We are moving through a remarkable period in our history. We are contending with the COVID-19 pandemic. Racist behavior continues to emerge in our country and elsewhere. Authoritarian governments are on the rise both in the United States as well as in the international community. As a nation we have been involved in the so-called War on Terror in multiple fronts in the Middle East for nearly twenty years with no end in sight. People everywhere are facing the consequences of toxic human behavior upon the biosphere that we are completely dependent upon. The potential devastation from this situation alone is dire enough to dwarf all others. In short, we find ourselves in a “perfect storm” scenario.
It is well understood by people in recovery that an active addict will need to “hit bottom” before they are ready to commit to meaningful changes in their way of life. A person, caught up in an addiction process, will resist and deny with all their strength until the painful reality of the consequences of their lifestyle comes crashing through their last layers of denial.
Hitting bottom for an individual can take many forms, among them are: broken trust, job loss, homelessness, losing friendships, being shunned by family members, serious injury, divorce, and the death of a loved one. This is a person’s direct experiencing of the natural consequences of a destructive way of life. The common denominator is that hitting bottom is extremely painful. The painfulness is ultimately what breaks the fantasy bubble of addiction and reveals the hard truth of What Is. The fantasy world of addiction is inherently unsustainable.
This is all fairly straightforward and understandable when we look at it thought the lens of individuality. Any individual person can get caught up in an addiction process if they are in enough pain. The challenge we face now is to see the same process occurring on a societal level. This is difficult because we are heavily conditioned to think in terms of individual responsibility rather than in terms of shared responsibility. In the world of addiction this is exemplified by the active addict’s false assertion that “I’m not hurting anyone but myself.” This is one of the many variations of his or her denial system.
However, what if we take an honest look at ourselves through a communal lens? Would we see that, as a species, human beings are also caught up in an addiction process? Are we as a human community addicted to a destructive way of life? Are we also in a state of denial to some degree?
Obviously, we cannot speak of every individual human being behaving in lock-step conformity. We can instead speak of a “critical mass” of humanity whose collective behavior makes a significant impact on the world. What is it that enough of us do with regularity that would constitute an addiction process?
What is humanity addicted to?
Control and domination. In other words, we play God.
We do it to each other, we do it to countless other animals, and we do it to all sorts of plant life that share this planet with us. We convince ourselves of our superiority in order to justify the way we use and abuse human and non-human life in order to make ourselves more comfortable and to feel special. We get a rush when we imagine that we have “conquered nature,” “tamed the wilderness,” or somehow defeated someone or something. In our addiction to control and domination we act with little concern for the consequences of what we do in the name of “civilization.” In our addiction we care about getting what we want. Anything else is secondary at best.
We are tragically addicted to polluting the air, water, and soil that every form of life on this planet depends on. Humanity does this in so many ways that we simply consider them to be part of “normal” life. The list is extensive: Extracting and burning fossil fuels, industrial waste, plastic waste, nuclear waste, and, of course, the extensive toxicity of our constant warfare. This constitutes an incomplete list to be sure but I think the point is made. We do a lot to try to control and dominate the world that is truly devastating to animal and plant life in global ecosystems. Basically, we treat Mother Earth as if it’s exclusively our species’ Town Dump.
Part of what characterizes an addiction process is the absence of awareness or concern for the natural consequences of one’s actions. While our awareness and concern has definitely been increasing over the past 50 years or so, it has not been nearly enough to significantly change our destructive behavior patterns. Is it possible that, at this point in our collective history, our addiction to poisoning the biosphere so that we can feel dominant and “in control” of “our world” has finally caught up with us?
Has our addiction to believing in “human exceptionalism” and the multitude of quick fixes and instant gratifications we have indulged in for so long finally brought us to the point where we are hitting bottom?
Responsibility is a choice but accountability is inescapable. We can choose to avoid our responsibilities for some period of time but they will always catch up with us. We can choose to accept our responsibilities but if we do not, accountability will be imposed upon us. If this happens and Nature ends up holding us accountable it will be a much more unpleasant process. Being proactively responsible won’t be painless but it will be a lot better than being forced into accountability.
If we willingly choose to be responsible for our destructive behaviors we will need to accept humility. Genuinely humbling ourselves means a lot of letting go. We will need to let go of our assumed “human exceptionalism” and our assumed right to dominate other people as well as other life forms with whom we share the Earth. We will need to let go of our assumed “master-servant” relationship with the world. We need to let go of our belief that Mother Nature is supposed to clean up after us no matter how big a mess we leave for Her.
Maybe the toughest thing to let go of is our allegiance to the materialistic paradigm that has dominated our society for so long. This mindset is something that most of us have been conditioned to see as “natural” since childhood. This is a belief in the primacy of things and that these things must be bought with money. This paradigm claims that having enough things will make us happy and satisfied. Having enough things will make us safe and secure. It says that this is the way we need to live our lives. This is a perspective that tells us that “greed is good.” It spins fairy tales about who is deserving of a “good life” and who isn’t. This paradigm supports an implicit justification for cruelty as a necessary component of a grand competition that rewards the “strong” and punishes the “weak.” This is all logical if we on our tiny planet moving around within an unimaginably vast universe are nothing but a collection of randomly assembled atoms and molecules. Such a premise requires an enormous level of human arrogance. It means asserting that we know all we need to know about our world, what it consists of, how it operates and that we are quite comfortable with dismissing whatever doesn’t fit with what we “know.” That’s a lot of arrogance.
