“We should be non-attached, but non-attachment must not lead to apathy; we need to be concerned with justice, but we must not meet injustice with anger; we should be ready to act, but action must always take account of the conditions which lead people to act in unwholesome ways, and be motivated by compassion for both oppressed and oppressor.” – Rose Drew, Buddhist and Christian?: An Exploration of Dual Belonging, p. 159
Whenever I’m uncertain about a direction I must take in life I ask God to show me what I am supposed to do. OK, not always, but usually once I discover I’m not getting anywhere on my own I’ll do this. If I assume an attitude of mindfulness I will undoubtedly have my answer by the end of the day. Often it is not the answer that I wanted, but it’s always the answer that I need.
A few weeks ago I was in just such a position. It wasn’t a major life decision that I was unsure about but I was wondering if a topic I really wanted to write about was not only relevant, but also if how I wanted to discuss it wasn’t too “out there.”
The topic in question had to do with the language that we use to describe our life experiences. As I discussed in the post The Crucible of Vulnerability the language that we use does more than just describe life; it determines it. If we use language like “wall,” “battle,” or “war” to describe emotional experiences we run the risk of creating internal struggles instead of alleviating them.
In that post I noted that it wasn’t going to be there where I discussed the language that we use to describe our life experiences but it would be in the next post. This happens to be that next post. But how was I going to discuss the language that we use to describe our life experiences without being too, as I said, “out there?” That was the question that I had for God that morning. From there it was my job to pay attention.
That night I led the X3LA Men’s Recovery Group. It was a particularly successful group with around 12 men attending and filled with open sharing and a great deal of personal revelation and growth. After the meeting ended I walked out onto the streets of Hollywood with a friend of mine, a man who has been coming to the groups for the past three years.
“I’m coming up on that point,” my friend said in reference to “The Wall,” that stage in recovery two to three months after sobriety where the initial excitement of change has worn off and deeper growth becomes a reality [see Stages of Recovery (Change)]. He intentionally didn’t want to use the term “The Wall” because he didn’t want to build the concept up in his mind.
“It’s like with sports,” he continued. “You know you have a big game coming up, but you don’t focus on the big game because if you do it becomes too much and you’re not at your best. All I can do is focus on what is right in front of me and play the game that I have right now.”
As a distance runner who ran competitively in high school and college I could relate. The most sure-fire means toward choking was to put too much pressure on yourself. By my sophomore year in college I had figured out the key to distance running. “Don’t think, just run” had become my mantra.
In the midst of this conversation I realized that what I had asked God for earlier in the day was happening. Here was a living, breathing example of what I had felt called to write about – language and how we use it to describe our life experiences. My friend was faced with a moment he had come up against numerous times in his past. It felt like a wall and he didn’t want it to feel like a wall. He just wanted it to go away so that he could move on with his life, porn-free. I guess that’s another way of using language to change your experience. If you don’t name something, it doesn’t exist.
But experiences, both interior and exterior, do exist and to ignore them is to live endlessly in our compulsive behaviors because, at their core, compulsive behaviors develop as a means to avoid difficult experiences. The only way out of our compulsive behaviors is to go sober, feel the stuff that we don’t want to feel, attempt to understand what makes us feel this way (e.g. through groups, reading, or therapy), and begin to change things both within and outside of ourselves that cause these feelings to emerge.
A big part of changing things both within and outside of ourselves is taking a look at the language that we use to describe them. One of the major differences between White-Knuckle Change and Real Change (my terms) is that in White-Knuckle Change you attempt to change your behavior without changing the words you use to describe your experience. With Real Change you change your behavior because you are willing to change the words you use to describe your experience. It’s like changing the operating system of your life.
So how does this process of changing the words we use to describe our experience begin? Well, there are many different ways. I can’t get into all of them right here, but I can start with taking a look at the concept of “The Wall,” a concept no recovering person can truly avoid, and re-conceptualize it in an effort to aid people in getting to the other side. Although even “The Wall” itself can be re-conceptualized many different ways, I am going to do it from a Christian perspective.
One way of re-conceptualizing “The Wall,” other than ignoring it, is simply to rename it. But, as Shakespeare pointed out, “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” Or, in this case, “A wall by any other name would still leave us bruised and discouraged.” “The Wall” is called “The Wall” because it feels like one. And the more times you have come up against “The Wall” the bigger that wall feels, with more bricks and barbed wire.
