“We are all addicts.” I was told this four years ago and have never forgotten it. It was a comment addressed to a group of young Catholic adults by a priest who worked with people who had drug and alcohol addictions. When he said it, I couldn’t believe what he was saying. It seemed preposterous of him to say this to a fresh-faced group of twenty-something’s, about to give up a year of their life for voluntary work within the church. Yet, what he said struck a chord with me; it spoke deep to my heart, and what is in the video echoes this too.
I am no psychologist or doctor, I have no medical knowledge of addiction and I can’t discuss the medical causes of addiction. There will be varying opinions and responses to Dr. Maté’s video, but I would like to look at it on the level of our day-to-day lives, addressing how we deal with the type of pain that we may experience on a regular basis. For while I may not know many things about addiction, what I do know is the human experience of pain, and our natural, human attempt to run from it and to numb it. It is in this experience that I have to agree, we are all, to some extent, addicts.
In this video, Dr Gabor Maté explains that emotional pain is felt in the brain in the same place as physical pain. In some cases, physical pain is easier to fix than emotional pain- depending on the severity of the pain, we can treat it with painkillers or other medical attention. Emotional pain, however, is harder to deal with, harder to find its root cause and easier to attempt to ignore.
I used to think that true Christian suffering was about not letting myself feel any pain. I thought that if I acknowledged my pain, I was wallowing in it, being selfish and refusing to be thankful. I thought that in order to be a perfect Christian, I had to feel my pain but not feel it all at the same time. And so I began to anesthetize myself from all feelings. If I didn’t feel, then I wouldn’t be hurt! I allowed myself to become numb, little realising that I was still feeling the very pain that I was trying to run from. And that pain was not going away, in fact, it was getting worse.
“Addictions begin with pain, and end with pain.” It may seem preposterous to say that we are ‘all addicts’ but there is a truth to it. There are a thousand ways we numb ourselves daily from the reality that we may not wish to face. There are many ways we attempt to run from the pain in our lives – not just by using drugs or alcohol. We may have been hurt so badly that we build walls around our hearts, attempting not to love or be loved. We may use distractions of every kind to avoid having to think or reflect on anything. Silence can be a scary place if you don’t like what you find there when you go there. We may work too hard, too much, in order to avoid what faces us when we stop. We may work too little, addicted instead to distractions, afraid of what we think we can’t do.
Dr. Maté talks about people only being able to be with their pain “if they sense some compassion from somebody.” We can look at this a few ways. Firstly, we can take a rain-check on the relationships in our own lives. You know that feeling when you have to admit to doing something wrong? That feeling of having to confess that you have messed up? How good does it feel then when someone treats you with compassion, acknowledging the mistake you made while attempting to understand the mitigating circumstances around it? Do we therefore, in our own relationships, allow for compassion towards the people who may be acting out of pain? Do we give people the benefit of the doubt? Do we allow people to be themselves, or do we contribute to a world where people struggle to be with their pain?
Secondly, we can look at our own places of pain. Maybe we have dealt with them in a healthy way, maybe we are currently dealing with a particular source of pain right now. When an animal is hurt or frightened, it often runs away, or attempts to fight back, refusing all help. It wants to retreat to a place of pain alone, without anyone around it. This can be like our own hearts when they are in pain. It is a humiliating place to be, because pain weakens us. We want to be strong, we want to be independent, we want to be able to cope with everything. We don’t want to see our poverty. And so the pain wins, because we cannot fix ourselves.
Where does God fit into all this then? Is He watching from the sidelines, intrigued but aloof? Is He too strong and perfect to understand, to stoop into our world to be beside us? Is He scornful of our pain and frustrated by our feeble attempts to move on from it? Of course not! We have a God who knelt for hours in a garden at night, contemplating His own torture and death (Mt 26), sweating blood (Lk 22:44), so alone in His pain that He pleaded with His friends that they might “watch with me one hour” (Mt 26:36). In the whole of Christ’s passion, God became utterly involved with human suffering, for although He could have anesthetized His own pain, He didn’t.
Whether our pain is big or small, whether it is a Cross of monumental proportions or a daily battle in the dullness and tedium of life, it is in Christ that we find our compassion and healing. When we feel our pain, we do not aim to stay in that place of pain forever. Identifying the pain is good, but remember that after Good Friday came the Resurrection. Sorting out our baggage and pain, whether we’ve come by it innocently or through our own faults, is a lifetime’s journey, but that doesn’t mean we cannot arrive at a place of healing here on earth.
Once we cut through the distractions of our lives, once we can find peace enough to sit in the silence without out the clamor of noise, then and only then will we realize that ‘In God alone do our souls find rest.’ We can then allow ourselves to feel our pain in the confidence that it will not overcome us, that our lives are held in God’s hands, and that the pain will not have the final word. That is how we truly suffer as Christians- feeling it, but allowing God to come into our suffering, so that with Him our suffering can bring us through our own Good Fridays towards sharing in Christ’s Resurrection.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mt 11:28)
Questions for Reflection:
Is there any pain that I am running from?
Do I realize that Christ’s compassion is there for me?
Do I treat others with the compassion that I would wish Christ treat me with?
What is my “quick getaway?” and is it healthy?
Is there an area of my life I need to give to Christ for His healing?