by Rev Peter Fairbrother
It is easy to see addiction as something out there, affecting others, nothing to do with ourselves.
Perhaps we might have ways of describing people with addiction to separate them off from ourselves: junkies, druggies, neds, criminals, the wasted. Or as I've heard said, given our church's proximity to where I used to work – the Spittal Street Substance Misuse Clinic around the corner - the addicted being referred to as 'y'know the type of people you come across around here late at night'... said with a shudder and a knowing look. We label defensively to set ourselves apart from those we perceive to carry the affliction of addiction. The 'not us'.
• Yet the truth is we are all addicts in one way or another.
• We are all sometime inhabitants of the realm of the hungry ghost.
• We are all constantly seeking something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfilment.
• We are all seeking ways to fill the void within us.
Johann Hari's work 'Chasing the Scream' explores addiction as a social construct, challenging the commonly held understanding of it as a predominately medical condition.
He states that as social beings, when we feel disconnected or alienated, we experience pain. Addiction, depression, anger, and violence are all different ways we react to pain.
For some, addiction is manifest in substance misuse, for others it’s found in dependence on other things, such as gambling, sex, shopping, social media use, or the socially acceptable and even admired behaviours of the workaholic. Dr Gabor Maté in his book 'Hungry Ghosts: the realm of addiction' states: 'Drug addicts are often dismissed and discounted as unworthy of empathy and respect. However, they have much in common with the society that ostracizes them. In the dark mirror of their lives, we can trace outlines of our own.'
As I have endeavoured to explore Hari's and Maté's theories for myself, it has led me to the following question. In the communities in which we find ourselves, and in all our relationships, what are each of us addicted to?
Perhaps we are addicted to the past, to holding on to how things used to be, should be, should always be so help me God, and with this we choke off possibility, bind ourselves, and stifle creativity, we die from the inside out.
Or perhaps we are addicted to seeking the new? Maybe we live in fear of reflection, such that we dare not look back and honour all that has gone before?
• Maybe we are addicted to rules and regulations?
• To anxiety and the need to get things right?
• Perhaps we are addicted to the illusion of control?
• Or to the chains of power?
• Perhaps we are addicted our professional identities or social roles, and to the sense of security we derive from them, for without our sense of occupation, who are we, really?
And with this it might be that we are addicted to doing, to striving, to accomplishments, to goals, to the high of getting to the-next-best-thing because we fear what would happen if we simply stopped in our tracks and truly looked at ourselves - without artifice, without judgment, without the inner critic urging us on to do more, be more, be better.
Perhaps when we boil it all down maybe we are all addicted to suffering, as Adyashanti believes. And you know this is the most uncomfortable truth of all.
Hari asserts that recovery from addiction is everyone's business - to heal our society and our world we must first heal the emotional wounds at the root of our pain. It is the quality of how we are with our self and each other that determines our recovery: for each of us and for our communities.
Perhaps on hearing you might be asking yourself, so what can I do about it?
Well, for me, it’s less of a question of doing, and more one of being.
Often, we say, myself included, the phrase 'I know how you feel'. But, in reality we don't really know what each other is feeling. We don't know what another is holding behind that almost perfect facade of appearance - what pain lies within, what is held in the heart beyond the words 'I'm fine' said in that fixed, rictus way.
So, with this I ask, simply be kind.
• If we wish to live in a kind world, be the kindness you wish to see.
• If we wish to live in a tender world, be the tenderness you wish to feel.
• And if we wish to live in a connected world, be the connection for which you yearn.
To live in connection let us hold awareness of our own addictions, defences, and triggers, and attempt to understand, through dialogue, how our behaviour lands with others:
for one person's brusque is another person's bite;
one person's careless is another person's callous; and
one person's bossy is another person's bully.
A connected world is in the gift of each of us to give, and it is built on listening, tenderness, and a big dollop of forgiveness, both for ourselves and for each other.
And so, in addressing addiction, I offer the following invitation:
let kindness be our guide - in all that we say, in all that we do, in all that we are.
Simply be kind.
Copyright Peter Fairbrother, used by permission, given in St Mark’s on 1 July 2018