Elementary – part II

Hello! Continuing to address my own sceptical question, “aren’t stories just for kids?” I am now going to present my second auto-rebuttal – the one I called “general” – a bit more. Hopefully, by the end of this I will have got some way to making the case that we continue through adulthood to interpret life largely through framing it inside narratives, however much we may insist that grown-up decisions and opinions are “common-sense”, “following the facts”, or (this is a fashionable one these days) “SCIENCE!”

And also that if we can recognise this, and take control of which stories we choose to be actors in, it can be a powerful engine for transformation. That sounds a bit theoretical and wanky, let’s try it like this: If you’re an alcoholic, then you live inside a story in which it makes sense for you to be drunk. You then act out that part. So change the story.

Here at Thamkrabok Monastery, in Saraburi, Thailand, as you may already be aware, we operate a detox facility. The clientele is mostly Thai, but we also accept international patients, and they often bring books to read. This is sensible, since there is a fair bit of hanging around involved in detox. Sometimes patients leave books behind, and so we have amassed a small library of tales in English, which I peruse from time-to-time. It is mostly, as you might well expect, what is often known as “airport” literature – a lot of serial killer and SAS stuff, of course, but even within that category, I have noticed a fair amount of the mythology of drugs and drinking.

There is the instantly recognisable archetype, “lone-wolf cop who drinks because he’s a good man trying to hang on to his integrity in a dirty, compromised, world”, best personified (imho) by dour Edinburgh CID maverick, John Rebus. I quite like Rebus, actually. He is also a man of intelligence and culture, and so alcohol helps bring his IQ down to a level where he can tolerate the company of the imbeciles, crooks, and apes, with whom he is forced to associate, both on the street, and in the office. There’s his (inferior imho) Scandi-noir counterpart, Harry [snigger] Hole, in the novels of Jo Nesbø. Pretty similar deal going on there. These seem to be the pack leaders, although my current familiarity with the genre is patchy.

Then, of course, over in the more Special Forces/espionage end of things, we get a lot of the somewhat clichéd usage of the traditionally “hard” drugs as hedonism signifiers. At the shiny end of the spectrum there’s the unholy trinity, where the yachts and the bethonged babes just seem incomplete without fat lines of Bolivian bugle being chopped out with a Platinum Amex on smoked-glass coffee tables. Down on the murkier end [these men are certainly marked for death] the opiates often crop up to indicate a more slimy form of pleasure seeking, along with other traditional degeneracy-signifiers, such as pederasty and being foreign.

This puts some people off, of course but not all. Personally, I always rather enjoyed the “wallowing in exotic forbidden decadence” mystique around heroin. Given my Holmes obsession, it’s probably just as well that the Chinese opium dens of the London docklands seem to have all closed down, or once in, I might never have made it out.

There’s also a reasonable presence from the memoirs of (mostly) middle-class Brits, who have just done 8 years in American prisons. These guys seem to have decided to bankroll the second half of their adult lives by presenting the first half as a series of loveable, harmless, merry-prankster japes, which happened to include importing vast amounts of marijuana into the US (when they weren’t busy hanging out with Mick Jagger). And so forth.

It isn’t all pulp – Will Self and Irvine Welsh (I’m going to stop bother saying it every time now – it’s all imho) are both magnificent writers, who excavate a lot of strange truths about the human condition, particularly the horrible bits. Both of them write insightfully about drugs and alcohol, although you might want to be clean for a few years before you take that dive.

And so, against this mass of addiction mythology, what champions do we send in to do battle for the cause of cleanliness, godliness, and solid, decent, family values?

Online is forever, folks..

The problem isn’t just that grownup problem-solving stories tend to be boring (although that is a problem) but also that they are narrow, very specific, and hyper-focused. This means that you need to be very confident that you have exactly the right story for your precise problem. Often that is indeed the best way to solve a grown-up problem – if your plumbing at home is malfunctioning, for instance, or you suddenly can’t log on to your online banking. Treating endemic existential problems – like addictions and bad craziness – with these kinds of stories might not be entirely appropriate though. Here’s a (rather mundane, but true) story:

Towards the end of last year I managed to break my left little finger in a somewhat complicated way. There was a piece of bone chipped off and floating around right inside the last joint. This was causing me considerable concern, because, when I’m not a monk, I’m a musician, so I rather like having all my fingers moving freely and predictably. There was a significant danger that it would heal up with limited bendability. Bad. Worrying. Disempowering. Both in terms of what I couldn’t do with my hand, and also what I personally could do about that.

