As a college instructor, my job is to inflict pain on my students–the pain of discipline and hard work. Student responses to pain consistently fall into two basic categories: those who are willing to submit to the pain and those who resist. The “submitters” graduate with a college degree. The “resisters” drop out. The more a student resists the pain, the lower his or her grade. Paradoxically, students who resist pain create a host of other pains: procrastination anxiety, patterns of failure, shame, guilt, etc. Thus, there’s no escaping pain. College reflects our own lives in that we all have a tendency to work fairly hard to avoid life’s inevitable emotional pain. And our attempts to avoid the pain, create more pain. Hence, our life’s mission: Work the pain. When we submit to it, we master it.
Dr. Scott Peck discusses this notion in his book A World Waiting to Be Reborn: Civility Rediscovered. Like Adam and Eve, we too are driven from the pain free Garden of Eden to exist in the painful real world:
As a psychiatrist, what fascinates me is Genesis [chapter] 3, for this is the essential account of human psycho-spiritual evolution. Specifically, it is the story of how we humans evolved into consciousness. The first thing that happened after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is that they became conscious. And having become conscious, they became conscious of themselves… they became self-conscious. How was it that God knew they had eaten the fruit? He knew precisely because they had become shy and modest–that is, self-conscious. We come to yet another great truth that this rich story teaches us: We cannot go back to Eden. For the way is forever barred by cherubim with flaming swords. We cannot (except at the peril of our souls) reverse evolution. We can only go forward through the desert into deeper and ever-deeper levels of consciousness for our salvation. This is such an important truth because an enormous amount of psycho-spiritual disease–including the abuse of drugs–arises out of the attempt to get back to Eden (1993, p. 15-16).
Accordingly, emotional and spiritual growth requires ever deeper levels of self-consciousness of our weaknesses and sin. And this ever increasing self-consciousness hurts. Therefore, our compulsions, addictions, or any negative behavior patterns are attempts to numb the pain of reality of our self-consciousness–a sort of temporary Garden of Eden. We use addictive behavior patterns to fog ourselves into deeper levels of unconsciousness which only serve to halt our progress. What’s worse, reality always comes raging back.
Full blown drug addicts or alcoholics cannot hide their past trauma from society. We see their pain in the form of homelessness, spouse and child abuse, joblessness, bankruptcy, crime, rehab, etc. Eventually, societal laws force addicts to confront their pain (and the pain they inflict on others). For the rest of us, however, we manage to hide and/or function despite our pain. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have addictive mindsets as coping mechanisms. These behaviors manifest themselves in many forms. Dr. Lee Jampolsky in his book, Healing the Addictive Mind defines addiction:
There have been many uses of the word addiction, most in relation to chemical dependency. One of my goals with this book is to have you become more aware of the breadth of addiction. The professional community is in the process of shifting the definition of addiction so that it is broader. For example, leading medical experts in chemical dependency define addiction as ‘continued compulsive use despite adverse consequences.’ I feel that such a definition can be applied equally well to addiction to money, possessions, food, work, relationships, sex–or any other thing. I believe that most of us, to some degree, have pockets of addiction in our lives. The extent to which we are stuck in our addictive patterns is the extent to which we inhibit our potential to love. If you have become tired of attempts to find hiding places from the world, long for relief from running faster on the treadmill, or realize that more does not equal happier, then this book is addressed to you (1991, p. XV).
As we know, addiction comes in all shapes and sizes. The following addictive mindsets are easier to hide but afflict many (dare I say most, if not all of us?) in our LDS community: eating, perfectionism, need for approval, attention, exercise, shopping, work, prescription medication, anger, internet, tv, addictive relationships, music…the list is long. (In short, fill in your own blank; engaging in any activity which interferes with your ability to function is an addiction and/or compulsion.) Addictive mindsets run in families and are passed from one generation to the next. Thus, we cope with pain in the way our family systems coped. The chain is broken only when we recognize and own are individual mindsets and learn healthy coping mechanisms. Wouldn’t you agree then, that we’re all in this together?!
When we examine our addictive and/or compulsive behavioral patterns/mindsets through this type of lens, we develop a much deeper sense of love and compassion for ourselves and others. Dr. Peck offers further insight into “desert life”:
Consciousness and pain are inextricably interwoven. If someone has severe enough physical pain, what do we do? We give him an anesthetic to render him unconscious. Similarly, people will anesthetize themselves to deal with their emotional pain–either with drugs or, more commonly, through a variety of psychological tricks called defense mechanisms. While sometimes necessary–even life-saving–these defense mechanisms are more often employed in an unhealthy fashion to limit consciousness so as to ward off existential, ‘legitimate’ suffering. With imposed limitations of consciousness they then prevent the person from moving forward through the desert and becoming all that she or he can be. Conversely, psychotherapy–the healing of the psyche–is a process of relinquishing these defenses so as to directly face the painful issues of life. So the further you proceed through the desert, the more conscious you become, the more healthy and ‘saved’ [salvation] and civil you are are, the more it will hurt. The desert is hard, and so people stop their journey–they burrow in the sand rather than deal with the prickly cactus, sharp rocks, heat, and snakes. So they discontinue their ‘education.’ But, as you go further into the desert–if you go far enough–you will begin to discover little patches of green, little oases that you had never seen before. And if you go still further, you may even discover some streams of living water underneath the sand, or if you go still further, you may even be able to fulfill your own ultimate destiny. Our best learning is to deal with the pain of the desert. You will become ever-more aware of the aging process working within you, more aware of your own sins and psychopathology. You will also become more aware of the psychopathology of others and the games they play–as well as the sorrows and burdens they bear. And finally you will become ever-more conscious of the sins and evils of society. That’s the bad news. The good news is that simultaneously–paradoxically–you will experience more joy. These principles hold true for groups as well as individuals. Organizations, too, are either more or less conscious. Families, churches, businesses, and governments become sick by refusing to face painful realities. If they allow themselves to become conscious of their painful issues, however, then they can work on organizational healing and grow into painful but joyful maturity (Addiction: the Sacred Disease, 1991, Simon and Schuster Audioworks).
Dr. Peck further details our empowerment in genuine community, particularly A.A. and its Twelve Steps: “Alcohol is called ‘spirits’ and it is a spiritual disorder–a yearning for spirit. A.A. (or Alcoholics Anonymous) is therefore based on a Higher Power” (Audioworks, 1991). According to Peck, here’s why it works:
- The program teaches us why we need to go forward in the desert toward God. It gives us hope and is a form of spiritual, religious conversion. It’s a tough program because of the resistance of its members which requires submission as the very First Step.
- The program teaches us that we don’t have to go through the desert alone. In short, we are a part of a community. We are all broken, and we can no longer hide our brokenness–thus, we are forced into community in healthy ways.
- The program teaches us how to deal with pain. We learn to ask these questions: Is my suffering enhancing or limiting my existence? How would I behave if I didn’t have this anxiety or guilt? Now, how do I act that way? (Audioworks, 1991).
Job, of the Old Testament, was an effective teacher of pain and how to master it using our Savior as the Higher Power. Like Job, as we learn to submit to and master our own pain, we increase our capacity to help others deal with their pain. Thus, the power of our LDS community increases exponentially! I’ve committed myself to this cause. Will you join me?