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Desire: Addiction and Human FreedomWhere your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
-- The Gospel According To Matthew
After twenty years of listening to the yearnings of people's hearts, I am convinced that all human beings have an inborn desire for God. Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. It gives us meaning. Some of us have repressed this desire, burying it beneath so many other interests that we are completely unaware of it. Or we may experience it in different ways -- as a longing for wholeness, completion, or fulfillment. Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. It is a hunger to love, to be loved, and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of the human spirit; it is the origin of our highest hopes and most noble dreams.
Modern theology describes this desire as God given. In an outpouring of love, God creates us and plants the seeds of this desire within us. Then, throughout our lives, God nourishes this desire, drawing us toward fulfillment of the two great commandments: "Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself." If we could claim our longing for love as the true treasure of our hearts, we would, with God's grace, be able to live these commandments.
But something gets in the way. Not only are we unable to fulfill the commandments; we often even ignore our desire to do so. The longing at the center of our hearts repeatedly disappears from our awareness, and its energy isusurped by forces that are not at all loving. Our desires are captured, and we give ourselves over to things that, in our deepest honesty, we really do not want. There are times when each of us can easily identify with the words of the apostle Paul: "I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do the things that I hate. Though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not; the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want -- that is what I do.
In writing these words, Paul was talking about sin. Theologically, sin is what turns us away from love -- away from love for ourselves, away from love for one another, and away from love for God. When I look at this problem psychologically, I see two forces that are responsible: repression and addiction. We all suffer from both repression and addiction. Of the two, repression is by far the milder one.
We frequently repress our desire for love because love makes us vulnerable to being hurt. The word passion, which is used to express strong loving desire, comes from the Latin root passus, which means "suffered." All of us know that, along with bringing joy, love can make us suffer. Often we repress our desire for love to minimize this suffering. This happens after someone spurns our love; we stifle our desire, and it may take us a long time before we are ready to love again. It is a normal human response; we repress our longings when they hurt us too much. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that we do the same with our deepest longings for God. God does not always come to us in the pleasant ways we might expect, and so we repress our desire for God.
When we repress a desire, we try to keep it out of our awareness. We try to keep our focus on other things -- safer things. Psychology calls this displacement. But something that has been repressed does not really go away; it remains within us, skirting the edges of our consciousness. Every now and then it reminds us of its presence, as if to say, "Remember me?" And, when we are ready to tackle the thing again, we can. We may repress our longing for God, but, like the hound of heaven that it is, it haunts us. And it is there for us to deal with whenever we are ready. Repression, then, in spite of its sinister reputation, is relatively flexible. It is workable. Addiction, the other force that turns us away from love, is much more vicious.
The Paradoxes of Addiction
For generations, psychologists thought that virtually all self-defeating behavior was caused by repression. I have now come to believe that addiction is a separate and even more self-defeating force that abuses our freedom and makes us do things we really do not want to do. While repression stifles desire, addiction attaches desire, bonds and enslaves the energy of desire to certain specific behaviors, things, or people. These objects of attachment then become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives.
The word attachment has long been used by spiritual traditions to describe this process. It comes from the old French atache, meaning "nailed to." Attachment "nails" our desire to specific objects and creates addiction. In this light, we can see why traditional psychotherapy, which is based on the release of repression, has proven ineffective with addictions. It also shows why addiction is the most powerful psychic enemy of humanity's desire for God.
I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction. Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction. I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word. Moreover, our addictions are our own worst enemies.
Addiction and Grace. Copyright © by Gerald G. May. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.