A radiologist told me the first part of this story, and then sent me to an orthopedic specialist who told me the rest: The chip would have to be re-attached in precisely the right place, using a metal pin, and then another long pin inserted via the fingertip, running the length of the finger, thus holding it completely rigid and immobile while healing took place. I should consume a high-calcium diet meanwhile, until it was time to remove the pins. Then I could begin physiotherapy and learn some simple exercises that would in time restore full mobility. All of this was narrated in very calming and soporific voices, which I found very comforting (although I have little doubt that you are finding it all notably boring – stick with me, I’ll try to wrap up and move on quickly).

My doctors were excellent, and it all worked very well. Writing now, I can again use the shift key with gay abandon (Yay, capitals!) but it also worked in another way at the time the injury took place – to calm my panicky fears about pain and disability. Perhaps more accurately – since I hadn’t yet heard all the plot details – what worked was the meta-story inside which the technical, anatomical one, was nested. That went something like this:

“A bad thing has happened to you. A bad thing that threatens to affect the rest of your life. It is beyond your power to do anything about this. It is beyond your capacity to even know what should be done, even if you could do anything. Anything you might do now will be ineffective at best, if it doesn’t actually make it worse. But don’t worry – We have the knowledge and the power to fix this, and we are good and kind. You can trust us. Rest now, brave little wounded soldier, you can hand it over – your time for doing is done. There are steps to be followed, and if they are followed precisely then everything will work out. We know this – the outcome is predictable. Be calm. Be passive. Listen to what you are told, comply with procedures, and then do your exercises” (a tiny bit of agency and responsibility, admittedly, there at the end). Oh, and – “the cashiers are located to your left on the way out” for an epilogue.

All of that that was music to ears. After all, a series of my own decisions and actions had resulted in me having this painful and debilitating injury. Perhaps I wasn’t so big and clever – got a little confidence knock, along with the fingerbone. If all I had to do now was to trust and comply (and settle the bill) well, what a relief!

I could (just for what nerds call “fun”) mythologise it still further. Yeah, actually, I will – I’m writing this during Passover, and this story is clearly from Exodus. It’s Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Moses put his faith in the proper authorities and he made the proper sacrifices (insurance premiums), he was stoical about the waiting around and the suffering. He did as he was told, went where he was told to go. He had no idea how he was going to get across, but it got sorted. He gave thanks for his deliverance and renewed his covenant, which his descendants still keep today (family loyalty discount).

That is, more or less, what I did, and it seems now that it was indeed the right script to be reading from. Happy ending!


But what if it had gone wrong?

Well, given all the backstory there, if at some point the outcome had seemed to be that my fracture was not healing as expected, that my finger was not bending properly, then what?

It seems to me that only three possible conclusions exist:

  1. I am biologically abnormal. I am not going to heal right. I have walked the path fruitlessly. I am accursed in G*d’s sight. I am doomed.
  2. I have put my faith in the wrong path, the wrong people. The wrong G*d. I am doomed (but at least it’s NOT MY FAULT!)
  3. There is no path. No G*d. Doomed.

There’s an awful lot of doom going on, whichever way you look at it. If your doctor really does appear to be an absolute charlatan, then perhaps number 2 seems to hold out faint hope. But probably not much really. Largely because the bit in brackets – where you get to rage at other people about stuff that you’re doing – is such an attractive place to get stuck in.

Even more elementarily (that’s a word now) this is a faith-based explanation, and it could be rephrased even more simply as:

  1. I have lost my faith in me.
  2. I have lost my faith in you.
  3. I have lost my faith in everything.

Some combination of those three options is roughly what I hear as the subtext under whatever surface details adorn the majority of the tales told by the majority of the addicts that I have met. Sadly, when I say, “the majority of addicts” I of course mean, “those who are slipping right back down the way they came”. And sadly, many of those will slip down even lower. Those are all very difficult states of mind to get out of. Once they take hold, confirmation bias will supply no shortage of supporting evidence, particularly since we often act them out as self-fulfilling prophecies.

