Holding Back the Tide: Part Two

Shifting Impulses)

Yesterday I spoke about how trying to overcome one addiction might simply cause it to shift to another area. Recognizing this tendency is important if we want to live an actually healthy life, not just a life that is unhealthy in a different way.

As I suggested yesterday, slipping into our vices one way or another will always be easier than being healthy. Just as gravity is a constant downward force in the physical world, there is also a constant downward force in the spiritual world, making it easier and simpler for us to fall than to rise. And like gravity, this evil force can pull at us from all directions.

Fortunately, from the times when I have been the most sincere in my recovery, I have discovered some things that can help a great deal. Today I’ll be taking a look at them.

Emptying the Cup)

If I were to ask you to empty all of the air out of a cup, how would you do it? Obviously tipping the cup upside down wouldn’t suffice. You could suck the air out with a straw, but of course other air would flow right back in to take its place. You could make a seal on the top of the cup and then suck out all of the air, creating a vacuum, but this would likely cause the cup to collapse inward and destroy itself.

However, there is one, simple and non-destructive way that the task can be done. Instead of only trying to get the air out, you can simultaneously put something different in. If you pour water into the cup, for example, then the air will naturally be replaced, thus fulfilling the task.

So, too, with getting out a vice. That vice took up a certain amount of your time and energy, and if you just try to scoop it out of your day you have now created an emptiness that will be filled with something else. If you don’t give any thought to what will make use of that time and energy, then it’s probably going to be some other vice because, as I stated above, vice is easier than virtue. If you try to take the vice out and then seal off that freed-up time, not allowing anything to make use of it, you will eventually collapse under the pressures of boredom and frustration.

So, for every evil thing you want to take out of your life, you’re going to need to replace it with an equal measure of good. You need to deliberately start doing something new, something that carries the same expense of time and energy that you were using for the vice.

For me, that led to starting this blog and writing stories. These were very large undertakings, but that was appropriate, because they were replacing a large addiction. It definitely took some work to get my writing going, but once it became a regular practice then going back to the addiction wasn’t even an option, because now it would have to displace the writing that had taken its place and I just couldn’t accept that.

Preserve What You Have)

But if you are going to start a new practice, then consistency is absolutely key. Have you ever found yourself rotating between life-changes that you want to make, shoring up one, just to see the others slip back out of control? I might go on a rotation between things like exercising, getting to bed on time, and saying meaningful prayers. I’ll make a real effort to start exercising, and I’ll make progress there, only to realize that my bedtimes have been slipping later and later into the night. So I’ll focus on when I get to bed, while trying to maintain my exercising, but then I realize I’ve totally forgotten about having a meaningful prayer in the morning. So I focus on that, only to lose my grip on exercise.

In some cases, this is a result of trying to do too much. Yes, a healthy, well-rounded life requires balance, but you only have so many hours in a day and so much of a reserve of willpower. By pouring it all into one area at the start of the day, you may not have enough resolve remaining for all the later tasks. And this cyclical pattern of restarting and abandoning practices only serves to ensure that none of them become a part of regular habit.

So as I’ve already said, one needs to fill their day with deliberate, good things, but they also need to not overfill it. One must put together their core practices with judgment and care, and perhaps their first plan doesn’t work perfectly, and needs to be revised over time.

A Work in Progress)

This is still an area that I am working on myself. I think I have learned and understand some important principles, but the knowledge alone is not enough to make me a perfect practitioner. I am, at least, aware of my shortcomings, and committed to fixing them. I’ll continue to check in from time-to-time, keeping you apprised of my progress. In future series I will also detail more of how I am creating a schedule of healthy tasks to replace the vices in my life, and some of the challenges I have faced while implementing it. For now, though, I’ll move on to another topic for tomorrow. I’ll see you there.

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

A Pattern of Power)

I have been discussing ways that we can find the willpower to fight temptation, even when our brains have been damaged by our addictions. I have covered doing all that we can to avoid even encountering our temptations, but sooner or later they will find us even so, and then we must suddenly find strength and mental reasoning that we are incapable of providing for ourselves.

This immediately suggests that we must have a strength that is beyond our own. An external strength and reasoning that will slay the dragons that we fail to overcome by ourselves.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. - Matthew 18:20

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me - Philippians 4:13

These verses provide us a pattern for accessing just such an outer strength, a pattern that I have found most effective. In the first verse we are promised by Christ himself that when we gather together in his name, he will dwell among us. In the second verse we are told by Paul that Christ strengthens him to be able to do all things. Thus, gathering together invites Christ’s spirit, and Christ’s spirit lifts us to be able to do what we could not do on our own. This is a pattern that I have been able to make use of in my own life and I have come to value it greatly.

