Search Words

Monday, July 1, 2013

Normalnoi zhizin versus "Preter-Normality"

I am struggling through a rather thought-provoking book,  "HIV is God's Blessing": Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia by Jarrett Zigon.  The reason I find it difficult is that the author is a rather well-educated sociologist and writes in that style.  He drops name I don't know, and uses terminology that I don't necessarily understand, or perhaps I just don't grasp the nuances.

Also, I'm not critical of Russian political structures as is the author.

But, it is dealing with recovery programs in Russia, particularly Church-sponsored endeavors, and so I'm determined to get as far as I can with it.  It is stirring up many issues, which I will probably discuss here because they are indeed pertinent to this blog's stated purpose.

But, the first thing I can get into is my objection to the concept of recovery as a return to 'normality.'  Unfortunately, Bill W. used this idea in Alcoholics Anonymous and it has stuck like a biblical truth: the 12 Steps 'restore' us to sanity.  While I appreciate the sentiment, it is rather misleading.  Restore means we were sane and then got lost.  I would suggest that we are always insane so long as we live without God.  If we are restored to our previous state, and that state is godless, then we are restored to a point that will eventually lead us back into addiction.

We always think of 'restoration' as a move backwards: we restore a car to its 'original condition.'  The problem is that once restored, it will fall back into the same patterns of disrepair, because the design never changes.  Restoration is always a temporary solution.

I have seen countless addicts fail in sobriety because they can't shake that idea from their heads.  They want to go back to the 'way things were.'  The problem is that 'the way things were' was what got them addicted to begin with!  We must break the false romance with the past and look forward to the unexplored territory of spiritual growth.

Looking back is as dangerous for us as it was for Lot's wife.

In Russia, treatment programs seem to use this idea of normal'naya zhizn' (this is how he writes it in the book, but I've found more references to it as нормальной жизни or normalnoi zhizin, so I've used that in the title of this post), normal life, as the goal of a recovery program.  This is a derivative of this notion of 'restoration,' and I believe it will continue to hamper recovery efforts in Russia.

Think about it: what if 'normal life' is a life without prayer but with lots of social drinking?  That's normal life in Russia right now: most Russians do not actively practice their faith, and society is dominated by secular materialism.  This is why addict rates are so high (just like the US and the rest of the West, where the problems of addiction have spread out across a much wider array of obsessions).  The people are dying because they are starving for God, but the Church is still struggling out from under centuries of domination by oppressive forces to take its place in society.

Normal life will always fail to produce sobriety.  In fact, normal life is the biggest contributing factor to sobriety.  Telling the addict that he must return to normal life is a bit like telling him nothing has to change in order to stay sober.  Just be like your neighbors.

I have learned that being an Orthodox Christian and being a sober addict require the same ambivalence towards 'normal life.'  We must live our lives without a real concern for what others do and what is normal for them, because they do not need God the way we do.

They can be angry and hold resentments without imploding.  We cannot.

They can drink and use in moderation without losing control.  We cannot.

They can go without prayer and be happy without God.  We cannot.

That's normal life in most parts of the world.  Normal life kills addicts and mangles Christians.  We must reject it for ourselves, though this does not mean that we must deprive others of their access to it.  Normal life is for normal people.  Addicts are not normal.

Christians and addicts need to embrace their eccentricities.  It does not mean rubbing other people's noses in the differences, but rather accepting that normal life is not for entirely us.  We have to cope with it, but not live in it.  We can call it 'Preter-Normality,' a life beyond the normal.

If we want Christ and sobriety, we must first embrace the idea that nothing in this world can come between us and our goal.  All social expectations and temptations must be avoided if they interfere in what we seek to attain.  Fashion and social compliance are necessarily going to be hit-and-miss for those seeking a spiritual life.

I think Russians intuitively get that: look at the popularity of books like Everyday Saints and the Russian veneration of 'Fools-for-Christ.'  I think Russians struggle with the strong social impulse to be normal and fit into society, yet they also understand that to follow Christ means to resist this when it becomes an idol.

Certainly the Communist regime made an idol of this compliance feature of Russian culture.  Socialist regimes require a great deal of social compliance in order to centralize the economy and society as a single-party system.  The collapse of this system, however, has not done away with the pre-existing urge to have everyone comply with authority.

While Christianity does not advocate active rebellion against the state just for the sake of not being 'dominated,' neither does Christianity demand total social compliance.  In fact, much of the Church's history has been marked by tension with the state.  But, it is a tension that, I believe, perfects people.  Sleepy people who develop complacency fall into grave error.  We must stay awake in this life.  Boredom is absolutely dangerous.

Normalcy for the addict is boring and dangerous.  yet, he often craves it because he is exhausted from his struggles with the disease.  This is why  'Preter-Normality' (за-нормальности in Russian) a life beyond the normal, is so critical: the addict can enjoy many of the benefits of normal life, taking into account his own 'abnormalities.'

We can be in the world, but not of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment