Of all the recorded sayings of Jesus, none seems to be more relevant to the problem of addiction than the question he asked of a paralyzed man. “Do you really want to get well?” At first reading, it seems a little crazy – I mean who doesn’t want to get well? But on reflection it makes a lot of sense, especially when the words were spoken to someone who had been ill for a long time and who had become so used to the life and ways that this had necessitated. The account by St John says that the man had been an invalid for 38 years; doubtless he still talked about getting well, but he probably no longer really expected it and was comfortably stuck in a mindset that fitted his circumstances. Jesus recognised that the man was going to have to let go of things he was used to and familiar with in order to embrace the new direction his life was going to take. Things were going to be turned upside down by getting well – did he really want that?
The man wasn’t unusual, nor are people with addictions, because we all have this tendency to prefer to stick with our unhealthy, unhelpful mindset and behaviours, even when we can see that they’re not good for us. The unknown is scary and we don’t want to let go of the securities, the comforts, the safety of our current situation and behaviours, even the destructive ones. These may be our addictions, resentments, selfish habits, blaming, self-pity and misery, entrenched behaviours and ways of being – things that appear to bring us some sort of comfort or pay-off, whereas changing or stopping them poses a threat. We may not even be aware that these things exist in our lives, or they may appear to be our best friends or just harmless security blankets. Do we really want to let go of them? Change doesn’t come easy and we have to be up for it. As the old joke goes, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” “One, but the light bulb has to really want to change”.
Since it is all about our thinking and our behaviours which keep us trapped and because telling other people that they don’t want to change is so open to abuse, we are really best placed to regularly ask this question of ourselves, generally with the help of a trusted other who can sensitively pose the question. And the question Jesus seems to be asking the man, which we need to ask ourselves when we have a problem, is how desperate is he to embrace change and do things differently? Is he willing to give up everything he knows from his 38 years of living with his illness and learn everything anew? To lose what control he believes he has and opt instead for an unknown future? Will he take the leap of faith? Because like a parachute jump, once you’re out of the plane, there is no going back!
I know that there have been occasions and situations in my life when I haven’t wanted to change or move on. I have held onto activities, behaviours and resentments which prevent progress or healing. Like charms on a bracelet, these resentments and mind-sets seem friendly and alluring, but if we could see them for what they are, we’d see instead a set of handcuffs shackling us to a static, unsatisfying, possibly even self-destructive life. Instead of eating a beautiful crisp apple, we are swallowing a mouthful of ash, all the while trying to convince ourselves that it really does have a very strong apple flavour. But the process of change is hard; sometimes the best we can do is to say that we want to want to change.
For addicts in recovery, none of this is very earth shattering. They know it because they’ve been there. “Do you really want to recover?” Yes and no. And it’s true for us all. Fortunately, the hound of heaven doesn’t give up and the persistent footsteps are never far away. It may be desperation, a breaking point, rock bottom, reaching the end of our rope or it could just be a recognition that what we are doing isn’t really working anymore. Like walkers who’ve lost our way we may have to retrace our steps to find the old path, but more often than not we discover that we are embarking on a new pathway, where we take the next tentative steps on our pilgrim journey. In the parables of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is often likened to a banquet, a wedding or a party. The choice is simple – are we going to stick to the ordinary, mundane ways in which we feel safely in control or do we choose instead to go to the celebration that we don’t yet fully understand.
On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them. Maria Popova
(Turn and face the strange) Ch-ch-Changes, Just gonna have to be a different man; Time may change me, But I can’t trace time. David Bowie
In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety. Abraham Maslow
I put a pound in a change machine. Nothing changed. Anonymous.
Spirit-led people never stop growing and changing and recognizing the new moment of opportunity. How strange to think that so much of religion became a worship of the status quo, until you remember that the one thing the ego hates and fears more than anything else is change. Richard Rohr
I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. Georg C. Lichtenberg