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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Heading to Romania

This has been a crazy week for me: last Friday I was contacted by my friends in Iaşi saying that Fr. Meletios Webber would not be able to make his long-planned presentations to the clergy of the Moldovan Metropolitanate and asking if I would be available.  Well, it has taken almost a week, but we're jumped through all the hoops and it looks like it is going to happen.

So, I will be heading to Romania to lecture on addictions recovery before about 1,300 Romanian Orthodox priests.  It is not some thing I was expecting!  I'm not sure how easy it will be to post from Romania, so there may be some interruptions in regular posting while this is going on.

I hope I don't disappoint them.  I've already asked them to lower their expectations of me... that way I will sound better.  If there are recordings, I will ask if they can be posted.

Please pray for me!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Education and Immorality

There is a common narrative that tells us the better educated one is, the better decisions one will make in life.  I think there was a time that was more true than not, but it is looking like that simply isn't the case anymore.

One thing education cannot do is provide morality unless morality is part of the education curriculum and the atmosphere of the educational system.  These days, it isn't true.

We could make an argument that our educational systems are providing a type of morality, which is, by historical standards, rather ‘immoral.’  College is now more about sex and intoxication as important cultural experiences rather than critical thinking and learning the aspects of good character.

Here’s an example of what college students are really thinking about:

Yes, folks, an ‘alcohol enema.’  What does this tell us?

Well, not much on its own.  But, when held up with the other many examples we have from colleges, we are seeing young people who have be purposefully subverted from entering adulthood by being kept as ‘teenagers’ mangle themselves with horrid experiments in immorality.

They are not being prepared for adulthood, but rather for excess.  By introducing debauchery and putting off the growing specter of adulthood, maturity becomes harder and harder for young adults.  Like Adam and Eve in they are being given the choice to indulge and avoid maturity or take on the hard lessons of life, with all the encouragement going to the former.

Colleges are laying the foundations for a whole generation that will struggle with addiction because they are teaching that adulthood and responsibility are to be avoided (except when it suits administrators) and that morality is an ‘inconvenient truth.’  Students are not being taught critical thinking but rather to repeat the ‘critical thoughts’ of their professors.  On their own, they make horrible decisions, like alcohol enemas.

Adulthood requires the ability to think critically and understand morality, but since we now depend on ‘the system’ to provide these, and they are not, college students are thrust into the world with a number of rude awakenings:

1) the world expects them to be responsible, even though they have been taught not to be responsible.

2) the world expects them to be honest and upright, even though they have been taught that needy people can’t be expected to do those things, and who is needier than a college grad with no life experience?

3) the world expects them to earn a living and pay taxes by working hard and showing up on time, when their experience of work before graduation has been partying punctuated by a few classes.

Tossing the coddled into the cold water of reality makes adulthood all the more painful.  Where do we turn when we are in pain?

We see it already: alcohol, drugs (legal and illegal), food, porn, sex, gambling… is their really any difference between the addictions of the ‘underclasses’ and those of the ‘college grads?’  I would say very little.  Addiction is addiction.

I think our educational systems are part of the larger social problem of addiction.  Things need to change.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Society of Over-Indulgence

Here is another controversial article, that moves from obesity to prescription drug addiction to politics:

While you may disagree with his political conclusions, what is hard to deny is the problem of over-indulgence and our loss as a society of the ability to suffer any kind of self-denial.

We have made comfort our master, and it is killing us.  I am saying this as someone who could stand to lose a few pounds and skip an afternoon snack (or two).  I know what it is to eat because I am stressed rather than really hungry.

But, there are plenty of people who are killing themselves with those same things, and our cultural narrative encourages excessive consumption.  We are told to 'supersize' everything, then take on a radical diet or, even worse, pop a magic pill that 'burns fat.'  Yeah, right... that'll work.

The truth is that we have lost our expectations of struggle, and so the hard work of denying ourselves has become an anathema to our culture.  Our heroes in the media and entertainment are not people of accomplishment, but people of indulgence.  They have more money, fame, and sex than they can handle.  When it catches up with them and the records don't sell like they did, and the drugs stop taking the edge off but rather just barely keep you functional, then you do like the latest rock star with an on-stage melt-down and head off to 'rehab.'

We are not getting at the real problem: our society must once again embrace the ideas that hard work and self-control are virtuous.

In the first generations of AA, members were often sponsoring other newer members after only six month of sobriety.  Now, we have meetings full of people who have years of abstinence who have not fully worked through the steps for the first time.  What has changed?

