Addicts are extremists.
We think we are the greatest or the worst. Sometimes those thoughts follow one another in rapid succession. This tendency plays out in many areas, not least the area of growth and progress.
On the one hand, there is a tendency to have expectations that are too high, that set ourselves up to fail. We angrily punish ourselves for falling again. “How foolish! You should know better by now!”
On the other hand, there is a tendency to have expectations that are too low, that are a self-fulfilling prophecy of not making progress. We have failed before we even tried. “Why even try? You’re just doing to screw it up again.”
The former extreme is arrogant perfectionism, and the latter is lazy self-hatred. Humility is able to have a more realistic, and at the same time hopeful, view. We are indeed able to make progress, even if we remain imperfect. “I can’t heal myself instantly, but with God’s help I can make real progress.”
Step 7 is a step where (as with the other steps) action is taken, but the emphasis is on how the action is taken. We don’t roll up our sleeves and begin ridding ourselves of our defects of character. We don’t make a demanding request of God to take them away. We humbly ask.
Humility is often thought of in simple distinction from arrogance. This binary distinction would imply that arrogant people think very highly of themselves and humble people think very lowly of themselves.
A synthesis of passages from Scripture (rather than only single passages treated as knock-down proof-texts!) would seem to suggest that a Christian understanding of humility is to think of one’s self wisely. Neither too highly or too lowly.
In my own experience, and the experience I hear from others, thinking too highly of ourselves is very common, and possibly why it seems to get the most corrective in Scripture. But I suspect that very often, if not almost always, the act of thinking highly of ourselves, or making ourselves out to be something great, is an act of compensation. It is to counter beliefs or feelings that we are worth nothing or very little. We feel low, so we perform, exaggerate, brag or draw attention to ourselves to compensate.
If this is true, then at least some of the time, the answer to narcissism is proper self-confidence.
Many addicts in recovery will be familiar with the ‘H.O.W’ acronym, which stands for Honesty, Open-Mindedness and Willingness. (The relevant quote is near the end of the ‘Spiritual Experience appendix in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) It is described as the spirituality of the programme of recovery. In agreement, I would like to add a suggestion that this spirituality involves surrendering of fear at each point.
Honesty. The opposite of honesty is dishonesty or lying. Ultimately this is driven by fear. In this case, the fear of being known as we really are, and not as we present ourselves to be. It’s a terrifying thought. Yet the very thing we crave. In recovery, we surrender this fear and dare to be honest and be known as we really are, warts, scars, sins and all.
Open-mindedness. The opposite here is closed-mindedness or arrogance. Ultimately this is driven also by fear. In this case, the fear of being wrong or ignorant. We want to be in the know. We want control. We think we know best. Even if we know we aren’t as smart as we make out, we still put on the con. In recovery, we surrender this fear and dare to put our own ideas aside to listen – really listen – to others, and being open to the possibility that they are right.
Willingness. This opposite here is willfulness or laziness. Ultimately this is driven by fear as well. In this case, the fear of not being perfect or doing it wrong. We either want to change the game so we can play the part we feel more confident to play (willfulness), or we want to stand on the sidelines and watch (laziness). We would rather criticize, or complain than do anything about it. In recovery, we surrender this fear and learn to focus on the simple tasks that we can do. We learn to accept “progress rather than perfection” and try to remember that recovery is a “programme of action”.
I love how simple recovery principles are. I love the simplicity of the following insight:
Every thought or action is taking us toward either addiction or recovery.
There are no ‘neutral’ thoughts or actions. No twilight zones where we can ‘do whatever we want’ with no effect on ourselves. It all matters. Everything we think, say or do is thought, said or done as a ‘drug’ to give us a fix, or as ‘medicine’ to make us better. Selfishness, pride, fear and envy can pervade even the most simple actions, even when they appear to others (or ourselves) to be good, helpful, harmless or ‘neutral’. As we work recovery, we discovery how mixed our motives really are, and we work to weed our gardens from those selfish noxious motives and grow the characteristics of service, truth and beauty.