Group Strength)

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that there was a special power when addicts came together as a group to lay down their burdens and encourage one another. A room full of individual failures could somehow churn out mass success. Ever since that realization, groups have sprung up all across the world and for all manner of different addiction recoveries. I, myself, regularly participate in a twelve-step group for pornography addiction, and I can attest that there really is a secret strength in numbers.

Mathematically, it doesn’t seem to make sense. As an analogy, imagine if our addiction was our debt and our resolve was our assets. Then an addict, by definition, is someone whose debt outweighs his assets, someone who is at a net negative. Now if you have ten such men, all with a net negative, and you combine them all together, what would you expect? Net negative of course! A negative plus a negative plus a negative plus a negative–and so on–can only result in a greater negative.

But, counter-intuitively, that’s just not how it works in practice. The men in my group bring all of their problems with them to the recovery group, yet somehow the group doesn’t feel weighed down by the shared burden. Instead, weight is collectively lifted up by the group and tossed aside.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that the scriptures cited above are true. When we gather together to do the holy work of refining our souls, Christ is there in our midst. We come with all our collective debts, but he has a wealth of assets, enough to compensate for all our shortcomings and more.

A Phone Call Away)

And this same strength can be called upon in moments of duress as well. We addicts have learned that we can recreate the spirit of the group with a simple phone call to another brother, right when we’re being faced by our temptation.

We might feel powerless in the face of the temptation when on our own. We might feel that we are doomed to give in. But if in that moment we can work up just enough resolve to make a phone call, then as soon as we start sharing our burden with a brother, that same unseen power starts rising within, enabling us to do the very thing we couldn’t just a few moments before.

In fact, we don’t even need to have decided to overcome our temptation when we first make the call. We can simply make the call without any commitment whether we will remain sober after we hang up or not. We only need to have the strength to dial the number, and then the strength to go the rest of the way will follow. If I can’t decide to be sober on my own, I can still decide to step out and get help. And when I chose to step out and get help, then I can decide to be sober, too.

The power that comes from reaching out to a fellow addict in the moment of temptation is twofold. On the one hand, we are currently having our mental willpower, our brain’s prefrontal cortex, overrun by our powerful temptation. Our mind isn’t working how it should, but in the fellow addict that we call there is still a properly functioning mind. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t currently being overrun like ours is. Thus, they are able to bring the higher reasoning and persuasion that our own mind cannot provide. Later, when they are the one being overrun by temptation and we are back to sure footing, then we are able to provide the same benefit to them.

The second power is, of course, the light of Christ that I have already been discussing. For when a brother reaches out to me to help, I really do feel that it is more than my own mental faculty that I am able to bring to bear on the matter. I have felt an external love and wisdom flow into me, helping me to say and share the things that will speak directly to the soul of my brother. And I have felt the exact same divine presence shared with me when I have called for help, too.

Growing Ranks)

I don’t know why the power of Christ comes to us in this way, but it just does. I have tried many times to pray in isolation for his power and I have been very disappointed in the results. On the other hand, I have never gone to a recovery group meeting without feeling Christ’s power overflowing me. I have never reached out to a brother in recovery without feeling the strength to do what I couldn’t before. It seems to me that this is just how he wants it. He wants me to reach out to others, and he gave his instructions in the verse from Matthew so that I would know that I needed to do it.

At this point I’ve discussed how we can find self-control through preventative measures, and how we can access the strength of Christ and a larger group. I have also explained how exercising our willpower in daily tasks can increase our resolve over time. This brings me to the end of all the techniques that I wanted to share with you. Tomorrow, we’ll review them all together. I’ll see you there.

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

An Unfixable Flaw)

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19

The universal paradox that every addict faces is the notion that they must stop acting out, but they can’t. They have tried to stop so many times before only to repeatedly let themselves down. They are overcome with a terrible sense of powerlessness, a belief that they are forever destined to do the very things that they cannot accept.

And what makes this situation even more frustrating is that part of them still insists that they really could stop. Certainly they possess the physical capability to not do the troubling behavior. None of us are physically required to do any of the things that we wish we didn’t do. It’s just that we can’t work up the self-will to control ourselves.

Except for when we do. I was once speaking to a man who received a powerful insight from his therapist. The addict had been bemoaning that he kept returning to pornography because he had no power to resist. The therapist then asked him what would happen if he was viewing pornography in his room and heard the footsteps of someone coming down the hall. Well, in that case, all of a sudden, this “powerless” man would suddenly find untold reserves of willpower as he frantically ALT-TABBED away from the offensive window! Thus, it was clear that the man could exercise the willpower to turn from his addiction, at least when sufficiently motivated by the fear of being found out!