I don’t think the medical story is the one we should be telling about addiction. The disease model. I feel a profound dis-ease every time I hear it being bandied about. Yes, I get that it has its place – as a strong corrective to the story that drug-fiends are produced by nothing more than degeneracy (probably due to left-wing schoolteachers) and they need to have the wickedness beaten out of them. Although let’s hear it for degeneracy and wickedness – tb completely h. I’m certainly not saying that those had nothing to do with my own little problems).

So yes – if those crude broad strokes were the only two options, then I suppose I would rather promote the broad concept that addicts should be treated more like sick people, than say, like rapists. Promote it to society as a whole, perhaps. To the Daily Mail, to the “get tough” outrage-mongering tabloids. But to addicts themselves? No way. Such thinking is the kiss of death. And possibly quite selfish. Selfish? I’m afraid so. Because while it feels kind to say, “poor things, they are ill, don’t judge them” on an individual level that helps the speaker far more than the sufferer.

It helps them to feel like a good, kind, empathic person. But is it your empathy that I most need? Okay, so you may think that you can put yourself in my place, and “know what it feels like to be me”? Terrific – I’d be far more interested in knowing what it feels like to be you, if you don’t feel a constant nagging urge to get off your nut and blow everything up. If you can convey some of that, then you can call me what you want, and judge me all you like. It isn’t a virtue-signaling opportunity, when you’re faced with a desperate, suffering, self-destructive person, who has poor odds and limited time.

And can we please stop getting hung up about whether we sound “judgy”? Please? Inextricably bundled with that soothing, “nobody could condemn you, considering all you have had to deal with” comes, “you couldn’t be expected to do any better”. I suppose that is pretty soothing, but I know something even better at soothing, and that is morphine. That was not what I needed to hear when I had to find resources I didn’t know I had, in order to get off needing to be soothed. In my (humble) opinion, both this kind of talk, and intravenous opiates, have a proper medical place, in which they shine – they’re for terminal cases in unbearable pain. I think we should perhaps keep them up our sleeves for when they’re truly needed, and other avenues have led to naught.

I would far rather change the story. To something more like this:

Addicts aren’t sick people. There is no such thing as “Substance Dependency Disorder”. Addicts are people who keep on doing a harmful thing to themselves, because they can’t see a good enough reason not to. Some may have greater obstacles, and so they need better reasons, but whatever the causes, the difficulties, or whoever the individual; that is the key to victory – seeing a reason.

I’ve quoted this before, but I don’t think this particularly fine word-pudding from Nietzsche can be over-egged (or indeed, over-moustachioed) –

“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how'”

And no, he wasn’t talking about drug-addiction there. But that is one of the main points that I have been arguing – we don’t need a special story, written for us, by people exactly like us (or supposed experts in “people like us”). If you have a cocaine habit, it doesn’t mean that you need to join Cocaine Anonymous. And you don’t need a psychoanalyst to figure out every last detail of your childhood in order to work out why you are messed up, in order to start trying to not be. You can get up to speed on that later, if need be.

We certainly don’t need to hang around for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place, since we already have the most significant information by far about what are going to attempt – that it’s difficult, demanding, and it scares the crap out of us. That only a yet-unrevealed heroic incarnation of ourself is going to stand a chance at this. That’s a cold and windswept place to be standing.

What we get though, in return for facing up to this, and sacrificing the soothing voices (from within and without) is the knowledge that we are not alone. And we are not even particularly weird. We have this struggle in common with not only all addicts, but all humanity, and so we gain access to all the stories that have been written on this – the greatest theme in literature: How do we do that, which we cannot do?

Yes, of course, every poison has its particular foibles, and it is certainly worth being wise to them, and every person has their particular quirks and traumas. And certainly, some digging into those may make it easier to tackle your main challenge. That’s: easiER – it isn’t easy, either way. It is, by its nature, difficult, and we don’t do anyone any favours by concealing or sugarcoating that truth. It is difficult because the task is to defeat the enemy that has always defeated you. The enemy that is always striking your most vulnerable points, because it has been constructed BY your own unique vulnerabilities. You are the hobbit, and it is the dragon. And you have to confront it in its lair, one-on-one, and hand-to-hand, and win.

