Many of us have at some point in our lives struggled over the tough decision of either throwing out or keep old textbooks from our university days. I know I have this problem, and that others also find it hard to part from their Biochemistry 101 textbook, the one that cost so much at the time! Apparently, these textbooks can still be of some use even when their days are long gone. A while back, when I was studying philosophy at the University of Toronto, a number of my Jesuit confrères had the privilege of reading ‘Addiction and Grace’ by psychiatrist Gerald G. May, MD, as part of a ‘Philosophy of Human Nature’ course. It’s a short soft cover book that many of us could not make it fit in our collection of books after our studies were completed. I recently stayed at my old philosophy community and came across this book in the ‘Free books’ section – also known as the book graveyard– of our library.
Something within was urging me to pick it up. It is interesting what strikes you when you read things not because you have to. Instead of looking for philosophical concepts, I simply read the book as spiritual reading. I’m just discovering how powerful a book it is! I haven’t finished it yet, but I would like to share with you two significant insights that have stood out for me thus far.
First, Dr. May makes the casual remark that people, on average, have dozens of addictions at any given moment in their lives. Yes, this is what Dr. May writes. We have addictions that we are not even aware of, yet they have a significant influence on us. Initially, upon picking up the book, I thought Dr. May would be focusing on the “real” addictions, to alcohol, drugs, pornography, smoking, etc. But there are surprisingly many other addictions in our lives, though we do not ‘qualify’ them as addictions because these items or activities do not appear damaging to us. What are these “every day” addictions? Just to name a few, there is chocolate, coffee, tea, and exercising. There is also the constant worrying over one’s appearance; the constant checking of emails and text messages; obsessing over one’s health, boyfriend or girlfriend; the need to be constantly affirmed, and so on.
Dr. May points out that many of us would like to think that we’re not addicted to these things; we simply enjoy them or care a lot for them. Or, if we do realize that we are addicts to, say, good health, we tell ourselves that this is beneficial for us. The truth of the matter is that no addiction is good and no disordered attachment is beneficial, plain and simple. It may be that many of the things we are addicted to are quite harmless, like chocolate and soft drinks, though some would argue that even these are not harmless, from a health perspective. Each of these seemingly harmless addictions in isolation seems okay, even tolerable. But what happens when we start piling these addictions up, one on top of the other? What ends up happening is that much in our day is done on autopilot; we’re simply compelled to do this and that without even giving it a second thought. Sometimes I have caught myself checking my emails maybe ten or more times a day! This is certainly not an example of someone who is using the gift of technology in a healthy way.
He continues that “...there is a vast difference between doing these things because we freely choose and doing them because we are compelled. In the first case, the motivation is love; in the second, slavery.” (p. 39) It all boils down to freedom. Our everyday attachments– or addictions – bind us. Since we are enslaved to them, our lack of freedom tends to influence other aspects of our life. This is where the second fascinating thing that I found in this book comes into play: the strong link between addiction and prayer. Dr. May writes:
During the early stages of the development of chemical addiction, the conscious mind studiously ignores or rejects any signs of increasing use of the substance. Not only does the person not recognize that a problem exists, she doesn’t want to think about it … He must always keep his mind either occupied or dulled, so that no clear space opens within which the conscious realization might occur. Moments of peaceful openness and self-reflection, which may have seemed so pleasant in the past, are now actively avoided. Prayer, meditation, and simple times of quiet relaxation are either discontinued or filled with activities that will occupy attention … One will do almost anything to avoid being present to oneself. Next one experiences a real fear of having nothing to do, a phobia of boredom, a dread of being alone with nothing to occupy one’s attention.” (pp. 43-44)How hard it is to face the truth of our humanity! As much as we would love to be free from all our addictions in order to most fully love God and each other, we will likely never be free from all of them in this life. We are creatures of habit. This complete detachment, he says, will happen most fully only in heaven.
Meanwhile, here we are on this side of eternity. The central claim that Dr. May wants to make is that it is only by God’s grace that we can fight off the many addictions that plague our existence. There is a common process that he has observed. First comes the understanding that, yes, we do have an addiction to this or that. Believe it or not, this is a huge step for many of us! Once we reach this point, we can then ask God for the grace to set us free. In humility we come before God, realizing our utter dependence on grace. Having opened ourselves to God’s healing touch, we allow God to work on us and with us.
The daily Examen becomes such a gift in this regard. Maybe we don’t have that time to meditate during the day because we’re fleeing from ourselves as Dr. May suggests; nevertheless, let us make it a point to at least commit ourselves to a daily examination of our day and be honest with ourselves. This admittedly takes guts, especially when we’re uncomfortable with something we’ve gotten ourselves into, but we’re not alone. Let us not forget that the Lord beholds us with great love and tenderness. It is in the context of a loving embrace that we look back on the day. Once we truly feel this, looking back at the day to notice any inordinate attachments will be a joy because we know that it will help us to more generously respond to Love we’re receiving.
The key to the battle against our many addictions, apart from grace, is approaching them one at a time. If we try to tackle them all at once, we will be so overwhelmed that our whole project may come tumbling down. Patience is needed with oneself and with God. Many of these petty addictions can be significantly curbed with simple resolutions. I have limited myself to having coffee only three times a week! It’s not perfect, but it’s a start!