Today we launch a series that will carry us for the next three months. More importantly, this series will invite us deeper into personal growth and spiritual development than we might imagine, should we really apply ourselves to what is available. The series will have us walk through the Twelve Steps that have helped millions upon millions of people in their struggle with addictions of many kinds, first beginning with focused attention on alcoholism. The Big Book, as it is called, provides a roadmap for recovery written as words of advice from those who have ventured into this challenging journey. Father Richard Rohr taught many years ago about the spirituality of the Twelve Steps, discovering how aligned the steps are to spiritual transformation. His book, Breathing Under Water is the written byproduct of his teachings of the subject. In his book, Rohr rightly notes that we are all addicted to something – our way of seeing and engaging the world that has helped us survive yet simultaneously limits our capacity to truly live into who God has invited us to become. Thus, the twelve steps are really for everyone who wants to live into their True Self (see Thomas Merton), a place of freedom of living in the grace and space of God that we may not have experienced for many, many years. I invite you, fellow addicts, to join me in pursuit of the invitation to a richer, fuller, more deeply connected life infused with the Spirit of God not just for our own wellbeing but for the hope and healing of the world.
There is a really interesting story in Jesus’ ministry about the healing of a Gerasene man (Luke 8:26-39) that provides a good launching point for thinking about the first of the Twelve Steps: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. We catch up with Jesus in his home region around the Sea of Galilee. He had been teaching and healing on the Jewish side of the lake, and told his inner-circle disciples that he wanted to go to the other, non-Jewish side in the region of the Gerasenes – a significant city in ancient (now) Jordan. As the story goes, as soon as they arrived on shore the were met by a deeply disturbed man afflicted by demonic possession. The man was living like a wild animal in isolation in a cemetery – locals couldn’t keep him under control so they let him be in the place of the dead. The picture brings to mind people we see today afflicted with certain types of mental illness.
Apparently, Jesus immediately began handling the threat this man posed by speaking healing into the man, which the “demons” recognized with a shriek. Whatever was torturing the man did not want to die. Jesus asked for some identification and found out there were many demons plaguing the poor man. Realizing Jesus was all about bringing healing, the demons requested to be cast into a herd of nearby pigs, which Jesus granted! What Jewish man cared anything at all about pigs, anyway? The possessed pigs hurled themselves into the lake where they drowned – one last destructive act costing someone other than the formerly possessed man to pay for. The man was healed. The people in the region were respectfully freaked out, and begged Jesus to leave (for fear of losing more pigs?). The man was instructed to stay behind and share the good news that had happened to him (Step Twelve, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy who lived so much of his life plagued with these demons. Thinking in term of mental illness, we know that things happened to him that were largely out of his control. His was a nasty mix of nature and nurture, his genetics dancing with the environment he was born into. We don’t know much about him, but we know a bunch about how our hardwired genetic code can impact our mental health. And we also know how much the environment into which we were born can shape our state of mind, literally wiring our brain in ways that may not be healthy at all. Like a curse, those who experience significant adverse childhood experiences are more likely to exhibit a wide range of unhealthy behaviors that negatively impact their future. Unchecked, the painful future is generally predictable – a tough road is ahead for these folks who did not choose their genetic code or their parents’ approach to raising them.
We are all born, however, with a certain orientation to the world, and we are all shaped by the world into which we are born. Nature and nurture shape us into who we are. If we spend much time at all in honest reflection about our own origin stories we will admit that we didn’t grow up in sterile labs with perfect environments but rather messy kitchens with last night’s (or last month’s/year’s/decade’s) dirty dishes still sitting around. We were born into human environments. Those who raised us were raised by humans as well, shaped by their own nature and nurture – all of which simply “is” and none of it benign. We are all impacted, affected, blessed and wounded. Recognizing this truth is an important step in our own maturation as we begin to see ourselves differently and perhaps choose to take ownership of our own personal development. To take responsibility for our lives requires us to be honest about where we’ve come from and how our nature and nurture have shaped us. We have to address this, otherwise we are stuck before we start, choosing to run a race without legs to stand on, let alone run. Or like wanting to live in sanity without first addressing our insanity.
Some of us may not recognize a struggle at all, to which Richard Rohr says:
People who have moved from seeming success to seeming success seldom understand success at all, except a very limited version of their own. People who fail to do it right, by even their own definition of right, are those who often break through to enlightenment and compassion… Until you bottom out and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel. For that is what is happening! Why would you? You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as wanting. In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources and resources fail you. – Breathing Under Water
In his book, The Sacred Enneagram, Christopher Heuertz provides some helpful insight into ourselves using this ancient tool that has helped countless people move forward in their understanding of themselves. In short, the Enneagram seeks to identify how we engage the world – how we’re wired – and what that wiring seems to bring with it for good and bad. While we all are mixed bags with a little bit of every one of the nine types thrown into the batch, there is generally one type that seems to describe us more than others that helps us recognize our True Self. Our type also seems to predict some tendencies when we are under stress – the way we cope mentally and emotionally differs from one type to the next. When we are not in a healthy place, especially, we can find ourselves thinking, feeling and acting in ways we wouldn’t when we’re healthy. And we can’t stop until we get relief, even if that relief is hitting bottow. Sometimes, especially if our wound is deep these coping mechanisms become extreme and we find ourselves feeling like we’re living naked and alone in places of death. Vulnerable yet shrieking. Costing ourselves and others far more than we could have ever imagined.
In truth, we’re all in the same boat to varying degrees, all powerless against what has formed us and incapable of becoming free apart from the power of God to help us. We may yet be in denial about this, by the way, telling ourselves it’s not that bad and that it’s under control. But if we could see what our True Self looks like, radiating the image of God unencumbered by what holds us, we would realize that we have not come close to arriving, no matter how comfortable we may feel. If we could get beyond our egos and the never-ending need to manage our egos, we might discover the True Manager who can actually help us move forward. To be human is to struggle along these lines. Even the Apostle Paul struggled with this stuff:
I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the very things I want to do and find myself doing the very things I hate…for although the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not. – Romans 7:15, 18
Like Jesus with the suffering naked guy in the cemetery, our healing starts with naming what we’re struggling with. For alcoholics, it’s alcohol on the surface, yet something deeper, too. Depending on your type, you may struggle with the passions of anger, pride, deceit, envy, avarice, fear, gluttony, lust or sloth. You may also find yourself fixated on resentment, flattery, vanity, melancholy, stinginess, cowardice, planning, vengeance, or indolence. These are ways we manage our deepest fears which are tied to our deepest wounds from early in our life. Naming is hard, humbling, yet freeing.
When we name what we’re addicted to, the process begins. Expect shrieking – our addiction has become normal for us. Changing it is difficult. But the goal of healing is worth it. That poor guy was too sick to live with anybody – he didn’t want to live by their rules and they didn’t want him wrecking their world either. Healing brings people together. The power of God to help us is all around us – it goes where we don’t expect it to in order to reach us, just as Jesus crossed physical and sacred boundaries to heal the possessed man.
The question ever before us is are we willing to admit our powerlessness? Our True Selves are found in God, and are brought to life only with God’s power. May we have the strength to admit our weakness and find ourselves empowered by God to overcome that which seeks to continually draw us down. This is the first step toward healing.