and warmth in a man who can only offer shallow counterfeits in return, which means wasting more and more of her time and energy. She will lose years that might have been spent with a more faithful partner.

There are numerous ways that a deceived wife is likely to dig the foundation out from under herself, totally oblivious until the ledge she is standing upon suddenly breaks and she falls and hurts herself. When one is first told a lie there is a separation between their reality and true reality. As time continues that gap can only expand. Breaking the ledge and falling from perspective to reality is a painful experience. The higher the drop, the more injury incurred.

Even in the case that the wife never does catch on to the truth, it is still morally wrong to leave someone in danger of that fall, especially when the distance of that potential fall is growing greater with every passing day. Yes, she would be hurt by the truth, but then the wound could heal and there would be no threat of continuing harm. To instead leave the spouse in a place of constant and increasing danger is an act of criminal negligence.

Of course, most of us know that a spouse who decides to shield the other from the truth is almost certainly doing it more out of self-preservation, no matter what noble motivations they might pretend to. Yet even if we were to find a case where the intent really and truly was only to spare the heart of the betrayed spouse, good intentions alone do not make an action moral. One of the key things that makes an action moral is whether it creates good, or at least the potential for good in the life of the other. One of the key things that makes an action immoral is whether it creates evil, or even just the potential for it in the life of the other. In the long term, deception can only foster evil, not good, and so it is immoral.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Three

The Difficulty of Doing)

Yesterday I shared about the studies that have been done on the minds of addicts, and how the prefrontal cortex has been shown to have diminished activity in their brains. Where in a healthy brain appetite can be ruled by reason, in the addict things go the other way round.

And this is true in so very much of the addict’s life. In fact, very few addicts have only one uncontrollable behavior. They might have their primary vice, such as drugs, alcohol, pornography, excessive eating, or gambling, but they probably have shades of several others as well. Once the prefrontal cortex is damaged by one behavior, then it is stunted in how it deals with all of the others. Maybe the addict isn’t as totally helpless in these arenas as they are in their main addiction, but things are probably getting worse on those fronts, rather than better.

This might seem a depressing fact, but actually there is a nugget of hope in it. The fact that the willpower has varying degrees of efficacy in the addict’s life means that it isn’t dead entirely. If the prefrontal cortex was totally eradicated, then all areas would be overrun by wanton excess. There wouldn’t be a difference between small temptations and large, they would all have their way entirely if the opposition was a total zero.

And this is a positive fact that every addict needs to appreciate. Yes they are damaged, yes their willpower is compromised, and yes they might be losing ground, but the war isn’t over yet. Their forces are not completely in retreat. There is still some strength left in them, and if there is some strength, then it can be exercised.

Building Strength)

If you were to have the muscles completely removed from your arm, you would never be able to use it again, no matter how hard you tried. But if your muscles were only damaged and weakened, you could regain use of them through many repetitions of weight-lifting. By flexing your muscles against increasing levels of resistance, you would gain the ability to move your arm like you could before.

And it is just the same with the prefrontal cortex. The same studies that showed that this region of the brain is stunted by addiction, also showed that it can be restored again to its usual activity. Brain scans of addicts who have walked the path of recovery reveal that a once-damaged mind does heal back to its proper and powerful state.

For this healing to occur, there are two things that must occur. The first is what I have already begun to describe: the addict must exercise his self-control to make it stronger. The second is that the source of damage must be stopped. Let’s look at these criteria one at a time.


As I mentioned above, some parts of our lives are still active battlegrounds. We have smaller struggles where the temptation is still mild enough that our prefrontal cortex can still grapple evenly with it. This is our gym. This is where we can start exercising our mind and regaining control.

When I first began my addiction recovery journey, the counselor overseeing my group asked each of us to make specific goals every week and then follow up on how we had done with them. He told us that we should choose goals that were well within our power to achieve, but which would stretch us a little beyond our usual day-to-day behavior. He also insisted that we needed to take these goals as sacred commitments. We had spent years teaching ourselves that we couldn’t be trusted, now it was time to convince ourselves of the opposite.

Small, daily commitments often seem inconsequential in and of themselves, but so does lifting a small dumbbell repeatedly, and yet we all know that this serves a useful purpose. No one lifts the dumbbell simply for the sake of lifting the dumbbell. They do it to increase their strength and health in all the other areas of their life. They lift the dumbbell so that they can lift what matters later on. So, too, small, daily commitments that we consistently follow through on are how we do the weight-lifting of the mind.

So, take some time to identify some simple, regular practices that are not currently doing, but that you would like to implement, and make a solemn commitment to change. It might be something as simple as making your bed in the morning. Follow through on that commitment, whatever it is, over and over, until it becomes a matter of simple habit. Then choose an additional healthy practice to adopt and start working on that, too.

Just Stop)

I do realize that obtaining sobriety so that your mind can recover so that you can overcome temptation might sound like a chicken-or-the-egg paradox. How can you obtain sobriety if you don’t first have the recovered mind to overcome the temptation? It seems an impossible riddle.

Fortunately, it’s not an impossible task, it’s just not immediately apparent how it can be done. Throughout the rest of this study, we will be examining the outside-the-box thinking that helps us to do just this. For now, though, let me explain the general idea of what these techniques will accomplish.