So maybe it’s not “The Wall” that we need to rename as much as it is the verbs we use in our effort to deal with it. In the many years I have been helping men and women in dealing with “The Wall,” 99.9% of the time they have used verbs like “struggle,” “fight,” or “battle” in their description of facing it. Granted they are often referring to pornography and sex objects (i.e. people) as what they are up against and not “The Wall,” but in my estimation this is due to a lack of understanding.
Is it pornography and/or sex objects that we are up against in our efforts to change or is it our response to those things?
It’s our response and our response is an inner experience. When we are “struggling,” “fighting,” or “battling” pornography or sex objects we are really talking about “struggling,” “fighting,” or “battling” against “The Wall,” against that thing inside of us that prevents us from experiencing a life uncontrolled by our sexual behavior. “The Wall” is a concept but it feels real. It feels oppressive. What does our Christian Tradition tell us about responses to oppression?
Throughout history the two most frequent – and easiest – responses to a bigger, larger, stronger force – or “wall” – has been either to submit or fight. In regard to compulsive behavior, we know submission all too well. “This is too much!” we consciously or unconsciously tell ourselves. “My body wants to use pornography so badly! I can’t resist!” Four hours later we’re cleaning up the pieces of our regret and shame. Or, as I have outlined above, we take up a fighting stance. We’re going to battle the oppressive force. We’re going to “win” this “war.”
But if the oppressive force is within us, as it is in this case, and we battle it, we run the risk of walking around with a chronic war raging inside of us. This is White-Knuckle Change at its best. Sure we’re sober, but it’s just a matter of time before the oppression gets to us and we submit. This reminds me of some existential allegory where the main character is caught between the nothingness of death and the absurdity of a life filled with suffering and pain. If our only two options are to submit or fight what a hellish way to go through life!
What we are unaware of, and this, my friends, is the secret to overcoming “The Wall,” is that there is another option available to us besides the animalistic options of “flight” or “fight” when faced by a larger force. This option is the option made available to us by our faith traditions, especially Christianity. This “third option” is the essence of spirituality. This “third option” is the essence of Real Change.
Christian theologian Walter Wink wrote a fascinating exegesis (study of a scriptural passage) called “The Third Way.” This exegesis was on Jesus’s call found in Matthew 5: 39-41:
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (NIV).
Frequently this passage has been read as encouragement to willingly submit, even to the oppressor, trusting that God will see your sacrifice and reward you, if only in heaven. Wink argues, however, that from a cultural/historical perspective this simply is not the correct reading. Facing a more powerful force requires something greater than submission or sacrifice; it requires creative resistance.
In Jesus’s time, to offer your left cheek to be struck is to force the striker either to strike again with an open blow – treating the oppressed with equality – or strike with the back of the left hand, the unclean hand, bringing social disgrace upon the striker. In Jesus’ time, it was against Jewish law to take a man’s coat overnight; in giving up your coat, you would require the oppressor to break religious codes of ethics and bring on judgment. And in Jesus’ time, it was only lawful for a Roman soldier to require a citizen of an occupied territory to carry his things for a mile, beyond a mile was not only illegal, it was a shameful requirement.
In each of these scenarios there is resistance, which brings about change, but there is neither submission nor fighting; there is neither “flight” nor “fight.” There is, instead, a way of resisting that neither allows the oppressor the power he or she wishes to exercise nor does it require the victim to engage in the same violence in which the oppressor has engaged. Non-violent resistance openly says, “No, I will not submit to your oppression nor will I engage in your oppression by doing to you what you have done to me. If I do not participate you do not have me as an object against which to dump your own anger, unhappiness, and hate; you will have to live with that yourself. You will have to look within yourself and see the violence of your ways and as a result you will need to change not me.”
As demonstrated in the initial posts on this site, especially Change, Part I, our struggles with compulsive behavior, especially sexually compulsive behavior, are a product of mismanaging the discomfort caused by a larger, more powerful force. For many people struggling with compulsive behavior, at some point in their lives they felt that in order to remain connected to important people they needed to be someone other than whom they were. When they were treated with this conditional love they didn’t see that as a reflection of the oppressor, instead they saw it as a reflection of themselves. Clearly, if a child doesn’t meet up to the standards of a more powerful adult, it isn’t the adult who was at fault, it was the child; after all, the adults are the ones in charge.