Those with real sobriety have to spend years discovering what it is to embrace hard work that society now rejects.  Responsibility, that cornerstone of adulthood and a clean-conscience, is always passed off to someone else.  The modern narrative is to blame someone else: the rich, the poor, the whites, the blacks... someone who is 'other.'

We never hear anyone say, "This is my fault."

So, I can even blame my 'spare tire' on the food companies... and have we not seen this already?

We will continue to have exploding rates of dependency until our society returns to more traditional views of self-control, hard work, and acceptance of suffering as part of life.  To be honest, we all need to toughen up a little bit.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Materialism and Suicide

With the economy here in a shambles and there's little sign of any improvement ahead for most people.  So, in a society that values the material, it only makes sense that this news would bring more despair and increase the suicide rate.

So, now we see this:

What does this mean for addicts and recovery?  Well, the symptoms of fear and despair are common to both the suicide and the addict.  So long as our society provides a narrative that encourages despair, the suicide rate will be high.

So, what is it that encourages despair in so many people?


So long as the world is boiled down to 'stuff,' man will always have cause to worry and despair when it comes to poverty, lack, and security.  This does not matter whether you are the ardent capitalist or the convinced Marxist... both systems are obsessed with materialism.  They theorize about how to properly attain or distribute wealth, but both assume a world where wealth and human effort are king.

There is no God in either.  Sure, individuals can choose to believe in God under a capitalist or Neo-Marxist system, but neither system rely on God.

Now, I'm not advocating a theocracy... those are almost always bad news.  What I'm saying, however, is that humans cannot look at market forces, either directed or undirected, as their source of hope and salvation.  After all, both systems, in defining a limited good (wealth) automatically define a bad (lack of wealth).

In Socialistic countries where wealth is regulated, there is an obsession with how much other people have and how it must be moved here and there lest suffering begin.  These regimes, in their more dysfunctional forms, will often use this control to garner support, as in, "Comrade, if you were more cooperative, perhaps you would get a larger apartment and a raise from the Party..."

Capitalist systems also ride on similar fears, the independent businessman is constantly worried about meeting his own needs.  But, you see, he's also worried about getting his 'share' of the wealth.

In whatever system we find ourselves, we must be able to look beyond the system for happiness.  This is why sobriety and Christianity both must look beyond the system.  If your sobriety depends on your material circumstances, then it is an illusion.  Recovery is all about our inner disposition regardless of our circumstances.

Recovery is always about a God above the material who can act within the system, but also outside of it.  Therefore, the conditions of the market are relatively unimportant.  Once this outlook is attained, then it is very easy to lose one's fears.  It is getting to that stage that is the most difficult.

Suicide is a symptom of a society that has forgotten a loving God, or never knew Him at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Moderation and Sanity - Part 2

So, what of Chesterton's quote?  Well, he argues that an insane man has a reason for everything, and only a sane man has the freedom to something meaningless.

Necessity is a prison, therefore having a reason to do something is a type of confinement.  There is no moderation in confinement: you are either in or out.

Necessity has boundaries which are easily defined and met, and so if we reduce life to necessity, we are not really being moderate.  Insanity really begins when a man is overwhelmed by false necessities.

The walls of necessity are fears, which tell us not to go over the fence lest we suffer and die.  Fear keeps us meeting out necessities, and so some fears are helpful.

But, moderation is not about necessity, since we can enjoy things in moderation that are not necessary.  

There is a difference between eating to necessity and eating to enjoyment.  It is the second, enjoyment, where moderation becomes an issue: when does my enjoyment become dangerous to me?

Moderation pulls us back from the dangerous cliff that enjoyment presents: we can lean out over the cliff to enjoy the view below, but too far and we fall.  The insane, immoderate man jumps, but the man of necessity never approaches the cliff because he does not need the view in order to survive.  Only the moderate man can go beyond mere existence and see the world.

Art teaches us that humans have a drive beyond necessity.  Art is not necessary for survival in animals, yet archaeology teaches us that all humans have engaged in some kind of art.  Art satisfies a deeper longing beyond necessity.

Art brings joy, and humans really do need to have joy beyond mere survival.  people can survive without being happy, but it is rarely by intention.

But art, as with all other things not required for biological life, must be governed by moderation.  Moderation keeps the drive for art from sacrificing one's existence.

The insane man is not governed by moderation, and he cannot be moderate.  That's because moderation is anchored in reality, and the insane man is prisoner to his false fears.  Insanity is to live only by necessity, and often by as many false necessities as real ones.