So if we let go of our desire for control and domination, embrace genuine humility, and stop playing God, where does that leave us?
If we can overcome our fear of change we will be able to see something we’ve been blind to just as every addict is initially blind to what recovery is really all about. We will become open to a new framework of a healthy individual and communal life. What might such a new framework look like? We can begin by re-examining the framework of active addiction and ask ourselves: What would be radically different from this?
The unofficial mantra of the active addict is as follows:
“I want what I want when I want it!”
This expression emerges from a particular mentality. This mentality is the problem as well as the point from which real change emerges.
Our growth begins when we addicts finally hear Reality answering us with Tough Love when we beg for things to stay the same:
“Please, don’t make me do that! I promise this time I’ll…”
“It’s too late for that.”
“Wait? What do you mean? Do you actually mean that I have to……?”
“Yes! That’s exactly what I mean!”
“But what about…?”
“I promise that this time…”
“I said No!!”
Left with no other option, we relinquish our desire for control, dominance and and our imagined greatness and we finally dare to place our trust in something beyond ourselves. In the language of recovery, we surrender to a Higher Power.
There can be no recovery from addiction without mindful healing from the traumas that sparked and fueled the addiction process itself. As a a nation, we have a number of unhealed injuries that desperately still need healing. A short list includes our history of racism and its fallout, patriarchy that still regards women as second-class citizens, hyper-individualism that shames those who are not “successful”, and our destruction of nature in the name of promoting our civilization. Perhaps most critically, we must understand that trauma is actually a two-way street. Trauma occurs in the act of one injuring another and both parties are negatively impacted. This means that the perpetrator is also traumatized during the act of injuring another. This is most tragically revealed in the current epidemic of suicides by both past and present day military personnel. “Moral injury” is the term that has become recognized as this perpetration-induced trauma that so many of these men and women are suffering from. It’s a kind of karmic blowback and it painfully demonstrates the illusion of our supposed separateness from each other. It similarly shows how we are profoundly connected to each other which means that what we do to another we are also doing to ourselves.
It’s no wonder that so long ago we were advised to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
That continues to be a very difficult lesson for humanity to learn. Thousands of years in our classroom and we are still struggling to get a passing grade.
So the opposite of the addiction mantra might be something like this:
“We know that we can wait for what we want. We know that the needs of others are just as important to them as mine are to me.”
We need a change in our consciousness. It’s actually very possible for us to do that. Millions of recovering addicts have been showing us the way for a long time. It’s ironic that the very people that society has so long despised are the very same people that have implemented this change in their lives. A teacher of mine claims that the universe runs on irony!
One way to begin is to choose to cultivate a consciousness of compassion. It needs to begin as a choice just as one chooses to exercise and eat a healthy diet in order to get in shape. It requires consistent practice and dedication. We have to do the work. Shortcuts won’t get the job done.
What does all this mean for a society addicted to whatever it can get its hands on to feel in control and to not feel the pain of all the injuries it has caused and endured?
It means that we truly appreciate the gift that this world is for every life that shares it. This gift is not just for humans to do with as we please for our exclusive enjoyment. Mother Earth is a gift for all who live on her land, in her waters, and in her air. It is a gift that deserves to be respected.
We are not respecting this gift when we make excuses to keep dumping toxic material wherever we please. When we engage in the state-sanctioned mass murder known as war, when we perpetrate deforestation on a mass scale and destroy whole ecosystems, and when we burn whatever will burn in order to “advance” human society we are not respecting our gift.
It means that we stop expecting others to clean up after us. Healthy adults clean up after themselves. Viewed through the communal lens this means that humanity grows up, stops treating Mother Earth as our town dump, and starts to clean up all the mess we have made.
It means that we accept responsibility for what we have done and hold ourselves accountable for all of it. We need to make amends and reparations everywhere it is appropriate to do so. We need to express our genuine regret and remorse to all whom we have injured. No phony “celebrity apologies” will suffice. It’s got to be real.
We need to continually commit ourselves to growing in wisdom and compassion.
Finally, we need to remember that we are always susceptible to relapsing back to our old addictive ways. We are either busy recovering or we are busy relapsing. We become the process that we invest in.
Have we “hit bottom” as a society? Are we ready to say “Yes” to our recovery process?
We are about to answer those questions.
Paul, I’d say many of the problems you bring up are “enabled” (to use your vivid metaphor of addicts) by government monetary policy that allows/encourages the build it/destroy it (war)/strip mine it now mentality and supposedly pay for it much later (at least monetarily and for accounting purposes) . Therefore, the great Enablers are the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, and the People’s Bank of China. The pushers are the crony-corporatist operatives in government, including revolving door regulatory agencies, crony businesses, and NGOs like our beloved Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Hi Eric! Thanks for your comments. You are right about the “enablers” that have been out there doing what they do as part of the addiction process I wrote about. Most addicts have one or more enablers that they need to overcome. No addict who wants to transition into recovery has the luxury to wait for their enablers to stop their enabling so that they can get “sober.” In this sense I see it as the responsibility of humanity to refuse to be enabled and start to assume responsibility for our actions. I think this is the way we become free and experience the healthiness of recovery. Recovery could be another way of describing the Kingdom of God.