Can’t vs Won’t)

So, what is it? We seem to be going back-and-forth as to whether the addict can suddenly stop his problematic behavior or not. After some time, I have concluded that the seeming paradox goes away just as soon as we change one, little word. Instead of saying that the addict “can’t” stop their behavior, it is far more truthful to say that they “won’t.”

Now I don’t mean “won’t” in the sense that the addict will defiantly refuse, only that the addict has presented copious amounts of evidence that when subjected to certain situations and triggers they will act out and they will not stop themself, even though they otherwise possess the desire and physical capability to reject the behavior. This is an observable, consistent pattern which we all need to come to terms with sooner or later.

The first truth that every addict must accept is that “if I am alone, by myself, under these particular circumstances…I am going to act out.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to resist, or that you won’t try to resist, or that you’re faking your efforts to be sober. Indeed, the defining trait of the addict is that he really, truly, sincerely does want to stop himself…but he just won’t.

The only logical conclusion is that part of the addict is holding the rest of himself as a slave. There is the part that would live soberly, but there is the other part that won’t let him.

Surrender)

This is a simple concept, but it is extremely difficult to accept. We are loathe to admit that we are not as in control of our own selves as we pretend. We say that we aren’t beholden to anyone or anything, that we are our own master, that all it takes for us to do something is to choose to do it.

But that is demonstrably false. That we are the masters of our own fate is a motivating and happy thought, but it is a complete lie. And living a lie is to remain living a pattern of life that simply cannot work. So long as you insist on this mentality of being your own master you’re going to keep living as a slave to your lusts, insisting through it all that you’re a free man.

I would like to tell you that waving the white flag and admitting that you are a slave to your appetites isn’t necessary. I have tried to find my way around this surrender myself. I have tried to deny my fundamental powerlessness. I have tried to find the external evils that forced me to do wrong against my self will.

But the simple fact of the matter is that if I live the same patterns of life that I have lived before, I will give in to my temptations again and again. Not because anyone or anything external forced me, not because I wanted to, but because I am enslaved to a tyrant of my own making. And I have to accept that fact, and then accept it again and again, anytime my ego starts to think that I can fully trust myself in the driver’s seat, only to be proven wrong yet again.

Now I do have more to say on the matter, including more hopeful messages for the addict, but first and foremost we have to come to accept this sense of powerlessness. This is the first step of any twelve-step program, to finally accept that we will not do what we wish we would do under every circumstance. Let’s let this notion settle in for today, and then move on to next things tomorrow. I’ll see you then.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 34:30-31

30 And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.

31 And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot?

Jacob was none too pleased that Simeon and Levi had slain all the males in the city. He pointed out that killing tends to lead to more killing, and that now he was in a dangerous situation with the other inhabitants of the land. Let us remember that Shechem, the man who raped Dinah, was the founder of the city by which they resided. They had killed a powerful man, his father, and all those under his protection.

As it turns out, though, Jacob and his family were not destroyed, but his words ended up being prophetic. The future of the Israelites in this land would be defined by the many wars that they have with all of their neighbors. The Israelites will be one nation with virtually no allies but hundreds of enemies, and eventually they would be overrun and carried away by those foes.

Simeon and Levi’s response, though, makes clear that they could not see their sister disgraced and not retaliate. Certainly, God was displeased with what had happened to Dinah, but that does not mean he approved of how Simeon and Levi responded. At this point it doesn’t matter, though. What was done was done, and the pattern of the Israelites being a peculiar people who slay the unclean had been established.

Worthy Vessels- John 5:19, 1 John 4:19

Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

We love him, because he first loved us.

COMMENTARY

The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do
Each one of us has seen others doing good, and even been the recipients of that good. And having experienced this, naturally we desire to do good things to others, and we try to follow the pattern of those that showed us the example.
But those that did the good things to us were themselves only following the example of others who previously did good to them, and so on and so on. Each of these paths of goodness ultimately leads to the same singular source. As Jesus taught, even he only followed the example of his father. His proclamation is total: the son can do nothing of himself. He does not say that the Father taught one virtue and that then he, Jesus, riffed his own new ones off of it, he claims that any good act done on earth first had its template written in heaven.

We love him, because he first loved us
I have seen the truth of that in my own life. For many years I was fully capable of fearing God, but I couldn’t sincerely love Him until I felt His own love bursting into my soul. I had wanted to love Him, but I had to have Him teach me how. As Graham Cooke so eloquently put it: God loves us first, and then He allows us to love Him back with that love.

Graham Cooke’s message starts at 1:15, quote comes from 4:35