Monday, February 10, 2014

Does An Addict Have Free Will?

Free will is a terribly touchy subject, especially for a Christian. It is an even touchier subject for people who suffer from addiction. Is addiction more like a disease, for which you seek treatment? Or is it more of a moral problem, for which you take responsibility? This topic has been blowing up the internet in the wake of Phillip Seymour-Hoffman's death by heroine overdose. Let me suggest to you that it is both at the same time. My thoughts on this matter are a bit unformed, and just for that reason are ripe for blogging.

Some of you who are familiar with me may know of my affinity for the twelve-step model for curing addiction. Of course the first step is admitting that one is powerless over one's problem. Isn't this to tacitly admit that addiction is a 'disease'? Powerlessness against a problem is not the same as a lack of freedom. The powerlessness is, in fact, a consequence of the misuse of freedom. Whatever state I wind up in, however weak my will becomes, the state I am in was the result of me taking that first drink, that first drug, and I did that freely and of my own volition. I am thus responsible for the state I am in. So it may be true that I am incapable of resisting the temptation to do drugs at time T2 but so long as the event T1 that brought me to that state was not under compulsion, I am still responsible for what I do at T2. The problem is not that my will is not FREE, it is that I don't have much WILL at all any more.

By analogy, one can imagine someone having diabetes and trying to control it by diet and exercise. A person cannot simply will oneself to no longer have diabetes. One is truly powerless to just stop having the disease. But one CAN undertake the processes, however difficult, to keep the disease from being a problem. That these processes are necessary is not something that you control. That they are incredibly difficult for you is not something you can control. But you can choose to do those things that you need to do to keep the disease from killing you. And for those whose diabetes result from a high-sugar diet the situation in which they find themselves in is still to some degree their fault.

The alcoholic, the drug addict, is not free to do what they want. You live in a paradoxical relationship with yourself. Everyone else, most of the time, gets to define freedom by desire satisfaction. Freedom for most people just IS doing what they most want to do and having the ability to do that. The drug addict, by contrast, is only free so long as they do NOT do that which they most want to do. It is this against which they are powerless: the desire. They cannot simply stop wanting to do what they want to do. Other people's desires may be fluid, and adjustable, but the addict cannot just change who they are. What they are free to do is 'work the system', to do those things that are necessary to forgo their own desires. Even the ability to admit one's own powerlessness before one's problem is an example of free will. Such an admission that one cannot do what one wants to do is an act of freedom and indeed an act AGAINST one's problem. It opens up the doorway to the only route out for many addicts: to give one's will over to God, thereby no longer living according to your own desire.

In a sense, then, the disease of addiction is not substantively different than the disease of sin. I am at any given time free to do the right thing, what I am NOT free to do is make myself the kind of person who is worthy of God's grace. It is in recognizing that fact that true freedom, the freedom given by Christ, can come. 12 Steps began as an offshoot of Carl Jung's belief that alcoholism is a form of idolatry. In that sense it is a spiritual disease, which will have similarities to physical disease but also differ from it in important ways. It is is a demonic force, and one that can only be fought by spiritual means. But if we are indeed capable of faith and faith is the cure, then our freedom to do with our will as we choose is not gone.

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