I’ve begun to question the legitimacy of my “Successful” recovery process because I can’t seem to say no to anything that I want. Conversely, I’m discovering that there is something truly powerful about the discipline of going without.
This all started one weekend when my Orthodox friend and I were talking about fasting. I still have much to learn about the timeless art of praying while not eating, but best I understand so far, when I say ‘no’ to desire, I say ‘yes’ to holiness, sanctification and salvation.
On the day-to-day, that can look like personal growth.
In a recovery context, that can look like successfully maintaining new substance free behaviors while working to reconstruct life and relationships and restore one’s self to a state of overall health.
But there’s a complication. Recovery conversations often revolve around giving up a damaging behavior(drug abuse, sex abuse, etc) in order to gain a long term benefit(the trust of a partner, love of a child, respect of a community, etc). But the point of fasting, and really the point of denying the self is to learn to be free of desire, or perhaps to be free from the object of desire. To be okay without having. Really, learning not to rely on anything but that One Thing that never fails, that being the person of God, incarnate in Christ.
In my counseling practice, I observe that those who prioritize the satiation of desire, almost as a core value, seem to have problems as a result. When discomfort of any kind cannot be tolerated, there are problems. When every desire that is desired must be attained, there are problems. When comfort and satisfaction become the indicator of wellness, there is a problem.
This idea of self-denial as a means of sanctification has struck me in a way that seems believable and very important(though admittedly quite uncomfortable). I’ve begun seriously considering how to incorporate this value more thoroughly in my life. I’ve even begun preaching it to select clients, framed as “mastery” of desire, rather than outright denial.
The problem is that I’m not very good at self-denial. In fact, I’m coming to realize that I’m pretty horrible at it. I’m writing this on the heels of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, arguably the holiday that most celebrates the American propensity towards indulgence. Basically, it was three days where I ate and ate and ate, then went out and spend twenty dollars on flowers and chocolate and fancy pens, then stayed up late watching shows. At the moment, I’m sitting at a pub, waiting for my burger and cider, with a plan of having fun talking about my novel with a friend instead of being at home with family, and with further aspirations of finishing a movie later tonight. All this coming after a long month of seeing friends half the days of the week which usually goes with tea and pastry, as well as multiple meals eaten out with my family(granted, my wife is pregnant, and sometimes eating out is just sanity…but still). Add in habitual long hot showers and perhaps excessive use of the gas furnace because I just can’t stand to be cold. Also there was the time I was convinced I needed a new pair of pants to feel better, so of course, sort of on a whim, I bought three.
Altogether, I feel like this has been a month where I can speak with the voice of King Solomon when he says, “I did not withhold any good thing from myself.”
Food is comforting. Friends are validating. Shows, media, Facebook are quick escapes. Even running and yoga give me the dual wonderful sensations of “alertly skinny” and “limberly zen,” and I indulge in these as often as I can.
The counterparts, making eye contact with family members, reading my Bible, engaging in a prayer discipline, or dare I say, doing my homework, are much more difficult. Yet more rewarding in the long term.
Basically, I’m having a hard time being fully present with the things that matter most, and compensating by filling myself with as much pleasure, soothing and escape as I can.
But, another friend asked me, aren’t you practicing denial of sexual desire? To which I answered, Yes. I’m not looking at pornography, nor am I seeking sexual gratification apart from my wife. I also don’t smoke cigarettes or weed, don’t use any other drugs, and only drink the occasional hard cider or glass of wine or sip of whiskey from the stash of my Orthodox friend. I don’t gamble. and don’t impulse shop that much.
In the absence of the typically and explosive vices, the less toxic, more socially acceptable and much more subtle pleasures have a more visible presence in my life. Caffeine. Gluten. Television. Music. Facebook. Exercise and stretching. Excessive use of hot water for hygiene.
Oh, come on, Aidyn, those things aren’t bad!
I didn’t say they were bad. What I’m saying is that I seek these things out instead of practicing a spiritual discipline, or doing my homework, or sitting and being fully present with my wife or son. I do these things instead of allowing myself to be fully present in an unfiltered moment.
When I want something I want, I almost always say ‘yes’ to myself, almost as a rule.
And when the enjoyment of these things is threatened, I become highly defensive.
Almost like to go without a small pleasure is the worst possible tragedy I could imagine.
I use these more acceptable things the same way I used to use to explosive things.
I still want what I want and generally get what I want and tantrum when I don’t.
Am I actually in recovery? Or am I just abstaining?
Or is abstinence actually the heart of recovery after all?
As long as I must have every little pleasure that I want, I am a slave to those little pleasures.
If I could comfortably live with an un-satiated desire, I could finally be free. If I could say no to myself, I could probably achieve anything.
The way to holiness, clarity, wholeness, peace of mind, must be through the painful process of self-denial. When I practice self-denial, I say there are things more important than my pleasure. I also declare to Pleasure that he no longer rules me. I am free to give my allegiance to a more worthy Master.