Sometimes there are Psalms that jump off the page and into my heart. “Why so downcast, oh my soul. Why so disquieted within me?” is one of those brutally real verses that needs no interpretation, especially for those who have experienced the suffering of addiction. I know that feeling of: something is wrong, why can’t I get it right? Why are my desires and actions a mystery to even myself?
In Saint Augustine’s words: “Who can untie this extremely twisted and tangled knot? It is a foul affair. I have no wish to give attention to it.”
I am reading a book about how the decisions we make are often influenced by outside factors without our realizing. We think we are in complete control of our choices and actions, but psychologists and scientists have studied us and they have a different story.
Dr. Kahnemen writes of several examples:
Pro golfers putt more accurately, no matter how far away, when going for par than for a birdie. They are more concerned about getting the horrible “bogey” score than the situation where missing a putt will result in the decent score of par. Everyone performs this way, Tiger Woods included.
In a poll that asked about life satisfaction, the psychologists asked one group first, “How satisfied are you with your life?” and then asked, “How many dates have you been on in the last month.” They found that the number of dates and life satisfaction were almost totally unrelated. Then they asked another group first, “How many dates have you been on in the last month?” and then asked, “How satisfied are you with your life?” What do you think changed? There suddenly was a huge correlation between the number of dates and satisfaction.
Shoppers will routinely buy more of an item (their example was canned soup) if there is a sign that says “limit 12 per customer.”
We buy foods that say 90% fat free, yet would we buy the same food with a different framing of the facts – 10% fat? Kahneman and his colleagues say no.
Often our decisions are the product of our environment rather than our rational choice. Many of our actions are influenced by factors below our consciousness. To struggle with addiction is to become aware of that part of your mind which has nothing to do with your “reasoning,” but influences your actions nonetheless. This explains how we can think through every reason not to get drunk or high and find ourselves going out and doing it anyway. There is a part of your mind that you don’t control.
Have you ever felt a part of yourself fervently willing against something not good for you – “This is a waste! It will destroy you! You’ll regret it!” and a part that screams to do it – “I want it! Do it! Who cares!”. Or the opposite, think of a time when you told yourself you’d change, but find, time and again, that willpower isn’t enough. You fail to exercise/meet new people/read more/be patient, and stay the same, resolution after resolution, year after year.
So if we can’t control what we decide, if we have the honesty to admit that we make some horrible choices and part of our mind cannot be trusted, here are some remedies:
1) Bind Yourself to a Committed Community.
For the Mission, this is easy – stay one whole year and a month at Harvest Farm. If you’re like every other human who sometimes makes poor decisions, one thing you can do is lock yourself away from access to your vice.
If you have a healthy respect for this ravaging part of your mind that can turn on you, then you commit to a community that limits your exposure to your demons and you stick with it despite its flaws or imperfections.
2) To combat the part of your mind that talks when you’re not aware, start talking to yourself.
If a shopper sees the sign that says “Limit 12 per customer” and then just says, “Well I only came in for two, you stupid sign – stop trying to manipulate me.” I think it is likely that they will just get two cans of soup. Just the other day I spoke with a guy here at Harvest Farm who is struggling with quitting smoking. He says that whenever he passes smokers, smells smoke, sees people lighting up, or watches that bright orange flare on the end of an enticing cigarette he says to himself: “Oh, that’s gross. Can you imagine all that tar and ash going into my body? That is a disgusting habit.” No matter how bad he feels he really, really wants that smoke. We might as well be telling ourselves what our true desires are, that other part of our mind will be talking anyway.
3) Finally, get quiet enough to hear that voice that is constantly talking to you, but you never really “hear.”
If you spend time in focused silence and reflection – praying, writing, being alone with your thoughts – you can start to bring the awareness up to the point of being aware of that elusive part of your mind that the Psalmist speaks of, “Why so downcast, oh my soul? Why so disquieted within me?”
Stick to a good, healthy community that limits your exposure to the bad stuff. Talk to yourself, remind yourself of what you really want rather than let your urges monopolize the conversation in your head. Get quiet enough, in the pace of life and in set apart moments, to hear the voice of the Lord. In the world of recovery, in the experience of behavior change, it is precisely what you don’t know that will hurt you.