The tricky thing about childhood development is that whatever is the nature of our initial relationships is often the nature of our lifetime of relationships. In order to feel psychologically “OK” or “in our place” we will unconsciously recreate the same patterns of behavior from our childhood so as to achieve that life-sustaining feeling of inclusion. If this recreation is based on conditional love we have the tendency to live lives of secret discomfort and discord. In the midst of this dynamic, the “illusion of inclusion” that is compulsive masturbation, pornography, anonymous sex, strip clubs, etc. sure feels like a nice retreat from our uncomfortable inner experience.
But for many of us, this retreat (submission or “flight”) into our compulsive behavior isn’t providing us relief anymore. For many different reasons it’s causing us pain and we want to change; we want to stop what we are drawn to do over and over again. On some level we hear the call of the Prophets who say, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isa. 61:1; NIV). If submission is no longer an option, then we are gong to fight. But if we’re going to fight, whom and what do we fight?
As I said, the most obvious foe is the object of our sexual desires – pornography, sexual objects (i.e. people), or even ourselves. But that’s like fighting a war on all fronts. And if this really is a war, the sad reality is that the only one fighting it is you. Your perceived “foes” are just living their own lives, oblivious to your struggles. This reminds me of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier from World War II who entrenched himself on the island of Lubang in the western Philippines for 29 years refusing to accept that the war had ended. Who won that “fight”?
Real Change begins when we finally realize two things: 1) The “enemy” or oppressive force in our lives that is causing our compulsive behavior is not the objects of our desire but the objects (people) that have helped create the emotional conditions that have led to our need to disappear into sexual illusion. 2) Neither submission nor fighting, neither “flight” nor “fight” against this “enemy” is going to aid you in this struggle. The only option for change is the “Third Way” of non-violent resistance.
The best response to the people who have made or continue to make you feel bad, shame, regret, anxiety, or self-loathing is to have compassion for yourself, recognize that you have been and are experiencing a type of oppression that lives inside and outside of you daily, and then make the conscious decision not to engage in this “enemy’s” violence even if, or especially if, this “enemy” – mother, father, siblings, spouses, friends, or other figures – needs to either change his or her behavior toward you or walk off in defeat.
“Winning” occurs when the oppressor realizes that he or she can no longer get from you what he or she was seeking in the first place, namely power, control, and an object on which to displace his or her own frustration, unhappiness, or hatred. And what is often the case with these sorts of transformations is that once the oppression is seen for what it is, the oppressed isn’t the only one who experiences freedom, so too does the oppressor. It’s a win-win situation, a situation, in this case, where mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, friends, and society overall can grow together and become the people they never thought they could become.
Real Change is language change; it’s perspective change. When you realize that your old way of approaching life – submit or fight – doesn’t work is when you begin to get somewhere. This can be scary. I talk about this in the post Fear. It requires vulnerability, which I discuss in the post The Crucible of Vulnerability. Thank God we have tactics, techniques you can learn to make this process easier. As it turns out, our faith traditions have been at this game for the past oh, say, five thousand years.
As Wink points out, creative nonviolence is not a natural response, “we need to be schooled in it.” To be schooled in “The Third Way” requires active participation in spiritual practices including the exploration of teachings both through reading and listening and, most importantly of all, commitment to a community of like-minded “activists” who are willing to see change not as submission or warfare, but as social justice.
On many levels we are currently living in an emotionally oppressed society. Yet it is not our job to submit to or fight isolation, loneliness, or the objectification of people. It is our job no longer to allow the violence of unhappy families, disconnected communities, or capitalist greed to define – name! – our value. Our inherent value as human beings is that we are good. That’s the starting point. Everything else that we label and name begins with that reality.
And we re-label and rename within committed communities. Jesus did this, Gandhi did this, and Martin Luther King, Jr. did this and all three of them brought about significant change. It’s your turn to bring about change both for yourself and the greater community and it begins by getting into a recovery group of like-minded individuals. Ours meets on Tuesday nights at 7:30 in Hollywood. Email me for more details.