Well, that’s impossible, isn’t it? Yes, it is. Of course it is. That’s why so many people prefer these more comforting-sounding stories, where you are the docile patient, and we the wise and benevolent doctors. Doesn’t that sound so much more doable? So much safer? Whereas adventures are of course, “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! We do not want any adventures here, thankyou! Not today!” But treasure is, of course, guarded by dragons, and eventually Lord Sauron is coming for the Shire as well. So safety isn’t always the safest place to be. And the illusion of safety can be fatal.

“Not today, thankyou!”

But why am I even bothering to talk about this stuff, if it’s impossible? A sound objection. Well – it’s because when we say, “that’s impossible” what we are usually really saying is, “I can’t do that”. That doesn’t initially sound like it is getting us any further along, does it? Okay, so – someone else has to do it. You have to transform into the hero who can. Frodo has to become Herakles. Even when you start out as Herakles, his story needed two extra labours tacked onto the end– it wasn’t complete until he had done the impossible. First he held up the sky, which he could do for a little while. And then he had to die.

He had to go down to the underworld, and leave the Herakles who couldn’t down there. And then a different Herakles, who could, came back up. With a dog.

To me, the heroic model of defeating addiction, and the medical model of “being cured” of it, are polar opposites. One inspires you to become more than you are, and the other, less. It infantalises you – which is subtly, but significantly, different from what I think Jesus was getting at with, “become as little children”.

Okay, I’m nearly done. That’s my best shot at trying to argue my belief that getting the right stories behind you can be an invaluable resource for finding your own unique, personal, guiding lights through the darkest, stinkiest, swamps of the soul. I’ll just chuck one personal nugget on the top of that:

My fictional companion through the insomniac nights of detox was Lyra Belaqua, the feral-child heroine of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”. This was an inspired parting gift from my mother – an estimable literary lady. I still can’t claim to understand Lyra, or indeed all the symbolic underpinnings of the story (time for a revisit, perhaps) but parts of her spirit seemed to osmose into my battered psyche. Her indomitable fierceness was what I mainly wanted, I suppose. I think I got some.

Well fierce

How did I get it? In two ways, I think. One of those is easier to explain here than the other, because it lives in the world of ideas and language. It is an overt theme in the Dark Materials trilogy that something happens to people when they become adults, and that while this brings some benefits, there is also a cost. This is very deeply explored in the books, and so I will not presume to give any potted conclusions here. In fact, I think it is meant to be left hanging as a bit of an ongoing mystery. Nevertheless, whatever-it-is is significant enough that – echoing Frodo here – the fate of worlds has come to depend upon the actions of the smallest, least powerful, least worldly characters in the story.

Well, the author, Philip Pullman, has managed to work that authorial trick well enough that the reader (this one, at least) “feels” the truth in it “in their gut”. This means that the mind now accepts this stuff as having happened, and gets on with trying to figure out the question – “how could this be?” and can continue brooding on this conundrum, trying to mine ever-subtler insights, even two decades later. I won’t claim, then, that the following is Pullman’s message; it’s mine:

“Outgrowing” heroic narratives goes hand-in-hand with cynicism, cowardice, and settling for too little. It makes us too quick to say, “At least I’m no worse than everyone else” – which of course requires a very dim and cynical view of everyone else. Or perhaps, “Look at all I have had to put up with – I can’t be blamed” – settling for sympathy instead of change, and so often spicing up that rather bland fare with envy and resentment towards those we judge to have had an easier ride. Or that grim little celebration of entropy, “Well, I suppose that’s the best we can hope for – we can’t expect miracles”.

So, instead of that catechism of misery, perhaps – “Become ye as little children” when a miracle is what is needed. Thankyou, Jesus. Again though, not presuming to summarise the man himself, or the entirety of his message – that’s just my own little takeaway.

And that other, harder-to-explain, way? Well, it’s easy enough to say – I played at being Lyra. That, ultimately, is the acid-test for a “true” character – can you play them? If you can, then theirs is a real, and coherent, mode of being. At least as real as that other, miserable, greedy, deluded character-sketch I had been wearing around. Come on – we all know how to do this. Or, at least – we did.

Published by phrasuparo

I'm a monk at Wat Thamkrabok, Thailand. Go me!

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