Most apparently non-addicted people define addiction in some way they can intellectually handle, and then file and dismiss it, bringing it out only to express pity or contempt for some apparently addicted person. Disgust covers the faces of those who must drive through homeless encampments, where sidewalks are littered by hypodermic needles. Shock or sorrow covers our faces when we hear of someone we know who’s “lost everything” because of gambling, alcohol, or drugs. Why? Is the inaudible question; more audible is a muttered “There but for the grace of God….”
We don’t understand it. Science, medicine, chemistry, psychology, and psychiatry all wrestle with the subject of addiction and do everything they can to isolate it somehow—isolation being the euphemism for control. For control is the antonym for addiction, a word which means the absence of control. The addict literally can’t help himself. Science seeks (with limited success) to make it genetic. If we could just explain everything with genetics, it would be so convenient. Christians may wonder where free will figures into addiction. But if you ask an addict—even a very devout one—he’ll answer: “I have none.” If we’re honest, we will admit that will and deed are different. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” observes St. Paul.
Scientifically, philosophically, personally—we want control. “You can choose!” the non-addicted assert emphatically, completely missing the obvious fact that this is precisely the problem. The addict can’t choose. He’s like an inanimate object under remote control by some force outside himself. Nothing looks more like how we imagine demonic possession than an addict injecting himself, or an alcoholic swilling liquor. That, we tell ourselves, is possession. That’s what it’s like when one is possessed by a demon. And the antidote immediately presents itself: self– possession. We liken that term to “freedom” as we liken addiction to “slavery.”
The word “thrall” means slave; someone who is “enthralled” is someone enslaved. We imagine chains and whips and such, but most forms of thralldom are not expressions of brute force; far more expressions are non-physical. We are owned, possessed, or enslaved by whatever—or whoever—makes us feel secure. If this idea brings us uncomfortably close to suggestions of love, family (familiarity), or financial, emotional, psychological comfort, well, there it is. There’s both a universe of difference and no difference at all between bond and bondage. I suspect that every human being has known slavery and likely experiences it even now. We are controlled, we are owned, we are possessed by something.
There is, it must be mentioned, the stereotyped American cowboy, the “Marlboro man,” ridiculed by European socialists or Europhile American socialists—the often-mocked image of individualism. For non-collectivists, he’s the image of freedom. But he too is enslaved. One who is self-possessed is also possessed, owned, by himself. That he is his own master does not mean he has no master. “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley is said to have inspired Nelson Mandela to persevere during his imprisonment. It’s a striking poem, the first and last stanzas here express self-mastery:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul….
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
There may be those who dismiss Mandela’s following achievements by sarcastically commenting that he was mastered by the words of a white Englishman, but as usual, that kind of comment not only misses the point entirely but attempts to obscure it. “Invictus” is the anthem of existentialism; it is the love song of self-deification and the most delusional form of slavery. The hardest yoke to break may be that self-possession, self-will, that bondage to ourselves.
The evidence of our freedom is control, and the revered instrument of our control is choice. We choose whether to kill our children; we choose what gender we are; we choose the time and the manner of our death. We know we are free because we have control and we know we have control because we have choice. We are the masters of our fates. We demand that you be forced to acknowledge the virtue and validity of our choices—because we frighten ourselves. More—we are incredibly lonely. To overcome this undesirable side-effect, we try to drown our fear and loneliness by submerging ourselves into pop culture, social media, political and social activism (any kind of activism expressed in socialist or collective terms). To ensure our control (“freedom”), we re-write Scripture to alter or even eliminate those parts which condemn the choices we’ve made and we say “Love is God.” We dismiss anything and anyone not in agreement with this idol we’ve created that we call “freedom,” though no one ever defines that term—they just shout it.
If we look at addiction without narrowing our eyes, without excluding our own emotional and philosophical addictions, the edges start to become blurred. The outlines are no longer clearly defined or limited to images of downtrodden street people. Indeed, all the fine distinctions are merely tonal. Could it be that this choice-making, this control is not really freedom at all? Could it be that what we demand is not freedom but power?
What escapes our notice is the alternative: giving up control. The alcoholic who recognizes that he cannot control his addiction has taken the first step toward freedom. It’s a paradox that may have to be experienced to be understood: Victory is not the triumphant product of struggle, but of surrender.