In active addiction, our loss of control becomes apparent to us sooner or later. One helpful image is that of balancing a golf ball on top of a basketball. Keep it on top and all is well. Correct it immediately and with appropriate counter action, and a fall is avoided. But once it gets a certain distance from the top, the action required to stop it from falling off is effectively superhuman. This is precisely how addiction is experienced. We are perfect storms of Obsession and Compulsion. The thought of ‘doing it again’ takes root and grows (with our continued permission, it must be said) and fantasy gives way to subconscious ‘planning’ to do it, which eventually leads to ‘close calls’ or more often just going ahead with it. And irony of ironies, having ‘done it again’, we look back in disbelief, wondering how it happened… It’s as though our free will is eroded or better yet imprisoned or shackled, and to our shame, we have to admit that we have hidden the key from ourselves…. Self control is practically non-existent, and we have to admit complete and total powerlessness (step 1) to stop the behaviour…
As we grow in recovery, we gradually regain the self-control we lost. Or better yet, we gain a new kind of self control. Before we had attempted a kind of self control which was weakened by qualities such as entitlement, anger, blame and basically a thousand forms of fear. Now, in recovery, the programme teaches us to stay away from the behaviour, and the “stinking thinking” that gets us doing it. It’s not as though we get ‘cured’ and no longer want to do it, but rather the sobriety that comes with recovery gives us new eyes to see through the shoddy thinking and selfish justifications that accompanied our one-way trips to addictive behaviour. We get street wise. We safeguard ourselves. To add an awkward addition to the ball metaphor above, it’s like we don’t even try to balance the golf ball on the basketball, but we grow wise enough to use a doughnut to keep the ball securely on top. Without needing to do a ‘geographical’ to another job, marriage, town or country, we learn to ‘stay away’ from those places, venues, people or fantasies that we have continually allowed ourselves to be tripped up by. In a Christian key, this sounds like Paul saying that when he is weak he is very strong. This is self-control not from the flesh, but as a fruit of the Spirit who leads us into the wisdom we need to keep ourselves safe.
Addiction is Progressive
This is the ‘bad news’ side of the coin… All addicts know, or will discover sooner or later, that addictive behaviour (whether with drink, drugs, work, sex, food, relationships, etc.) is progressive. We need larger quantities, more frequent engagement, more extreme episodes… What used to ‘do it’ for us, eventually doesn’t anymore. What we used to only think about doing becomes things we get close to doing, and eventually do. This is why they call addiction “the disease of more”.
Recovery is Cumulative
This is the ‘good news’… As we work our programmes, doing the suggested actions of meetings, reading, writing, prayer, service, our sobriety grows. It gets longer in terms of day count, and it gets deeper in terms of our character. Where we used to be “restless, irritable and discontent”, we slowly become more and more calm, accepting and grateful. Where we used to be dishonest, arrogant and lazy, we grow in the spiritual characteristics of “Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness.” It really does get better.
In step 3 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we read the following:
The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are. Therefore dependence, as A.A. practices it, is really a means of gaining true independence of the spirit.
Prevailing modern, consumer culture says the opposite. Be free and unchained to do and be what you want. At the end of that pathway, however, are the countless many who find themselves to have been tricked. Freedom, as they had conceived it, had imprisoned them to various kinds of slavery. Slavery of financial insecurity. Slavery of incessant and unquenchable desire. Slavery of a ghost-like personal identity, both seemingly untouchable, yet also fearful to attain and be trapped by it.
Recovery and Scripture yet again speak with the same tone of voice. In Romans 6, Paul contrasts a person who is “enslaved to sin” (and thus “free from the control of righteousness”), with being a “slave of righteousness” (and thus “free from sin”).
Addiction is slavery indeed. In recovery we learn to “slavishly” work our programmes in the strength of God, our Higher (Highest!) Power. This is not self-help or self-righteousness or legalism. This is freedom in Christ. True independence of the spirit.