Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A miniature guide to abstinence

Part of getting well from an addictive process is abstinence. With alcohol, it's easy to define. Don't drink. With other behaviours, particularly those that form part of everyday life, like sex, relationships, or food, it's hard to define, and still harder to practise. I use the concept of 'bottom lines'. This really means a list of prohibited behaviours (and, by extension, a list of permitted behaviours).

Making resolutions is easy but resolutions are hard to keep. To turn a resolution into a decision, we need firstly an alternative, which, if you're already practised in recovery, means turning your attention to how you can serve God, every minute of the day. There is also the question of why one has been acting out: there is always a feeling that is being avoided, and abstinence produces pain, because we're confronted with that feeling. The feeling comes from an old idea we're unwilling to let go of.

To decide to be abstinent therefore requires a couple of extra things: (a) praying to God for the strength to withstand the feelings that have been repressed (b) praying to God for insight as to the old idea that needs to be let go of. Once the old idea is let go of and replaced with a new one, the pain will go, and the fuel behind the addictive process will be removed. Consistent effort in both is required for ultimate success.

Here's how to handle repeated failure in the short and medium term, which is part of the process:

'We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God's help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.' (C. S. Lewis)

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