“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Second of the Paradoxes: Willing Servitude and Sobriety Addicts

[Continued from “The Age of Responsibility”]

Consider the progress of an alcoholic or an addict who “chooses” sobriety.  It is common knowledge that no one can persuade, cajole, manipulate, or force another person to make this change in his or her behavior.  The change must come from “within” the individual, but is it a decision?  Is the change effected by a “free will”?

The hallmark of this change is an experience called “hitting bottom”.  The First Step in Alcoholics Anonymous (and other Twelve Step programs) puts it this way:  “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Almost 350 years ago, John Bunyan described the same experience (more vividly, I think) in his Pilgrim’s Progress:

“Now I saw in my dream that, just as they had ended this talk, they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was "Despond." Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and CHRISTIAN, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire. . . .

“This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended: it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run; and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond. For still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arises in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Both ways of talking about the experience continue alike as well.  The Second and Third Steps say that we “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” and that we then “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  Bunyan’s Christian is, of course, on the same path to redemption through divine grace.

Is it not remarkable that the most widely followed and most widely recommended “cure” for addiction and the most ardently preached means of “salvation” from sin have as their foundation the surrender of personal responsibility and the renunciation of individual will?

Alcoholics and addicts are first condemned for lacking “will power” and then lauded for surrendering their will.  They are derided for having no “self-control” and subsequently praised when they give up self-control.  Have the sober merely exchanged an addiction to chemicals for an addiction to meetings and sponsors and The Big Book?  Is not salvation described as obedience to God?  Do they -- do we -- does anyone -- have choice?

Two thousand years of Christian theology come down on the side of the impotence of our apparently free will:  we are saved not by our works but by divine grace alone.  The allocation of grace itself is itself mysterious:  why do some sinners descend into madness, disease, and death while others (the Elect) find forgiveness and salvation?  Why do some addicts hit bottom and go into recovery while others waste away physically, morally, and emotionally?

I remember that when I quit my job teaching at a small liberal-arts college in upstate New York to move to Manhattan with no idea what I was going to do next, a friend praised me for my strength and willingness to take risks.  (It was the early 1980s and Reagan’s America was in love with entrepreneurs and risk-takers.)  Her remark caught me up short.  I had never thought of myself as taking a risk.

I told her for me the biggest risk would be that I might wake up there, in Schenectady, and find myself to be 80 and to have never seen world or lived the life of my times.

Although I had lived through a few months of saying that I was considering leaving academics in order to move to Manhattan and live a different life, I have to admit that I knew all along that I would move.  Once I saw the possibility of that change, I knew that it was inevitable.  The apparent process of making a decision consisted of talking to myself and to others about something that would happen, that had already happened, as if it might or might not.  I believed that this bit of a masquerade was necessary because leaving academics and moving to New York City to deserve a thoughtful process.  [Remember Nietzsche’s point that effects precede causes?]

If I am honest, I have to say that I believe the same to be true of all the momentous apparent “decisions” in my life.  I have written before about having no choice about being gay.  (No one is ever raised to be gay and certainly no one of my generation would have chosen so troubled a life if it were a matter of choice.)  And although one may say that one has chosen to marry this or that person, no one can honestly say that they chose to fall in love with someone in particular.

The decision-making process goes on until it stops, and in its place is a decision, a firmly established state of affairs, one that usually feels inevitable or, as we say, “right.“  Haven’t the major facts of your life, such as what work you do, whom you live with or marry, whether you have children, whether you get along with your parents and siblings, what politics and religion you espouse -- have not all of these been shaped by your love for this or that subject or activity (in the case of work), your love for a certain place or way of life, or your love for certain groups or for certain individuals?  Were these choices or the logical consequences of passions and innate needs which we did not choose?

Our lives are the walking of a labyrinth.  At each juncture, each turning of a corner, we can go only one way or the other.  We cannot split ourselves into two beings, one of which goes right and the other left.  And we certainly cannot see where whichever turn we take will eventually lead us.*

We might imagine that we could take one as easily as the other.  We might imagine that the sun revolves around the earth, too.

It looks that way, doesn’t it? 

I am not here to argue theology.

I am here to show you the world in which I live, the world of the least among us in this wealthiest of nations.

And I am here to chastise you for the judgments you pass, both in word and in deed, against my brothers and sisters every time you refuse them help because they are addicts or unemployed or enraged by their own suffering.

Get out of your cars and walk these streets.  Look into the faces of your fellow human beings and know these things:

Everyone out here is doing their best.  No one has chosen poverty or addiction or illness, whether physical or mental.

Whatever way it is that each of us is making it through the day and -- more frighteningly -- through the night -- the way is valid.  No one gets to be any better than anyone else.  Whatever you have and whatever you lack, it is not your strength or your virtue or your weakness or your vice that earned you your fate. Furthermore, all that you possess might be gone -- in fact will be gone - tomorrow, through no particular fault of your own.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, remember?

Now there is a paradox.

*A note for poetry lovers:  Robert Frost, in “The Road Not Taken”, imagines one of those moments in the labyrinth:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

I love this poem for many reasons, including both Emily Dickenson and Dante Alighieri, but cite it here for one in particular: Frost says that he took one road, not that he chose it.  Then in the course of apparently giving reasons for his fate, as if it had been a choice, he completely undercuts each one.]