Enslaved in our search for freedom

  • July 28, 2008

It was Sunday morning, and I was leaving the hospital. A woman was sitting in the foyer; she smiled pleasantly, but a bit anxiously, her white hair framing a friendly face. She’d finished her appointment early and wondered when the bus would come to take her to the mall. My car being nearby, I offered her a ride over.

We chatted on the way. I mentioned I’d been visiting my father. “Fathers are important,” she observed, adding she knew because she’d lost hers when she was five years old — 81 years ago. He and a friend had drowned. At my expressions of sympathy, she replied: “He shouldn’t have been drinking. Alcohol is like that.”

Driving away, I marvelled at the impact of that one man’s addiction, what this woman and her family had carried since, how her life had been marked by it, a near-century-old story still so fresh and near to her. This chance encounter, in which an everyday person reveals a deep suffering arising from addiction, is not exceptional. Chat with the next three strangers you meet, encourage them to speak and see how long it takes before they get to a story of addiction and how its threads have tangled up their lives. 

I’d been thinking addiction was a social disease, an epidemic we are fighting. Lately, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s actually an endemic aspect of our society, one of the pillars that keep our social edifice erect. I’d been suspicious of this even before an appeal was made to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in regard to Insite, a safe injection site in Vancouver. The appeal left me marvelling at the revelation that it may be unconstitutional to deprive addicted persons of the substances they are addicted to.

I wonder why we are so comfortable with addiction as a permanent aspect of society.  Have we given up on hope for real change and opted instead for finding better ways of coping with hell? Have we become more willing to live with addiction than to seek freedom from it?

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, describes in painfully vivid language the anguish of losing a beloved friend, who died when Augustine was 19. He describes his grief: “At this sorrow my heart was utterly darkened, and whatever I looked upon was death… My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places because he was not in them” (Book IV, Chapter 6).

At a certain point, he notes, he was so wedded to his grief that if he’d been offered the choice of having the friend back and losing the grief, he’d have refused. You might say he had become addicted to his grief. It seems even his original attachment to his friend had something of addiction in it (though Augustine doesn’t use this language), because he’d put the friend where God should be.

Addiction, in its essence, is anything we put in God’s place. It’s what enslaves our desire, says the late Gerald May; chasing after what enslaves us, we lose what we really desire.  What we really desire, of course, is love — God’s love, God’s presence.

That’s why addiction is such a trap. Only God can save. Yet we turn to other things for salvation and when they don’t provide it, we increase the dosage. Only God can receive our adoration. Yet we adore money, or alcohol, sex, gambling, or work, we lay down our lives for these things and are frustrated when they don’t lead to fulfilment. Feeling more trapped than ever, we use these things more and more trying to get out, and then we feel more trapped: the cycle of addiction. In search of freedom, we become slaves.

The pattern is easiest to identify, perhaps, in the case of someone like a full-blown alcoholic, who can end up putting drinking ahead of friendship, career, family, health, life itself. But in less obvious forms, the same addiction is at work everywhere.

This month we celebrate one of the great feasts of Mary, the Assumption. Caryll Houselander has noted that, unlike other saints, there’s no particular characteristic of Mary’s holiness. Her saintliness is simply this: she bears God. That’s all. Nothing comes between her and the love of God. She does not fall into the trap of addiction — of loving somebody or something, even her Son, the way only God can be loved. She lets everything else go so that she can carry God.

Here, it seems, mysterious and wonderful, is the only answer to addiction. Let go everything else and carry God. It’s almost too simple to accept. And difficult to know how to apply it to daily life; knowing this answer is one thing, attaining it is another. I suspect we can’t know how to do it unless we work it out together.

“Like the deer that yearns for running streams, my soul yearns for you, my God” (Psalm 42).