Addiction and the Road of Life
I usually don’t shill for TV programs. However, I must tell you about a fascinating program: A & E’s Intervention .
Intervention is a controversial program; it is a documentary that follows people with various addictions as they indulge in reckless, self abusive behavior. At the same time, their friends and families organize an intervention to prod them to go to a rehabilitation clinic. For some critics, watching people at their vulnerable worst is an invasion of privacy. While this may be true, it’s also compelling television. It is a rare program which gives the viewer an insight into real life.
What fascinated me the most was how easy it is to identify with the addicts on the show. They were successful stockbrokers, White House interns, talented artists. They’re simply good people who allowed their lives to get untracked.
While I’m no psychologist, I get the sense that people who lose their way, like the addicts on Intervention, get untracked because they have missed one of the three important stages on the road of life.
The first stage is unconditional self love. For most of us, our parents oversee this stage; they fuss and fret and care for us as babies, even though we’re completely vulnerable, selfish and demanding. They teach us that we are loved, and deserving of love, simply because we are alive.
Of course, there are many who have parents who don’t teach this lesson well, or don’t teach it at all (there’s a big difference between the two, by the way). These unloved children must learn about love elsewhere: from mentors, friends, and even from books and movies.
It is easy to forget the importance of this stage. After all, isn’t self-love selfish? There is a lovely Midrash which makes the point that if you must love your neighbor as yourself, that implies that you must actually love yourself as well!
Without self love, we’re lost. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski often asks addicts who come to his office where they put the garbage in their house. “In the garbage can”, they reply. “Well then”, he ask says, “why are putting this garbage into yourself?....you’re not a garbage can, are you?” .
That’s exactly the point: If we don’t respect ourselves, we might as well treat our bodies like garbage cans. You need to respect and love yourself.
The second stage is self discipline. This stage comes a bit later in life, and for the most part our teachers look after this stage. Starting in nursery, you learn basic discipline. You may not bite. You must share. You have to work with the group. You have to respect your teachers.
Discipline is a challenge nowadays. The reason why is because we live in an era of unprecedented comfort. Unfortunately, with this comfort, we’ve become increasingly whiny and self indulgent. We’re outraged if we have to wait too long in line, or if the food in the restaurant is a bit cold.
Our comfortable lives lie in stark contrast with those of the previous generation. I recently did a funeral for someone who had escaped from Dachau, got smuggled into Palestine, fought in the British army against the Nazis, and then fought in Israel’s War of Independence. His eventful life was emblematic of the sacrifices that his generation had to make.
Ironically, our generation’s comfortable lives have made us weaker. Because we are sheltered, we find it difficult to cope with crises. And in a world where people are available to cater to our every wish, the values of personal sacrifice and self discipline are often forgotten. Without self discipline, we open our lives to all sorts of dangerous whims, because we are so unaccustomed to any self denial.
The third stage is meaning. We usually begin this stage in our teens, and it is God who ultimately leads us to find our true purpose.
What is meaning? There’s no need for a philosophy seminar on this. It simply is a life lived beyond the selfish. There is a story about a Chassid of Rav Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. As is the Chassidic custom, the chasid brought him a kvittl, a lengthy list of personal requests that he asked the Rebbe to pray for on his behalf. Surveying the lengthy list, the Rebbe looked at his chasid and sent him away, saying: “you’ve given a great deal of thought to your needs; have you thought at all about why you are needed?”. Remarkably, the chasid was overjoyed with this sharp riposte: his Rebbe had reminded him that he is needed!
Each day we draw up lists, for shopping: more and new food, clothing, electronics, cars, vacations. We know what we need. But on a daily basis, yesterday’s desires simply aren’t enough. So we search for newer and more exciting thrills; eventually, drugs and other self destructive thrills are far from unthinkable.
God reminds us that He put us here for a purpose. To find our way on the road of life, we must find a response to the ultimate question:
Why are we needed?