Addiction and the Art of Surrender

Back in the Day

Back in the day when they allowed smoking at AA,
the nicotine haze hung in the air and clung
to my skin and hair for days,
like the memory of no memory
from too many chardonnays
that hung heavy on my newly cleared brain.

Back in the day, when I could drink any man
under the table and then dance naked on top of it,
coming to a week later with no recollection
of what had gone down, who knew that someday,
I would come to know myself again in crowded,
blue smoke clouded church basements all over town?

When a new state ordinance outlawed cigarettes
in the meeting halls, all of us drunks,
trying to live without a drink a day at a time,
didn’t think we could make it through an hour-long
meeting without a butt, but we stayed anyway,
drumming our yellowed fingers on the table tops,
gripping our coffee cups and listening for our lives.

We assembled again and again, again hearing
Jimmy K. tell about killing that girl with his old Chevrolet
and Maureen B. trying to reclaim her kids from the system
she had lost them to on her last big bender, and I knew
it could’ve been me, leaving my babies asleep in the car
while I ducked in for a quick one with the guys at Jack’s,
or drifting over the yellow line and not coming back.

Back in those days I was sucking wind like all of them,
running a race against the bottle I could never win
without crashing and burning everything in sight.
Those were the days before I gave up
the fight and surrendered, hauled the wreckage
of my past into God’s smoky cellars,
and finally learned how to breathe again.

~ Penny Field

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

There’s a reading in our hymnal entitled, “Change Alone is Unchanging.”[1] It’s attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklietos, also known as the weeping philosopher. “In searching for the truth,” he says, “be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.” These words ring true to me, the same truth I encounter in Vanessa Rush Southern’s meditation, “Expect Chaos.” She says, “Perhaps change is life. Frustrations and snags are life. Maybe instead of being taught to expect stability and predictability, we should have been taught to expect chaos or at least constant transitions.”[2]

Change alone is unchanging. As long as I’m alive—and conscious of my living—I can expect to experience change. Certainly there will be changes in the wider world around me: nations and governments change; cultures and social norms change; human knowledge and technology change; ecology and climate change; the seasons and the positions of the stars in the night sky change. Certainly there will be changes in the more immediate patterns of my life: my children will grow older and my role in their life will change. My parents will grow older and my role in their lives will change. My wife will grow older; I will grow older. I can reasonably expect changes in my work life. I can reasonably expect changes in where I live. People will come in and out of my life—friends, parishioners, colleagues, peers, activists. I can expect the changes retirement brings. I can expect the changes illness brings. I can expect the changes loss brings—the changes that come when a loved-one dies.

And as a result of all these changes and transitions I can also expect my inner life to change in response: what I believe, what matters to me, the things to which I feel called to dedicate time and energy, my understanding of the Sacred. All of it has already changed through the course of my life. I can only conclude more change lies ahead.

Change alone is unchanging. I suspect this is not news to you. At some place deep in our bones we sense this idea is true. It speaks directly to Unitarian Universalists’ common yearning for a religious life not bound by doctrines, creeds and revelations presented to us as the one, eternal truth, a permanent etchings upon stone tablets, as the final word revealed once long ago and sealed forever. We long for spiritual openness. We are comfortable, even, with spiritual open-endedness. We long for a spiritual community that asks us not to submit to one truth but to explore truth from many perspectives and construct meaning from many sources. We long for a faith informed as much by scientific discovery and changes in human knowledge as it is by ancient wisdom. We certainly don’t long for chaos, and we want our children to experience stability and predictability. But when we encounter this idea that “change alone is unchanging” often something stirs in us. Often our gut response is “yes.” We want to hear more because we experience our lives, all life, the earth, the universe not as static, but as dynamic. Change is life.

But let’s be honest: as a concept, as an intellectual proposition, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, this idea is fabulous. Change alone is unchanging. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, when it comes to navigating our life transitions, it’s not so fabulous. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraklietos as the weeping philosopher.

Our ministry theme for September is transitions, an obvious theme for this time of year in New England as summer vacation ends, students return to school, the leaves begin to change colors and fall, local farmers begin their final harvest of the year, apples and pears have ripened, and the grocery stores now offer orange and black Halloween promotions. I also note the Jewish High Holy Days occur during this season. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. For Jews the High Holy Days, which culminate in ten days on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be understood as a time of transition, a time of reflecting on the past year and preparing for the next. As we said in our opening words from Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Now is the time for turning…. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.”[3] Here’s another truth: successfully navigating the transitions of our lives requires us to break with old habits. Perhaps change is life, but we are also creatures of habit and habits by their very nature are hard to break.

When I use the word habit I’m not speaking simply of addictions like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or overeating, though I certainly include them. I’m speaking more generally of habits as modes of life to which we become deeply accustomed. As an example, I go back to the summer of 1999 when Stephany and I first moved to Connecticut. Over the previous ten years I had grown deeply accustomed to my life in Boston. I was grounded in the student culture in Cambridge. I was grounded in the local rock music scene. I was grounded in my ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association which is headquartered in Boston. My twin brother and some of my best friends lived there. I was embedded in a rich network of peers, clergy, UUs, musicians, activists and Ultimate (Frisbee) players. I knew all the running roots along the Charles River. I knew my way around by car and public transportation. My life had a certain stability and predictability to it. We moved to Connecticut that summer and I became ill. I was chronically dizzy and nauseated. I lacked appetite. I lost weight. I drank ginger tea all the time, hoping it would settle my stomach. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It took many medical tests to prove to me there was nothing physically wrong with me, and two or three years of therapy to convince me that what had caused these symptoms was anxiety brought on by a major life transition. Put another way, I had been happily and healthily habituated to my life in Boston; and as much as I welcomed a life-change intellectually, making the transition turned out to be immensely difficult. As much as I was genuinely excited to begin my professional career in a new location with new people, when I allowed myself to look closely at the life I had left behind in Boston and get in touch with what leaving meant to me, I realized I was sad. I was grieving my younger Boston self and really didn’t know who my new, professional minister self was. Move to a suburb? What? Buy a house? What? Have children? What?