We are physically able to deny our addictions, we just are lacking in the willpower to fight against temptation. What we need to do is bypass the need for willpower altogether. If we let the battle get to the point of mental arguments, we are going to lose. Just as how our addiction is a matter of habit, we need to build new habits that circumvent the addiction. Then it doesn’t matter if our mind is compromised, because we won’t actually be putting any thought and reasoning into the matter. We want to make our sobriety become easy and automatic, based upon an already-made decision, so that we don’t have to try and remake the decision when in the face of temptation. Starting tomorrow, we will begin to explore how we accomplish this. I’ll see you then.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Two

A Sudden Thoughtlessness

Yesterday I described the experience of an addict desperately wanting to stop his addiction yet finding himself diving headlong into it even so. The addict knows perfectly well that he has the physical capability to put away the needle, close the laptop, skip the dessert line, or walk past the pub, and he knows he has all the reasons in the world to do exactly that…but he just doesn’t. In the moments of anticipation, the addict remains convinced that things will be different this time. In the moment of action, though, he is proved wrong again.

How could this happen?

Most addicts throw their hands up in exasperation. They have absolutely no clue! They would love to know the answer to that question themselves! It makes just as little sense to them as it does to everyone else. In fact, it makes even less sense, because they know better than anyone that their resolve was real and true just an hour ago! They, more than anyone, know just how far they fell and how quickly.

How could you choose to do this?

The addict insists that they didn’t. But then they admit that obviously they did. Again, it makes no sense to them. They thought they had already made their choice: they would never do this thing again. But then the choice was undone, and seemingly without their permission. But how can they say it wasn’t by their permission? Whose else would it have been?

What were you thinking?

Here the addict might blink their eyes blankly. Honestly, now that they think about it, they really weren’t thinking about anything at all. At the moment they didn’t consider why they were giving in to the temptation or if they should do so…they just went ahead without any reasoning or thought process at all. Or in some cases, it might have briefly occurred to them that they had all manner of reasons not to give in, but all those thoughts felt dull and meaningless and were quickly ushered offstage.

And this is the experience that seems most puzzling, because beforehand the addict had created an airtight argument against the addiction, a series of facts and principles meant to convince himself to stay away from his vice forever. But that depth of logic and reason had abandoned him when it came to make his case. In the moment of decision, it had felt like his rational, reasonable self was addressing a brain-dead jury. Where did the addict’s mind go at the time when it mattered most?

This question might seem an aggravation to the addict, but it is actually a wonderful thing to settle upon, for this is the key to understanding the true nature of his addiction. This phenomenon is so consistent in the addict, and so prevalent across all addicts, that there really must be a reason behind it.

Playing Without a Full Deck)

Thankfully, researchers picked up on this pattern and they dedicated themselves to getting to the bottom of it. Through a series of studies, they found the answer. What they uncovered was that our addictions do not only cause emotional and spiritual damage to ourselves, but they also have a clear and measurable effect upon our very brains. The brain of the addict has been shown to have drastically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, as if it had been severely injured.

If you’ve never heard of this fact before, feel free to do a quick web search for “addiction and the prefrontal cortex.” You will find all manner of scientific papers on the subject, such as this one.

The idea that the brain of the addict would be different from that of a sober person might be quite alarming. Most addicts don’t feel like their minds are working differently, but the science is clear. The brain scan of a sober person is completely different from that of the addict.

And to be clear, this phenomenon of different mental activity is not limited to addicts who have been using brain-altering drugs. The research has found that even when the compulsive behavior introduces no foreign chemicals whatsoever, such as the habitual viewing of pornography, there is still a decisive erosion of the prefrontal cortex. The implication seems to be that it is the act of living our addiction itself that causes the damage to this part of the brain.

And just what is the prefrontal cortex used for? Well, it is the region of the brain from which comes all of our higher reasoning. It is what provides our rational, calculated thinking, so we don’t just operate from pure instinct and reflex. It is what allows us to set goals and sharpen our focus.

To have a damaged prefrontal cortex means to lose one’s ability to apply reasoning over appetite. It means to give up deliberate decision-making and revert instead to habitual instinct. It means to be highly susceptible to suggestion. It means to have very little mental strength in the face of great desire.

Sound familiar?

The addict is caught in a vicious cycle. Back in his past, probably long before he felt that his behavior was a real problem, he engaged in practices that eroded the part of his brain necessary for higher reasoning. By the time he became aware that he had a problem, his ability to turn down the temptation had already been severely stripped down, leading him to act out again, which only eroded his higher reasoning still further. He is caught in a downward spiral of having less and less control over his choices.

The addict is playing a game of poker, but with only half the cards he is supposed to, and in every round the addiction will call his bluff.

Is There Any Hope?)

This may sound like a terminal diagnosis. How can one exercise “mind over matter” when the physical matter of the mind has been damaged? Does this mean that the addict is doomed to a life of acting out?

Well, no. Happily, the research has also shown that the damage to the prefrontal cortex is not total, meaning it has not progressed in the addict to the point that he literally cannot make his own choices at all. Also, the research has shown that the damage is not permanent, meaning that once the addict’s brain has been stunted it does not necessarily have to remain so.

But how can the addict strengthen and repair his mind? We’ll dive into those questions tomorrow, detailing exactly what the addict needs to do to get the desired healing. I’ll see you next time as we explore these subjects.