Back into Bondage: Why Freedom Is Hard

At a 12-step meeting I attend the discussion on the table one night was freedom. My fellow recovering addicts had many beautiful things to say about the kind of freedom that they’ve encountered since beginning to break from their addictions, several coming to new realizations even as they spoke about the kind of transformed experience of life they subtly now enjoy—new ways they experience their family, their environment, fragile passing moments of beauty they’d been blind to. (Indeed, this kind of process revelation is some of the wonderful magic of recovery groups.) I had a different take that evening.

Only days before, I had experienced my strongest temptation to relapse since re-entering recovery. I walked laps around my neighborhood for hours, and I smoked my pipe and prayed, and I sat on benches until it was dark and I was tired enough to feel like the worst had passed. The thing is, not only did I not want to act on my addiction; I had no desire to act on my addiction, no more than I’d desired to in months. Why would I? The thought of pornography only disgusted me. I knew it had nothing to offer. It’s not that I wanted to feel anything particular or even to feel nothing. There was absolutely nothing I desired from it, yet I found myself desiring it, not anything it pretended to be but the addiction itself, because it was at least something, rather than nothing; it was the comfort of bondage.

Gerald May in Addiction and Grace puts his finger briefly on the problem of freedom for an addict. He suggests that freedom offers no normality. In all of its great unpredictability, addiction assures normality. Every day, you shall serve heroin. Whenever you have spare time, you will pursue the ideal, perfect sexual image. When you don’t know what to do, you will act out; when you don’t know who you are, you are an addict; when you don’t know what orders your life, it’s this. Exchanging one addiction for another is easy, chain-smoking AA attenders realize, because the problem wears another mask; the chains are a different color. Freedom is hard, because there is no system of a normal order; in freedom, everything is free, unpredictable. The addict’s illusion of power (the focus of Step 1) is shattered, and she is confronted with how uncontrollable so much of life has always been all along. In freedom, nothing will ever be normal again.

One must live without chains, but how does one do that? must live without a master, but how does one live? Thus in at least one sense, freedom is hard because addiction is familiar (more, all one has come to know) at the same time that freedom is unknown, uncertain and certainly fearful. It seems perhaps like this is why Brooks can’t make it on the outside in The Shawshank Redemption. Addicts have been ‘institutionalized.’ But this is to say not enough. It is not simply that freedom is too big a thing for the addict but that it might also be too small, that without an endless, infinite, insatiable ordering principle that makes demands on life (or demands my whole life) and orders my reality, freedom is shallow, unappealing, meaningless glitz. Bondage appeals. Maybe this too is part of why Brooks, not despairing but matter-of-factly, declined the option of life as a free man.

Sin operates in the same way. The Hebrew proverb says, ‘Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.’ Why do we return to habits of sin, to destructive patterns? May, in fact, identifies all sin and attachment as addiction, which is further than I would go. Yet his point about freedom from attachment I think carries over universally. He writes succinctly, ‘God is never “normal,”‘ and this is what we struggle with. We miss our attachments; we’re familiar with our old patterns, sure; but worse, Gød doesn’t neatly replace them with a new normal. Gød does not give us our script, and we love to follow scripts. Gød does not tell us what role we are to play and how to play it, and we want to know who we are and how to be it. Freedom from our bondage means that we must become comfortable with improv, with responsibility, with getting it wrong, with grace. Bondage appeals. Freedom is hard. And in the absence of a compelling reason to hazard the costs of freedom, in the absence of a compelling freedom, we can long for old baggage like Israel longed to be back among Pharaoh’s slaves.

That night my addiction appeared unmasked before my sober mind; I knew exactly what it was, and I loathed it. Yet it was honest on its bare face. It said, ‘I will claim you. I will tell you what is important in your life. I will tell you what you will do tomorrow night and the next night and the next night. I will tell you lies, but they will tuck you into your reality. I will be your master and reward you poorly, but I will be your master.’ Here is the ‘voice’ that had tempted me. I struggled to explain my trial to my meeting, how hard I’d found freedom then, the very thing we were celebrating that night, but I think in the end it was because I was using too many words and too many metaphors. It is simply this: we are tempted to exchange our freedom, however much we hate what we serve, however much we hate bondage, because our bondage pretends to be any kind of life at all. But this is just the final mask of addiction before its absence is unveiled. I empty my pipe beside the park bench and hear Jesus’ call within my memory, ‘Come, follow me,’ and I find the demon has left me.

Advertisements

Engage.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s