Choice? Sin? One more time…

 I would love to see some commentary on this post.  I am going to offer it again in the hope that it will generate some discussion on your part.  Anyone wanting to comment???… 

I was reading Cross Roads, a church paper, the other day and came across an article by Fr. Paul Prabell who attended a recent ministerial association training, in his area, focused on the need to, and ways to, reach out to persons with addiction.  I was impressed by the fact that the suggestions given for opening church congregations and ministry to serve persons with addiction were well thought out and should be quite helpful.  An early comment in the article, however, kept me coming back to it and trying to understand how it fit.  As I have said in previous posts, I am an addict enjoying long term recovery.  Something about this sentence in Father’s article upset me: [The presenter] “then described the physiology of the brain and that addiction may begin because of a choice, but it quickly becomes an illness, an issue of scrambled brain chemistry rather than a weakness of character, a desire to do wrong, or a choice to live addictively.” (Cross Roads, April 10, 2011, page11.)     

While I understand society’s need to ascribe responsibility for this problem to the persons who have it—I have never found much truth in that assumption, nor much utility when it comes to assisting an addict to make the necessary changes that will ultimately yield recovery.  Don’t get me wrong, if I drove my car over your foot while drunk, charge me with DUI and sue me for damages.  There are things that people who use substances should not get away with—but choosing to use is not something most can be convincingly lured into believing.  By the time most admit the illness, accepting full responsibility starting with the first pill, fix, or toke is an admission of powerfulness that few can honestly claim. Those who do tend to be consumed with shame and guilt.  As soon as they pay their fines and their dues, and can hold their heads up and look you in the eye—they are preparing for a bender to end all benders.

My concern is that the article did not make clear that one out of five of today’s young folk have addiction issues.  Anyone who picks up a drink or takes a pain pill is making that first choice—since we have no litmus test for those with compromised brains. The writer had it right in so many ways, but when it came down to saying the things that might move everyday folk to evaluate personal use attitudes and practices for addiction risks, he chooses to lump addiction in with “…weaknesses, flaws, sins, addictions, and foolishness.”  Oops, missed the point of the training; or if that is not true:  the training missed the mark.   Flawed choice as carelessness in action is the common “belief” held by the man on the street in our culture.  This has remained so from the day when one out of 26 “who choose to use” (a 1950s statistic) to today when one out of five of today’s youth (as an entire cohort) is in need of services.

I fault churches for their role in keeping the lepers where we can see them, so the rest of us, chosen people, can feel good (and safe) about ourselves.  Addiction is a relapsing disorder of the brain.  In all probability, it is that before the first use of a substance occurs.  The reality is that everyone who chooses to use  makes the same choice, just as every heart patient and most of the rest of America choose to eat meat with too high a fat content.  Only the heart patients suffer much from it–but we don’t typically call them down for those choices as if they are willfully intent on self-harm.  All of us know how difficult a healthy diet is when we are intent on having one.  We aren’t always sure that the advertized content of something is what it says.  Or we get hungry and there is nothing else to eat.  Or more simply, bad habits have bad partners and it is hard to get them all to go away at once. 

So, too, with drug use.  Gone are our grandparents’ days when there weren’t any alternatives to severe pain but grinning and bearing it.  Nearly all of us use something for a headache or a backache and we “choose” to do it without considering that the consequence might end in addiction.  Not everyone thinks this way.  But those who don’t, those who reflect on most of the risks and possibilities they face in taking a mediction have done far more thinking and choosing than most of us.  Most of us just grab the closest alternative to pain…and nothing in our education tells us that we are in dangerous territory.  And our churches who insist that “addiction is a choice–” a bad choice, an evil choice–fail  to take responsibility for pointing out to their congregations that every choice to use is the same choice that every addicted person makes with crushing regret when s/he takes that first pill, fix, or drink for the day. 

 Nothing and no one in our culture, or experience, has warned us that drug use is never a simple choice.  Drug use is weighted with factors none of us controls entirely: hereditary predisposition to addictions, unpredictable side effects, emotional influences on choices (who hasn’t wanted a drink to deal with some life event? & what if one had been available?), peer pressure to use (think of the annual festival and the beer booth–a real golden goose–or think of the donation to the poor fund by the local bootlegger). Traditionally, the church upheld the value of suffering in building character and seeking the truth.  Now, Jesus might well ask the American church, when it talks about addiction, “Where is the truth I entrusted to you?”  Far from having compassion on those suffering from addiction and offering to bind their wounds, the church often walks aside so as not to get close enough to smell their messy lives.  The church goes on by, clucking over their “self-chosen” misfortune.  I want to thank Fr. Prabell for having the courage to start his congregation on the road to looking at addiction in their midst.  Careless positioning of this disease on the sinners’ prayer list. missed by a mile when it suggested that addiction in today’s culture is a chosen path.  Sort of like saying to a congregation standing in a plowed garden in the rain, “Getting mud on your shoes is a choice.  Don’t make it.”  Offering suggestions about how we might avoid that choice, or clean up after it makes more sense.  I am happy to say that Fr. Prabell did start that discussion in his article.

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