There’s No Vaccination for a Spiritual Disease. None of Us Is Immune.
By Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards
My mother was an alcoholic with the classic progression of the disease of addiction until she entered a 28-day rehabilitation program when I was in my mid-20’s. She was a grateful member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the last five years of her life. Unfortunately, her spirit recovered but her body had had to endure too much. After a valiant fight, she died of neck and throat cancer related to smoking and drinking. She said those years in AA were the happiest of her whole life.
I know something, then, up close about addictive disease. I know it’s not just the addict who struggles to recover. The family and friends become infected, too, making recovery our task, as well. Please let me explain.
Experience has taught me that addiction is a family illness, that is, the addiction affects all those who know and love the addict. I think of it as a spiritual cancer that attacks the bonds of love. The substance, over time, commandeers the attention of the addict, leaving no time or energy for loved ones who are slowly abandoned, left to cope with their grief at the death of their love, the horror at the plight of their loved one and the tendency to pick up the traits of the addict like fear, denial, or anger because the addict becomes our substance.
Addiction affects all those who know and love the addict. I think of it as a spiritual cancer that attacks the bonds of love.
We are dragged into this spiritual disease. There is no vaccination to immunize us from this affliction. We are all vulnerable and, in this age, if we each think for a moment, we all love a substance abuser.
Not only does the addict face the daunting challenge of breaking the habit of the substance. The loved ones, too, face extremely difficult tasks like ending exclusive attention on the addict, working through all the feelings roused by the problems addiction can cause in life (financial or legal for example), and finding equilibrium in the midst of the whirlwind which is the progression of the disease. Many, maybe most, find this so overwhelming that we simply put our heads down to muddle through or we throw up our hands and cut ourselves off from the addict. The substance wins.
Unless the addict’s loved ones take serious care to prevent or reverse it, the addict often takes over their lives.
That winning suggests the other fundamental element of addiction. It is all about power. The substance imposes power over the addict until finally life is solely about that. Unless the addict’s loved ones take serious care to prevent or reverse it, the addict often takes over their lives. Our singular focus becomes what the addict is doing with ever-increasing effort to stop their addiction, clean up their messes, and avoid the next mess. The addict and the addiction take control of our lives, too.
Now, it is also important here that both religion and politics are also about power.
At its best, religion seeks to connect us to divine power and to channel that through us for good. Of course, religion often goes wrong as we know from the course of history and the daily news. It is, after all, a human endeavor, however much we hope it is inspired by God. This is probably why the Twelve Steps of AA call themselves spiritual rather than religious. The steps, little by little, one day at a time, replace the power of the addiction with the power of God, avoiding as much as possible the pitfalls of religion.
Both addicts and politicians are riding bucking broncos of power.
Politics channels a different kind of power. It addresses human power as it flows through groups, for we are social animals. Politics are both the structures and procedures that we create to help us live together more or less peacefully by channeling the power we create collectively. Both addicts and politicians are riding bucking broncos of power.
So it makes perfect sense that at least our last four presidents have had direct connections to substance abuse (George W. Bush was a confessed alcoholic) or to addicts (Clinton’s stepfather, Obama’s father and Trump’s brother).
Trump is embedded now in our political system, getting drunk before our eyes on the power he can unleash with one tweet.
Which brings us to President Trump who seems to be addicted to the raw power, itself. He is embedded now in our political system, getting drunk before our eyes on what he can unleash with one tweet. Like any substance, over time, he needs more to satisfy his addiction. After four years of Donald Trump commanding center stage in our national life, I confess, like many are saying now, I fear for our national soul. My fear rises from the way he is infecting us all with a spiritual disease for which we have no immunity.
As in any family–in this case, our body politic–he is infecting us in two directions.
For his supporters, he is becoming the substance to which they are addicted. They are attracted to his power. They gain power and identity, themselves, through their attachment to him. It saddens me terribly that evangelical Christians seem so taken by him. It suggests to me that something in their faith is failing them and Trump fills that void. He calms their fear that power is slipping away by giving them right now what they want. It can be argued–though I expect they would strenuously deny it–that Trump has become their god.
It saddens me terribly that evangelical Christians seem so taken by Trump. It suggests to me that something in their faith is failing them and he fills that void.
For the rest of us, we are the family and friends who stand appalled at the progressive disease gripping those we love. There is the temptation to cover our heads or throw up our hands, fleeing to the illusion that it will all just go away. It won’t. What we must do is struggle hard to build up some detachment–some perspective.
Whether we frame it this way or not, we gain our footing by living the Serenity Prayer which was spoken first by Reinhold Niebuhr in July 1943 and first published in 1944 in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces. It was then, and is now, a source of guidance and strength to those fighting for the soul of humanity.
We use the power we have to resist the infection that threatens us as we work to remove Trump and his ilk from the places where they are having such poisonous effect on us all.
Through the Serenity Prayer, we accept the things we cannot change, we strengthen our courage to change the things we can and it is a daily task to discern the difference. In other words, we are in a constant exercise of learning what power we have and do not have. Then we use the power we have to resist the infection that threatens us as we work to remove Trump and his ilk from the places where they are having such poisonous effect on us all.
This is a spiritual exercise we are engaged in. Our national soul–the human soul–does hang in the balance. I don’t need to say how important it is that we win.
Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards is a Presbyterian minister and a member of the Auburn Board of Directors.