I’m not suggesting my experience of a big life transition is somehow a universal experience, but I do suspect that at the heart of our major life transitions there is always some amount of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, and it stays with us. The Rev. Robert Walsh writes, “Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Is it about the war? Is it from getting older? Or is it just autumn? I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.”[4]

A book called A General Theory of Love, published in 2000 by three psychiatrists, describes the way our relationships, particularly our very close, intimate relationships, shape us—not only shape our emotions and our outlook on life, but shape our body chemistry, our physiology, the development of our neural pathways. When two people live together in a long-term, intimate relationship, when they share meals, leisure time, vacations, chores, money, a bed, child-rearing, etc., over time their bodies become deeply intertwined. Here’s a quote. “The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites…. [But] an individual does not direct all of his own functions. [An intimate partner] transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function and more…. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated.”[5] This is why living when a loved-one has died isn’t just emotionally painful; it physically hurts. This other body that has been regulating aspects of our physiology, this other body to which we have become deeply accustomed—to which we have become habituated—is no longer present, no longer close by.

 

I assume it’s not just intimate loved ones who regulate our bodies in this way, although they may have the most impact. I assume where we live—the place we call home, our neighborhood—regulates our bodies to some degree. Where we work regulates our bodies to some degree. Our daily routine regulates our bodies to some degree. We become habituated in all sorts of ways. We become grounded in all sorts of ways. Thus any transition, any change that requires us to break out of our habits will bring some pain, even if it’s a change we want. I was ready to leave Boston in 1999. It was the right time for a life transition. But I see it so clearly now: despite how right it seemed, my body was still wired for its patterns of life in Boston. And because I didn’t know I grieving that life, I became ill.

One of the standard seminary books on understanding grief is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which he writes about his experience after the death of his wife (whom he refers to as H.) and his recognition of how deeply ingrained in him the habits of being her husband were. He writes, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it.”[6] I assume something like this happens with any life transition. A new school means different teachers, different peers, a different pattern to the day—the old ways have to shift. You or your partner receive a life-threatening diagnosis and in the blink of an eye all routine becomes geared towards treatment; life’s daily familiarities and pleasures become elusive such that even food tastes differently. You lose a job—especially one that really matched your identity and sense of calling—and you must break with the habits of that job. You have a baby, and you must break with old habits. You retire, and you must break with old habits. Aging at any time in our lives, but certainly as our bodies and our minds begin to decline, requires that we break with old habits. Or consider becoming sober: for addicts the body is utterly enmeshed with a substance, completely regulated by the need to have that substance. Getting sober is a grief-ridden process. Caroline Knapp, the late Boston-based journalist, said of her addiction to alcohol, “this is a love story. It’s about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling. It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without.”[7]

At the heart of our life transitions there is always some degree of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, some level of pain. “Sometimes tears come to my eyes,” says Rev. Walsh. “I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.” “Change alone is unchanging,” said the weeping philosopher. But it’s also really, really hard. Even if we’ve moved on in our minds, our bodies long for the way life was.

In the midst of the grief that comes with life transitions we have spiritual resources available to us. Perhaps most importantly we have our own capacity for quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. When I open worship I ask you to “find that place inside, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace.” We don’t typically go there when confronted with a major life transition. We don’t typically go there when the going gets tough, when we’re in pain, when we’ve just lost our job, when we’ve just received the diagnosis, when the funeral director is talking to us about arrangements for a deceased loved-one. We’re just as likely to be screaming or panicking, passing out or curled up on the floor in the fetal position. It takes real discipline to find a place of strength and grounding inside when your sources of strength and grounding outside have just disappeared.

In C.S. Lewis’ theology, that place of quiet and stillness inside would be the door that opens to his relationship with God. But in the midst of grief he writes of that door being shut and bolted: “Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”[8]

In moments of life transition we need to stop and grieve for the life that is—for better or for worse—slipping away. We need times of quiet and stillness to say, think and feel whatever it is we need to say, think and feel about our old life before we can fully embrace the new. We need times of peacefulness and paying attention in order to break well with old habits.

Caroline Knapp wrote about her experience of finding that place of silence and stillness in community—in AA meetings. She said “When people talk about their deepest pain, a stillness often falls over the room, a hush so deep and so deeply shared it feels like reverence. That stillness keeps me coming, and it helps keep me sober, reminding me what it means to be alive… what it means to be human.”[9]And Rev. Walsh is right. We can expect tears. Because in those silent, still places, where we find comfort and solace, and even joy, there we can grieve, and in grieving well we can make ourselves ready for whatever new life awaits.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1]Heraklietos of Ephesos, “Change Alone is Unchanging,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #655.

[2]Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Expect Chaos,” This Piece of Eden (Boston: Skinner House, 2001) p. 45.

[3]Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “Tears” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 6.

[5] Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari; and Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 85.

[6]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 47.

[7]Knapp, Caroline, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Delta Book, 1996) p. 5.

[8]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 46.

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.