Moderation knows necessity, but not the other way around.  That's why it is often hard to quantify moderation, since necessity is all about quantification.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Moderation and Sanity

My friend Ioan has me thinking with his previous comment, and that's always a dangerous thing.  the ability to enjoy life is both a mark of moderation, but it is also sanity.  After all, enjoyment is often about things that are neither necessary nor meaningful: having a cup of tea and enjoying the sunset when you probably have half a dozen tasks with urgent need is probably a wasteful experience from a purely utilitarian perspective, yet such activities are infinitely healing and sane.

To this end, I remembered this quote from G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 2 of his book, Orthodoxy.  It is a tad long, but well worth it:

The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ's.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: "Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers." Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, "All right! Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth." Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, "So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!"
In my next post, I'll get into why moderation and purpose are not really related to one another, yet moderation and sanity are two sides of the same coin.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Sorry for the long absence, but this has been a busy week.

I've had an interesting exchange with a blog reader in Georgia (the country I would love to visit someday) over the topic of moderation.

Moderation is often mentioned in Orthodox literature, but never given its own title as a main subject the was 'abstinence' is.  If you read Orthodox literature, it seems total abstinence from things is the norm.

Well, it is... if you are a monk.  And, most of what we read is written by monks for monks.

Abstinence is the order of the monastic life because of the nature of its struggles: monastic leave the demands of 'city life' and embark on a pre-programmed set of 'afflictions' designed to help them repent and receive the full measure of God's love.

For us in the world, our affliction is moderation.  Moderation is hard, especially nowadays when our shelves are jam-packed with things that our great-grandparents never dreamed of.  We have access to information that a few generations ago seemed unimaginable for all but a few.

We have much to be moderate with, yet we have a seemingly limitless appetite.  We want more and more of the things we desire.  Humans can desire something even to their own destruction.  Addicts know what I mean, yet there are many people who will even follow ideologies to the point of absurdity and contradiction with reason and even self-preservation.

In some ways, we preach abstinence but hope for moderation.  Yet, this cannot be so in terms of addiction.  Sure, most sins we hope not to think about at all but will settle for not doing them, but addiction is the destruction of the will's ability to exercise moderation.

Moderation requires an intact will, a will that addiction damages.  Moderation is no longer an option for the addict.

You may ask about the food addict's need to eat, or the sex addict's need to maintain his marriage.  Again, we are not talking about moderately indulging.  A drinker or a meth addict can live without the substance.  The substance has no natural necessity the way food does or the way sex is in marriage.

Moderation is more than necessity.  Eating to necessity is not a matter of moderation unless one is confronted with the freedom to eat more.  The normal person can take a few extra bites beyond being full.  The food addict cannot.  Same for the sex addict: the normal person can have more activity at times without worrying that he'll end up in an alley the next evening.

Moderation is about the option to have more.  God does not force us only to eat just enough to survive, and 'wine maketh glad the heart of man.'  God does not expect man to live in total abstinence or measure every bite.  But, He knows that we ought not go overboard with our freedom to have a little more.

That balance is hard to reduce to a single set of rules.  That's what makes moderation so hard.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Romanian Priest talks about Psychology

This is a complicated topic, which comes up from time to time in discussions about the Orthodox Church's ministry to the suffering, particularly to those who are addicts.

An unavoidable aspect of recovery is psychology.  Yes, it has a role, particularly in dealing with contributing factors.  However, psychology itself, because it is devoid of any assumption of divine intervention, cannot treat addiction.

So, here's an article about what a famous Romanian Orthodox priest, Fr. Rafail Noica, has to say about priests and psychology:

Because most priests are neither highly developed in their spirituality (it isn't a job requirement, by the way) nor trained in psychology, it is important for them to know when they are dealing with a problem they can't handle and refer it to the proper authority on the matter.  For example, I refer some people to a monastery with some problems I'm not equipped to handle, or perhaps the person does not want to listen to me.  Other times, I will tell the person to go get psychological help to work through those issues until they are ready to deal with God.

Yes, some people are too sick to even deal with God in a direct manner.  A psychologist can be helpful in breaking down the immense barriers that people build up against the world, and, ultimately God.  Orthodox Christians understand the benefit of having saints: sometimes it is hard to talk to God, and so talking to His friends helps.  We can feel so alienated from Him that we need someone else to talk to to overcome our fears.

Now, I think that Fr. Rafail is asking a bit much of priests.  Sure, priests have the potential to be helpful with very sick people, but not all of them.  Then again, most people are not so sick as to need a psychologist.  Priests are ordained in the Orthodox Church to "to stand in innocency before thine Altar; to proclaim the Gospel of thy kingdom; to minister the word of thy truth; to offer unto thee spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew thy people through the laver of regeneration."  That's from the ordination prayers.  It says nothing about in-depth counseling, spiritual healing, etc.

