When we think of addiction, we usually think of something that is inherently unhealthy: substance abuse, gossip, pornography, etc. But addiction reaches far beyond that. Let’s dig into a little psychology to understand why.
(The following are excerpts from Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.)
Humans frequently repress our desire for love because love makes us vulnerable to being hurt. We also do the same thing with our deepest longings for God. God does not always come to us in the pleasant ways we might expect, and so we repress our desire for God.
While repression stifles desire, addiction attaches desire. Addiction enslaves the energy of desire to certain specific behaviors, thoughts, feelings, things, or people. These objects of attachment then come to rule our lives.
The word attachment has long been used by spiritual traditions to describe this process. This word originates from the old French a-tache, meaning “nailed to.” Attachment “nails” our desire to specific objects and creates addiction.
I don’t believe it is flippant to say that all of us suffer from addiction. The psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word.
Our addictions are our own worst enemies. They enslave us with chains that are of our own making and yet that, paradoxically, are virtually beyond our control. Addiction also makes idolaters of us all, because it forces us to worship these objects of attachment, thereby preventing us from truly, freely loving God and one another. It is the absolute enemy of human freedom, the antipathy of love.
ATTACHMENT AND DETACHMENT
Detachment is the word used in spiritual traditions to describe freedom of desire. Not freedom from desire, but freedom of desire. For centuries, people have distorted the meaning of detachment, mistakenly assuming that detachment devalues desire and denies the potential goodness of the things and people to which one can become attached. Thus, detachment has come to be associated with coldness, austerity, and lack of passion. This is simply not true. An authentic spiritual understanding of detachment devalues neither desire nor the objects of desire. Instead, it “aims at correcting one’s own anxious grasping in order to free oneself for committed relationship to God.”
Detachment uncovers our basic desire for God and sets it free. With freedom of desire comes the capacity to love, and love is the goal of the spiritual life. Jesus’ many words about detachment are set in the context of growing fullness of love.
So instead of promoting a dry, uncaring state, detachment does just the opposite. It seeks a liberation of desire, an enhancement of passion, the freedom to love with all one’s being, and the willingness to bear the pain such love can bring.
Here are the two commandments that Jesus called the greatest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Because of our addictions, we simply cannot—on our own— keep the great commandments. Most of us have tried, again and again, and failed. Some of us have even recognized that these commandments are really our own deepest desires. We have tried to dedicate our lives to them, but still we fail. I think our failure is necessary, for it is in failure and helplessness that we can most honestly and completely turn to grace. Grace is our only hope for dealing with addiction, the only power that can truly vanquish its destructiveness. Grace is the invincible advocate of freedom and the absolute expression of perfect love.
For Christians, grace is the dynamic outpouring of God’s loving nature that flows into and through creation in an endless self-offering of healing, love, illumination, and reconciliation. It is a gift that we are free to ignore, reject, ask for, or simply accept. And it is a gift that is often given in spite of our intentions and errors. At such times, when grace is so clearly given unrequested, uninvited, even undeserved, there can be no authentic response but gratitude and awe.
It is possible to approach grace as if it were just another thing to be addicted to, something we could collect or hoard. But this kind of grasping can capture only an image of grace. Grace itself cannot be possessed; it is eternally free, and like the Spirit that gives it, it blows where it will. We can seek it and try to be open to it, but we cannot control it.
Similarly, grace seeks us but will not control us. Saint Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. If our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are addicted. And not only our hands, but also our hearts, minds, and attention are clogged with addiction. Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow.
It is most important to remember, however, that it is not the objects of our addictions that are to blame for filling up our hands and hearts; it is our clinging to these objects, grasping for them, becoming obsessed with them.
It appears, then, that we are in a predicament. We are dependent upon grace for liberation from our addictions, but those very addictions impair our receptivity to grace. The message may not sound like good news. Yet God creates and cares for us in such a way that our addictions can never completely vanquish our freedom. Addiction may oppress our desire, erode our wills, confound our motivations, and contaminate our judgment, but its bondage is never absolute.
Because of God’s continuing love, the human spirit can never be completely obliterated. No matter how oppressed we are, by other people and circumstances or by our own internal addictions, some small capacity for choice remains unvanquished. The bare edge of freedom is insured and preserved inside us by God, and no matter what forces oppress us from without or within, it is indestructible.
Because of our eternal possibility for freedom, it is no more hopeless to be defeated by our own interior addictions than by external oppression. Although we cannot rid ourselves of attachment through our own autonomous efforts, and our addictions can indeed deaden our responsiveness to grace, there is always some level at which we can choose, freely, to turn to God or to turn away from God, to seek grace or avoid it, to be willing for our attachments to be lightened or to hold on to them.
To return to Augustine’s metaphor, we may not be able to make our hands completely empty in order to receive the gifts of grace, but we can choose whether to relax our hands a little or to keep clenching them ever more tightly. In the face of significant addiction, our degree of choice may seem small; simply relaxing one’s hands may seem too passive. As we shall see, however, this simple choice may be the greatest kind of struggle any human being can face, and it may call forth the greatest courage and dedication. There is nothing passive about it. In the long run, it may prove far more assertive and powerful than any other possible action we could take! It is, after all, the pure, naked aspiration of the human soul toward freedom and, through freedom, to love.
We may go through a great deal of humbling, if not outright humiliation, before we come to this simplicity of hope. We do not like admitting defeat, and we will struggle valiantly, even foolishly, to prove that we can master our destinies. God, in whose image we are made, instills in us the capacity for relentless tenacity, an assertiveness that complements our yearning hunger for God. But most of us overdo it; our spirit of assertiveness quickly becomes a spirit of pride. We will never really turn to God in loving openness as long as we are handling things well enough by ourselves. And it is precisely our most powerful addictions that cause us to defeat ourselves, that bring us to the rock bottom realization that we cannot finally master everything. Thus, although in one sense addiction is the enemy of grace, it can also be a powerful channel for the flow of grace. Addiction can be, and often is, the thing that brings us to our knees.
Hope can sometimes be an elusive thing, and occasionally it must come to us with pain. But it is there, irrevocably. Like freedom, hope is a child of grace, and grace cannot be stopped. In the words of Saint Paul, a man who, I am convinced, understood addiction: “Hope will not be denied, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”