We should be overly-cautious about placing too many expectations on priests, since much of what an addict needs to hear from a priest can only come from a priest who has a lot of experience of what he speaks.  A guy just out of seminary is like anyone in a new trade: he has the schooling, but none of the experience that makes all the difference.  Even a new psychologist isn't all that helpful in anything but the most straight-forward cases.

As for Fr. Rafail's comments about the West being spiritually dead, I will leave that up to you to decide.  Look around and answer that question for yourself.

But, when it comes to real spiritual healing versus psychology, let's get one thing straight: the psychologist heals an injured will through the power of that will to get better.  What he cannot do is get a broken will to heal itself.  At this point, there must be a divine intervention, something a psychologist cannot offer.  This is why psychology and medicine, both taught as schools of thought without God, do not have much success in treating addiction.

The priest is the one called upon to offer God to those in need.  The priests should be ready to do just that.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

PTSD and the Church

Following on the previous post about PTSD and the effects of alcohol on the brain, I think it is also true that unhealthy religions and unhealthy religious activity can have much the same effect.  People can use religion, or rather abuse religion, to as to avoid changing.

How is this done?  By using the religious tenets as a means by which to excuse bad behavior.  Simply put, when one is caught being rude or uncivilized, one blames God: "He told me to."

PTSD develops when one's unhealthy life experiences encounter the false premises of bad religions (or misunderstandings of good religions).  For example, if your religion tells you not to confess your sins to another, but you have that desire, you are forced to suppress it to your own detriment.  In this case, religions have been so weakened that few any longer teach absolute versions of this, and most now will allow members to see a psychologist or counselor, but it is all done outside the denomination.

A person who refuses to pray can also develop PTSD through the stresses of life and his sense of isolation from God.  When he continues to obstinately refuse regular prayer and conscious contact with God, yet his heart continues to yearn such consolation, a type of PTSD can develop as he becomes more and more 'shell-shocked' by life's challenges.

The term I think best suits this is 'The Passions.'  We develop the passions when we refuse to adapt to reality and live according to reality.  That's also what happens with PTSD.

Our passions, like PTSD, are rooted in the past, and jumbled up with legitimate desires mixed with fears that 'it will happen again.'

Counselling helps, but Faith is the greatest treatment.  

Ultimately, the person with unhealthy religious beliefs will be pushed away from Faith towards self-reliance, in which case PTSD develops... because that's what PTSD is.  It is a type of fearful self-reliance, where the person thinks his reactions are what is most important.

We should always be careful we are not living in the past, lest we fall into the trap of PTSD and the Passions.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

PTSD and Alcoholism

One of the readers, Michael, sent along this fascinating article on how alcoholism rewires the brain and leaves one susceptible to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

What the study shows is that heavy drinking impairs the mind's ability to shift out of one emotional scenario to the next.  That's what PTSD is in a nutshell: a prison of the past, along with all of its reactions.

People in recovery have long experienced the problem of 'arrested development' in the alcoholic personality. Alcoholics and other addicts tend to lean so heavily on their addictions that they no longer experience the growth that emotional pain offers and thus they ossify in an emotional sense.  Many even deteriorate to a form of 'infantilism,' a kind of perpetual childlike neediness and conscience-devoid sense of entitlement.

This study shows that there may be a chemical component to this problem.

The collective experience of recovery tells us that, over time, this changes and the brain does retrain itself.  However, most recovering alcoholics will tell you this takes years, even up to a decade.  Certainly, this can be lengthened by relapse or not working a program the way one is supposed to.

But, the demands of time cannot be avoided.

The same is true of Orthodoxy: it takes time for one to mature and develop as a Christian.  Christianity is not a one-time ticket-punch that get you into heaven.  Rather, it is an overcoming of a worldly PTSD.  We are called to emerge from the tangled web of sin and be healed by God's divine love so that we can live in the reality of the present with Him rather than in the prison of the memory.

Alcoholism is a prison, not only in terms of physical dependency but also emotional reliance.  PTSD is a natural byproduct when someone does not grow.  There is a reverse form of PTSD, it is called being 'spoiled rotten.'  They are two sides of the same coin, where one's attention is so firmly rooted in the past that the present is not truly reacted to.

There is so much new research out there that it is hard not to get excited.  But, we should always remain aware of the Solution.